Dec/Jan 2008


Alex Ross tells the lively history of Twentieth-Century classical music

Stephanie Hanson

If you were a movie mogul and had to choose between funding a documentary on the history of twentieth-century classical music and one on rock, which would you select? The average businessperson would probably opt for the latter. Me, I’d wager on classical without a second thought. The history of classical music in the twentieth century, though most wouldn’t suspect it, has all the elements of a blockbuster: sex, violence, scandal, war (of ideologies and of nations), personal struggle, even, dare I say it, humor. The rise and drug-addled fall of the rock musician is by now a familiar story, but how many people are familiar with the 1913 Paris premiere of the ballet Le Sacre du printemps, whose pagan folk music, by Igor Stravinsky, so scandalized the audience that their yells and scuffles drowned out the rest of the performance? “It was all incredibly fierce,” recalled Gertrude Stein, who saw a man in the box next to hers take his cane and smash it down on a neighbor’s opera hat.

The premiere was just one of several concert scandals at the turn of the century. Popular outrage recurs throughout the history of classical music in the twentieth century, when composers often sped so quickly into music’s future that they left a sizable portion of their audience in the dust and gave the rest severe whiplash. Over the course of the century, classical composers took root in America, flirted with jazz, rebelled against tonality, and embraced the sounds of the street. They became tools of totalitarians, subverted the state, reveled in high-minded theory, and espoused modernism at all costs. Some eschewed the past, others borrowed from it, and most felt simply smothered. Contradictory? Yes. Ossified? Hardly.

The musical bedlam can be traced back to one controversial figure: the Austrian Arnold Schoenberg. Until him, classical music was organized according to a set of relationships among notes derived from a tonal center, or tonic. The tonic acted as a center of gravity, orienting the listener and providing a point around which all other notes could revolve. Composers such as Claude Debussy and Richard Wagner dallied with dissonance, or sounds that felt unstable, but they always returned to the tonic. When Schoenberg renounced tonality in 1911, he allowed sound to break free of its center, and to an extent, the audience for classical music broke free with it. Tonality was comforting to listeners; in contrast, the intervals Schoenberg employed could be deeply upsetting, like an “annoying flash of light,” explains physicist Hermann Helmholtz in On the Sensations of Tone (1843), or, as Alex Ross phrases it, “a scraping of the skin.”

Cover of The Varèse Album, a two-record set of Edgard Varèse’s compositions issued in 1972.

The introduction of atonality––and all the fragmentation that followed, from Pierre Boulez’s aggressive, jagged compositions to Philip Glass’s minimalism––was not a historical inevitability. As Ross details in his thrilling, cinematic narrative, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, “There was no ‘necessity’ driving atonality, no irreversible current of history made it happen. It was one man’s leap into the unknown.” Atonality took hold only when two of Schoenberg’s students, Anton Webern and Alban Berg, decided to follow their teacher’s lead. Tonality was dead, said Schoenberg. Webern went further: “We broke its neck.”

Not everyone embraced the radical ideas of Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School. But its rhetoric gave others the freedom to start their own musical revolutions (and counterrevolutions). In America, composers tussled over whether music should be ultramodern or accessible; some, like George Gershwin, managed to merge the two. Finnish composer Jean Sibelius adopted a Romantic style that bore more resemblance to Debussy than to any member of the European vanguard, and he catapulted to stardom in his own country, as well as in England and the United States. The allies of atonal music vilified him, but the public loved him. Sibelius was just one of many composers—Charles Ives, Sergey Prokofiev, even Olivier Messiaen––who ignored the avant-garde to forge their own paths. Today, their work has filtered into the orchestral repertory, unlike that of many of their detractors. In 1984, Morton Feldman, an American composer, said in a lecture, “The people who you think are radicals might really be conservatives. The people who you think are conservative might really be radical.” Then he started humming Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony.

