Sunken cathedrals

August 4, 2008

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
Alex Ross (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux; 2007)
638 p. First reading.

The twentieth century was disasterous for the art of music. In 1900, musical giants loomed large in Western culture: Wagner had not been dead twenty years, Brahms had passed away just three years earlier, and Verdi was still alive. By 2000, composers of classical music were, almost without exception, toiling in deep obscurity, neither their names nor their music known outside a relatively small circle of enthusiasts. This steep decline is the background to this fine study of twentieth-century music. In the foreground are the many people, events, and ideas that affected the course of our musical fortunes. “Listening to the Twentieth Century” is an apt subtitle, for the book is about more than just music history: it is about history — politics and war, people and places — as refracted through the music it produced.

It is difficult to say exactly when the trouble began. Ross points out that the music of living composers had already been declining in popularity by the late 1800s, as the age of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven acquired a golden sheen. It is also true that the boundaries of the Western harmonic system were being increasingly stretched and stressed by late Romantic composers like Liszt, Wagner, Strauss, and Mahler. But if we must point to a figure who decisively altered the course of music, sending it careening off the precipice, we would point at Arnold Schoenberg. His introduction of atonality — the writing of music in no specific key — consciously broke with the principles that had structured our music for centuries.

Schoenberg’s music was controversial. Chesterton somewhere noted that while in past ages people had asked themselves whether new music was good, in his time they were asking whether it was music at all. Schoenberg tried to defend himself by arguing, in Harmonielehre, that the harmonic system had become “diseased” because of “incestuous” couplings (Ross suggests that Schoenberg’s rhetoric was inspired by German anti-Semetic literature of the period), and that atonality was the natural outcome. This was a time when European minds were susceptible to claims of the historical inevitability of progress, and he made the most of it. His student Anton Webern was more honest: when asked what had happened to the tonal system, he responded, “We broke its neck”.

One could imagine a world in which the atonal experiments failed to gain traction, but ours was not such a world. It is true that initially Schoenberg’s legacy was fairly modest: he created a stir, but only two composers of stature — Anton Webern and Alban Berg — took up the cause. Elsewhere other musical currents were flowing. In America the sounds of jazz were working their way into the scores of George Gershwin, the musical theatre of Broadway was taking shape, and serious composers were supplying music for the new medium of film. In Berlin, Hindemith was rejecting airy musical theorizing and writing “music for use”, and Kurt Weill was creating artful but popular musical theatre. But populism and traditionalism fought a rear-guard action against the allegedly elite music of the atonalists, and they steadily lost ground. It was not, of course, that the public preferred the radical music, but that the consensus in the composer’s guild swung in the direction of the atonal.

That composers would begin to prefer music that was disliked by their audience might seem odd, and it is worth looking more closely into the reasons. The musical avant-garde in the 1920s and 1930s was a project of the political left, and they came to see their radical sounds as a means to overthrow bourgeois values. Thus one finds among these men an open contempt for their audience. It began with Schoenberg, who infamously strode on stage after a performance and bowed, not to the audience, but to the orchestra. He maintained a scrapbook of the critical abuse heaped upon him by the press, and, when asked to describe his public, responded rather laconically, “I do not believe I have one.” This attitude became even more pronounced in his student Alban Berg, who, when the premiere of his opera Wozzeck proved a critical success, had to be consoled by a friend. “He envied Schoenberg his failures.” The idea that the approval and enjoyment of the listeners was a cause for shame could only hurt the art, and its effects, though they would not become fully apparent until after the Second World War, were not hard to predict.

Neither did music fare well under the totalitarian systems of Stalin and Hitler. Unfortunately both states took an active interest in music, attempting to appropriate it for their own purposes, and with some success. “Precisely because of its inarticulate nature, [music] is all too easily imprinted with ideologies and deployed to political ends.” Both Stalin and Hitler were musically conservative — Hitler proclaimed Wagner and Beethoven heroes of the Nazi state, and Stalin forbade the elitist avant-garde in favour of music for the everyman proletariat — which endorsements cast a pall of political disreputability over much of the traditional core repertoire. The greatest music to come from these countries in this period was that of Shostakovich, who used his music, intermittently and with plausible deniability, to criticize the Soviet system from the inside. His scores are often highly ambiguous, as music in the “approved” mode acquires sardonic and sarcastic overtones.

It was after the Second World War, in the 1950s, that the musical avant-garde emerged fully militant. We can see it being carried along by the poisonous ideologies of the time. Theodor Adorno, the self-appointed prophet of the new music, declared that tonal music betrayed Fascist tendencies. Elliott Carter, a leading avant-garde composer, saw music as an expression of the unconscious, which, at a time when Freud was considered an imposing authority, was understood to mean that music, to be authentic, must be ugly. Adorno opined that music “has taken upon itself all the darkness and guilt of the world. All its happiness comes in the perception of misery, all its beauty comes in the rejection of beauty’s illusion.” In this atmosphere, atonality was seen as morally superior to tonality, and high-dudgeon moralism became a favoured rhetorical device of composers. Pierre Boulez, the enfant-terrible of the period, announced that “Any musician who has not experienced…the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is USELESS.” John Cage, who went further than anyone in rejecting musical tradition, expressed his motives this way: “I am going toward violence rather than tenderness, hell rather than heaven, ugly rather than beautiful, impure rather than pure…” Music became ideological, and “There was freedom to go forward, but not to go back.” Music that pleased the audience was understood to defile the artist. The result, not surprisingly, was pandemonium (almost, I am tempted to say, literally).

