Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

I’m not going to attempt a systematic review, as those can be found elsewhere and in any case I’m unfamiliar with some of the territory Ross covers in his survey of 20th-century classical music.

In the areas I do know about, I found Ross to be accurate and to emphasise more or less what I consider to be important. The index is very thorough in its coverage of persons, including (for example) references to composers’ relatives, though it is less complete when it comes to concepts.

Ross is not ashamed to relate music to composers’ biographies or even to their physical appearance, and the text is full of pertinent anecdotes. Nevertheless, there are detailed descriptions of notable works, more from the earlier part of the century. A website with audio extracts of works referred to in the text can be found here.

One controversial position is that the author is convinced that Sibelius’ 8th symphony was destroyed in a complete or near-complete state, though I believe the evidence for this is unclear.

Although he is English, Ross has worked in New York for some years, and the USA accordingly features prominently. This does not just mean that American composers are dealt with at length; Mahler’s stay in New York is described in detail and one is told a lot about the history of American public-service broadcasting but there is little reference to the BBC, or to British composers other than Benjamin Britten. I don’t necessarily think this bias is a bad thing, as I learnt much about (for example) the origins of American minimalism.

Ross focuses on innovators, at the expense of more conservative composers such as Puccini and Rachmaninov, who tend to get pushed to the sidelines of his narrative, although they’re certainly part of 20th-century classical music history. Perhaps similarly, he can make 20th-century music seem more different to what preceded that it actually is, for example in its degree of political commitment.

Maybe my next reading should be Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which provides a structuring undertext to the whole work.

  • ISBN-10: 1841154768
  • ISBN-13: 978-1841154763
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