Anecdotes like this are the warp and woof of The Rest Is Noise, and they make for an engrossing read. Ross possesses an innate sense of timing and structure—of where to unfold one of his meticulously researched vignettes, how to transition from one composer to another, and when to explore a particular composition in greater depth. When he wants to illustrate the historical milieu, as in his chapters on World War II, he zooms out to a wide political perspective. When he wants to explain the ideological differences between composers, he zooms in for a point-by-point discussion. Many writers would be daunted by the immensity of the canvas and give in to the temptation to wrestle unruly subgenres and events into an orderly, chronological structure. Ross instead circles back on composers, decades, and even compositions when it suits his purposes. Many of his chapters are windows on a city or country in a particular time, and this structure allows the turbulence of the century to be just that, while providing enough guidance to anchor the narrative.

The Rest Is Noise opens with Richard Strauss’s opera Salome (1906), closes with John Adams’s opera Nixon in China (1987), and covers an impressive amount of musical landscape––both classical and popular––in the six-hundred-plus pages in between. Ross is arguably the only music critic working today who is equipped for such an audacious undertaking. It is difficult to write well about music––the experience of listening, especially to complex compositions, seems to thwart language deliberately. Many critics like to compare music to other music, a frustrating maneuver if you don’t know what the referenced piece sounds like. Some pile metaphor on top of metaphor, effectively obscuring meaning. Others retreat into music-theory speak, disemboweling a composition’s emotional guts. Ross takes the marrow of each of these techniques and conjures descriptions that often make you want to stop reading and start listening immediately (this happened to me with his discussion of Berg’s Wozzeck); this kind of criticism is an art form in its own right.

Suggestive images are part of Ross’s musical vernacular. Describing the bop period of jazz, he writes that “electric strings of notes lashed around like downed power lines on wet pavement.” In Strauss’s Metamorphosen, “contrapuntal lines interwine like kudzu on a ruined mansion.” Webern’s music is “practically Japanese, like brushstrokes on white paper.” Ross has a knack for augmenting his descriptions with perfect pieces of historical trivia. On Webern, he notes that people used to joke the composer had invented the musical term pensato: “Don’t play the note, only think it.”

His enthusiasm hums like a hidden current through the prose, surging occasionally into full-blown musical analysis. Such long technical digressions, as of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, can disrupt the narrative, and shorter ones, as of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, can prompt wishes for a return to the visual imagery that underpins the book. Some of these descriptions, however, are lucid explanations of difficult concepts. Ross’s discussion of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system for composition is better than any music-theory textbook’s I’ve read.

All the same, it might be helpful to keep a music dictionary handy. At times, Ross fails to define terminology or does so several hundred pages too late. In a discussion of Dmitry Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, he mentions the passacaglia, but the form’s definition—variations over a ground bass—does not appear until the lengthy segment on Peter Grimes. There, Ross notes that in Britten’s opera, as in passacaglias by Berg and Shostakovich, the form suggests “murderous or destructive forces at work.” It’s an incisive explanation, which would have been perfect had it been included when the term was introduced.

Ross has been the New Yorker’s music critic since 1996, a vocation that has afforded him ample opportunity to hone his descriptive abilities and test his theories about twentieth-century composers and their music. Since 2004, he has blogged on a popular website that shares the book’s title. In these two venues, Ross takes a stronger critical stance than he does in The Rest Is Noise. Take, for instance, this passage from his 2001 profile of the American composer John Adams:

The music of John Adams, unlike so much classical composition of the last fifty years, has the immediate power to enchant. When I first heard Nixon in China, fragments of it invaded my head, and they did not leave for weeks. It seems likely that a century from now audiences will still be fascinated by this opera, and that some listeners will have to double-check the plot summary in order to remember who Richard Nixon was.

