The Big Rewind

How The Rest Is Noise changes our understanding of 20th-century music.

Here we are eight years into a new century, high time to start looking back at the last century and asking what the hell that was about. Critic Alex Ross, in his best-selling book The Rest Is Noise, takes a long, hard squint at musical Modernism in its context, by way of what he calls “the 20th century heard through its music.” If Ross doesn’t come up with a lot of answers, he gives us a comprehensive survey and an outstanding read—and, in the process, suggests a new and commonsensical approach to a vertiginous subject.

The 20th century was the most healthy, comfy, democratic, generally advanced period in history, and also the most murderous and totalitarian, both largely thanks to science and technology at the service of ideologies. Revolutions in politics and technology were paralleled by revolutions in the arts—or, rather, an ebb and flow of revolution and retrenchment that made up the patchwork we still call Modernism.

In his book, Ross doesn’t attempt a grand unified theory of Modernism, and that’s probably wise. The century was a maze of crosscurrents. In 1912, Igor Stravinsky took music into a sophisticated neoprimitive frenzy in Le sacre du printemps; after WWI he went back to Mozart, in his fashion. Legions of composers followed each of those directions. Arnold Schoenberg blew up the last of the old harmonic system based on seven-note scales and, likewise after the war, replaced it with his own system based on the 12-tone chromatic scale. Béla Bartók drew from both Schoenberg and Stravinsky and folded those influences into his native Hungarian voice, forming a highly personal back-to-the-folk, back-to-nature kind of Modernism, in some respects so old it was new. Schoenberg’s pupil Anton Webern made his teacher’s system still more systematic; for many after WWII, Webern seemed to take music to a plane of ethereal intellect that formed some kind of answer to madness and conflagration. After Schoenberg died, meanwhile, Stravinsky took up his rival’s 12-tone method and thereby insured its triumph in the academy if not in the concert hall. So, in music as in the other arts, the 20th century spread out in a series of contrarieties: futurism and primitivism, hyper-structure and chance, ultracomplexity and minimalism, shock-the-bourgeoisie art and Pop Art.

As of the second half of the century, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Bartók made up the holy trinity of musical Modernism, with Webern as chief prophet. There was a certain logic to that grouping. Schoenberg and Stravinsky formed opposing camps, the Viennese master perceived by critics as representing a rationalized, atonal, dissonant, public-be-damned aesthetic, while Stravinsky both in his neoprimitive and neoclassic veins was more sonically gorgeous, more tonal, and more communicative. (In later years, both men tried to paint themselves as traditionalists, but few paid attention.) The public embraced Bartók more slowly than it did Stravinsky, but he wrote some populist pieces (including the Concerto for Orchestra), and, however dissonant, etc., Bartók had a compelling rhythmic energy.

Webern was more removed from the mainstream than those three, but he had enormous influence on composers. John Cage was the wild card of the second half of the century. Cage unleashed, as Ross puts it, “the imp of chance” with works like Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 12 radios (playing whatever happens to be on), and 4’33” for a pianist playing nothing for that period of time (the “music” is the squirming and annoyed muttering of the audience). Cage wanted to overthrow the aesthetics and ideologies of past centuries, and by implication the catastrophes they enabled in the 20th, by erasing the very ideas of “purpose” and “meaning” in art.

That historians settled on this group of superstars came from the critical tendency of the Modernist period to rate artists by the size of the bombs they tossed into tradition. Schoenberg and Stravinsky achieved fame via bloody audience riots; Bartók was branded a “barbarian.” So, when it came time for critics and historians to judge the popular acceptance of musical Modernism, their mind-set said that innovation was the prime criterion. Schoenberg’s public acceptance or lack thereof became the main litmus test for the acceptance of all 20th-century music. By that test, it hasn’t succeeded too well. I’ve seen Schoenberg performances get standing ovations in Boston Symphony Hall, but on the whole, 57 years after Schoenberg’s death, the mainstream concertgoing public remains wary of him.

