The end of T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" has always struck me as the definition of storytelling. When the end comes round, we should be at the beginning, seeing it for the first time. So it is with Ross's narrative history of 20th century classical* music, The Rest is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century. The narrative begins with the 1906 Graz** premier of Richard Strauss's opera Salome and ends with a description of John Adams's opera Nixon to China, which had its premiere in 1987. Despite the years and events between them, there are remarkable similarities. Strauss's opera was based upon the German translation of Wilde's play of the same name. In a departure from operatic tradition, he used the text of the translation as his libretto. The first sound from the orchestra, a clarinet playing a modulating scale, employs a trick that would become a mark of the 20th century: Strauss begins the scale in C# then modulates to G, using the tritone/augmented fourth/flatted fifth. This particular interval is so unsettling, medieval commentators called it diabolos in musica. Mid-century American bebop musicians used it a lot, as do heavy metal musicians. Strauss's use of this particular dissonance was hardly its first use; it was, however, startling to begin this way.
Adams, a child of the 60's and imbiber both of the chemicals and the music of the era, absorbed everything around his ears and put it in his opera. Like Strauss, he used transcripts from Nixon's trip to China as his libretto. Like Strauss, his music was shocking in its originality. Like Strauss, there is an element of playfulness in the midst of a very serious piece of music.
What makes these two events distinct, beyond the passage of decades and change of place, is the broader cultural milieu. When Strauss's opera premiered, every significant musical figure in Europe attended. Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg were there. Schoenberg brought along his brother-in-law, Alexander Zemlinsky, among whose pupils were Alben Berg, who would take Schoenberg's music three or steps further down the line. Adams' opera premiered and, other than a small audience and a few notices in the newspapers . . . silence. Ross tells the tale that when Mahler would stroll around the plaza near the Vienna opera, passersby would point and whisper, "Der Mahler". Ross also notes that no one in the late 20th century would do the same for John Adams, despite having similar reasons for doing so.
In between these two events unfolds the events of the 20th century, both well-known and oft-told, with the composers and their music the thread that moves us from Strauss and Mahler in Graz to Adams in Houston. Ross draws the lines linking the European composers of the first half of the century to the non-European composers of the latter half of the century. His descriptions of the music never fall in to cliche or routine. Unlike Gary Giddins, he does not reach for superlatives for each and every piece of music he wishes to describe. Ross tells us about the music, then invites the reader to decide how best to hear it.
The last century was one of extremes. Extremes in violence and death; extremes in its fertile hopes at its beginning and bitterness at squandered chances at its end. The music of that century flowed with the times, reflecting it even, perhaps especially, when its creators insisted it was a critical response against those extremes. Those extremes have names and faces and even pieces of music: Schoenberg and Berg and Shostakovich and Copland and Stockhausen and Cage; atonal and 12-tone and serial and music concrete. It's all here, from the pseudo-pastoralism of Copland (a gay Brooklyn-born Jew was writing more what he thought about Middle America than writing Middle America) to the noise of Edgar Varese to the utter silence of John Cage's 4'33". Two composers, Jean Sibelius and Benjamin Britten, receive chapters of their own, not so much because of their importance (although they are important, each in his own way, to the music of the 20th century) but for how they highlight so many of the issues surrounding 20th century classical music. There are three chapters on music during what William Shirer called The Nightmare Years: music in Stalin's Soviet Union (including the equivocal career of Dmitri Shostakovich); music in Roosevelt's America; and the Danse Macabre in Hitler's Wagnerian Reich.
This is one of the best books on music I've read in a very long time. It is one of the best histories of the 20th century I've ever read. It illuminates the beauty of some of the strangest, most puzzling, confounding sounds we human have every created, against the backdrop of that bloody carnival of years.
*I am using "classical" here the way Ross uses the word. Personally, I have preferred the word "orchestral" to describe this particular style of music. "Classical" music is descriptive of a particular era of music-writing; you can love or hate the symphonic composers of the last century, but they didn't write "classical" music. Still, I'm using Ross's terms more for the sake of consistency.
**Rumors of the scandalous nature of the opera forced the relocation of the premiere from Vienna to the provincial city of Graz. In a conversation with Strauss in the 1930's Hitler claimed to have attended the premiere. This may or may not be the case, but discovered in the burned-out ruins of Hitler's bunker were plans for rebuilding the opera house in Graz where Salome premiered.