There are moments in which Ross champions particular compositions, but the sort of blunt assessment exemplified in the Adams discussion is largely absent from his book. He is careful not to pass overt judgment on most of the music he discusses; instead, like a good journalist, he allows his research to speak for itself. In 2004, Ross wrote a manifesto of sorts, in which he argued that the distinction between classical and popular music is an artificial one. “Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierarchy of values,” he wrote. “The best music is music that persuades us that there is no other music in the world.” I agree, but what about the music that doesn’t persuade us? Presumably, this music is part of the history of the twentieth century, but one has to hunt for it mightily in The Rest Is Noise. If anything, Ross is such a good writer that he can make sonically questionable music sound beautiful. Describing minimalism, he writes that it can “evoke the experience of driving in a car across empty desert, the layered repetitions in the music mirroring the changes that the eye perceives––road signs flashing by, a mountain range shifting on the horizon, a pedal point of asphalt underneath.” It’s a gorgeous sentence, and yet minimalism can be maddening.

For instance, I’ve heard Terry Riley’s mini­malist composition In C twice, and I hope I never hear it again. If the CIA is looking for new methods of torture, they might want to consider that piece. When Ross discusses In C, he sidesteps evaluating it, instead referencing an Alfred Frankenstein review in the San Francisco Chronicle that says: “At times you feel you have never done anything else all your life long but listen to this music and as if that is all there is or ever will be.” It’s not clear whether Frankenstein felt this was a positive or negative experience; believe me, it’s not.

In contrast, I was absolutely transfixed the first time I heard It’s Gonna Rain by Steve Reich. This could be a matter of taste—there is not much territory between that piece and In C—but it might also say something about the inherent listenability of some of this music. Milton Babbitt, the cold-war composer who authored a notorious essay titled “Who Cares if You Listen?,” is perhaps the most blatant example of the deep rift, even animosity, between some classical composers and the public. Ross chronicles that divide but doesn’t fully explore how it may erode or contradict the theory overarching his narrative—namely, that musical genres are ultimately meaningless. Composed music—whether labeled with a genre or not—lives in its performances. If no one listens, it might as well not exist.

In the final chapter , Ross looks at where classical music might be headed, with special attention to Adams, whose music he proposes as an example of a synthesis of the traditional and the avant-garde, as well as of classical and popular. “I like to think of culture as the symbols that we share to understand each other,” Adams tells Ross.

When we communicate, we point to symbols that we have in common. If people want to make a point, they reach for a reference. It might be a Woody Allen movie, or a John Lennon lyric, or “I’m not a crook.”

In the book, this is where his statement ends. In Ross’s 2001 profile of the composer, the quote continues:

When I was young, I came to realize that twelve-tone music, or, for that matter, all contemporary music, was so far divorced from communal experience that it didn’t appear on the national radar screen. It would be nice to hear someone say, “Look at that gas station in the moonlight. It’s pure John Adams.”

Communal experience: Therein lies the difference between twentieth-century classical and popular music. Yet twentieth-century composers have influenced other musicians. You can hear echoes of Reich in the Sri Lankan hip-hop artist MIA, the found sounds of Edgard Varèse in the electronic music of Boards of Canada, and the influence of Shostakovich on the avant-rock group the Fiery Furnaces. If this circuitous path to an audience was once the best a classical composer could hope for, now it is popular musicians who increasingly seem to have a tenuous relationship with the public. As indie rock becomes less indie, and hip-hop ever more divorced from the streets of its origins, one of the most vibrant, odd, and interesting scenes going these days is the classical one.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, classical composers and musicians seem to be moving toward the public, not away from it. One of the best concerts I saw this year was given by Alarm Will Sound, a contemporary-classical ensemble, playing the music of Varèse. The show was sold out, and as I entered the theater a few minutes late, a crowd of indie-rock kids waited outside the doors. At first I thought they were hoping to score tickets, but then I noticed their stances. Their ears were cocked toward the theater doors, listening intently.

Stephanie Hanson is news editor at, the website of the Council on Foreign Relations, for which she covers Africa and Latin America.