Following that group of superstars, critical consensus decreed a mass of composers both radical and conservative who were in effect historical also-rans, even if they had significant influence and/or simply wrote broadly appealing music: Berg and Shostakovich, Ives and Sibelius, Ligeti and Britten, Babbitt and Reich, et al. (In some ways, Claude Debussy was the father of them all.)

How does The Rest Is Noise make sense of all this? Alex Ross doesn’t try to. Instead, as a critic and historian contemplating a noisy century, he looks intensely at individuals, at particular composers reflecting, riding, sometimes bucking the currents of culture and history around them: Stravinsky in Paris and America, Schoenberg in Vienna and America. Perhaps the book’s most memorable chapter is “The Art of Fear: Music in Stalin’s Russia,” which examines a period when producing an obscure sonnet or an atonal sonata could earn you a bullet in the head. Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich are the focus of this chapter, but Shostakovich is the hero: a genius of radical inclinations who was brought to heel by the Soviets. Through the Stalinist decades, Shostakovich had to compose as best he could, advancing here and accommodating there, all the while waiting for the knock on the door. Ross makes sure we understand what that cost him. After publicly reciting an absurd self-denunciation in 1948, Shostakovich shrieked to friends: “I read like the most paltry wretch, a parasite, a puppet, a cut-out paper doll on a string!”

In the process of laying out his history in sound, Ross fashions what amounts to a tacit revisionist picture, a small quiet revolution of his own. He gives the traditional trinity of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Bartók their due, both historically and technically, likewise other important figures like Webern and Cage. But the longest and warmest chapters in Ross’ book concern the late-Romantic Finn Jean Sibelius and the eclectic but mostly tonal Brit Benjamin Britten. Those two and Shostakovich form a sort of counter-trinity in Ross’ book: three composers who bucked the Modernist narrative that revolution is the name of the game, who wrote much of the time in traditional genres however personalized, and who were some of the most crowd-pleasing of 20th-century composers.

I asked Ross if he had intended a strike at the old consensus. The answer was: not exactly as such. “My plan all along,” he replied, “was to write a book that would encompass both the Modernist revolution and those composers who fell outside of Modernism’s conventional lineage. I didn’t plan on supplanting the hierarchy that already existed (if I were capable of such a thing), but, rather, to supplement it. So, I see the century in terms of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók AND Sibelius, Shostakovich, Britten, AND—very central to me—Berg and Messiaen.” Ross adds that the view of the Modern period, or any period, can’t be summarized in only a few figures: “When we talk about 19th-century music, we don’t try to boil it down to three composers. I don’t know if anyone with a straight face would say that the major composers of the 19th century were, say, Beethoven, Verdi, and Wagner …What about Schubert? Brahms? Berlioz? Etc. It should be the same with the 20th century.”

Which I second. Why only a few superstars? Why should Schoenberg be a litmus test? To see the arts of any century in a mature perspective, we need to disengage ourselves from the ideologies and polemics of the period. In the later 19th century, for example, there was a full-scale war between the radicals lined up behind Wagner and the conservatives behind Brahms. Today those two composers happily coexist in concert halls, and we don’t judge them through that lens.

Music of the 20th century is as vital a part of the classical repertoire, including the most popular repertoire, as the music of any other period. The reality in the concert hall has long been that a lot of composers from the 20th century are played and appreciated. I remember my shock some 25 years ago at a concert in my hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn., when an audience went nuts (in a good way) over the Bartók Third Piano Concerto—and, for good measure, welcomed a new piece of mine. As best I can tell, most concertgoers don’t blanch over Sibelius or Prokofiev, and Shostakovich is on a roll. I attended two years of Schoenberg-themed programs from the Boston Symphony and didn’t see masses leaving in a huff. And remember that Rachmaninoff and Gershwin were 20th-century composers. If they didn’t invent any systems, if they didn’t “free music,” if they didn’t “teach us to listen in a new way,” so what? How interesting, fresh, moving, and true are their notes?

So, as part of his look over the 20th century, Alex Ross snuck his own bomb into the historical narratives that have clouded our vision of the Modernist period. When the pieces come down and the air clears, we’ve got a bunch of splendid music to come to terms with from our own perspectives. The Rest Is Noise is a major step in that direction.