If that were the end of the story, it would be a tragic tale indeed, but there is more to say. The savagery of the mid-century avant-garde could not perpetuate itself forever. True, there was a stream of composers who took their inspiration, such as it was, from it, and they went ahead and wrote music that almost nobody is interested in hearing. But alongside them, there were composers who resisted. Ross devotes major sections of his book to discussing three of the finest: Jean Sibelius in Finland, Benjamin Britten in England, and Olivier Messiaen in France. It is true that Messiaen was himself an avant-garde composer, and mentored several of the ugliest practitioners of the art, but his own music is bursting with joy, not anger, and it has a profoundly different effect on its hearers. Sibelius and Britten, on the other hand, were frankly traditional in their inspirations, and created music of beauty and dramatic power.

The American response to the chaos of European music was minimalism: simple, repetitive structures built slowly into larger musical forms. It sounds to me like a musical reconstruction, taking shards of music and gradually reassembling them into something coherent. It is the music of those who know they must walk before they can run. They had their predecessors, but the best known minimalists in America have been Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams. Their music is generally simply textured, rhythmically regular, and harmonically static, but it is certainly music.

There are, I believe, signs of hope for classical music in the twenty-first century. The craze for atonality has largely run its course, as has the lust for ugliness. Record companies are increasingly giving their attention to composers who, far from the twentieth-century limelight, continued to hold beauty as an ideal. The audience, unfortunately, has mostly gone. They were asked to leave, and they left. It remains to be seen whether they will come back.

The Rest is Noise is a fascinating and extremely accomplished book. I can hardly praise it too highly. Ross, music critic at The New Yorker, writes elegantly and with great understanding about the music, the composers, and the context in which they lived and worked. If I have any complaints, it is about the music he left out, the greatest oversight being the British musical tradition rooted in Elgar and Vaughan Williams; and I was pained to find that he granted only one page to the music of the Estonian Arvo Pärt, whom I consider the greatest living composer. On the other hand, much of the music he did discuss was new to me, and my CD wish-list has grown tremendously.

The book is remarkably non-polemical — certainly less polemical than these notes. One infers his own musical preferences more from the space he devotes to various figures than to what he says about them. He has the rare ability to find fitting words to describe music: the sudden fortissimo in the dying bars of Mahler’s Symphony No.6 he describes as a chord that “clangs like a metal door swung shut”, which is exactly right; Takemitsu’s music he calls “precise in design, rich in timbre, tonal on the surface, mysterious at the core”, which is also just right. This is good writing, and The Rest is Noise is a good book.

Many samples of the music discussed in the book can be streamed from Ross’ website.

7 Responses to “Sunken cathedrals”

  1. Joe barron Says:

    Elliott Carter has NEVER spoken of music as an expression of the subconscious, and he has never maintained it needs to be ugly. If that’s what Ross says about Carter, then Ross is simply wrong. But then, he usually is wrong about Carter.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for your comment. Ross writes, “The American composer Elliott Carter explained why he gave up Copland-style populism and Stravinsky-style neoclassicism: “Before the end of the Second World War, it became clear to me, partly as a result of rereading Freud and others and thinking about psychoanalysis, that we were living in a world where this physical and intellectual violence would always be a problem and that the whole conception of human nature underlying the neoclassic esthetic amounted to a sweeping under the rug of things that, it seemed to me, we had to deal with in a less oblique and resigned way.” (Italics mine)

    That tells me that he saw his atonal music as “a less oblique and resigned way” of “dealing with” the “violence” brought to light by psychoanalysis, and especially by Freud. He himself doesn’t say that therefore music must be ugly, but evidently he believed it; his music is ugly, after all. Your mileage may vary.

    The quotation is from Allen Edwards, Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds: A Conversation with Elliott Carter (Norton, 1971), p.61.

  3. Pentimento Says:

    Thanks for this review. I’ve been meaning to read this book since it came out, but haven’t had time; I had to return it to the library before I’d even opened it. I’m unfamiliar with that Cage quote, and find it a little surprising, since his music is quite tame, and even pretty, in comparison with that of his contemporaries. I taught a tutorial on one of his pieces last year and blogged a few times about it; if interested, do a query for John Cage on my blog.

    I think you would really like the young Scottish Catholic composer James MacMillan, if you aren’t familiar with him already.

  4. cburrell Says:

    I was surprised by the Cage quote as well, since I don’t hear a great deal of violence or ugliness in his music, but he did apparently say it.

    I do admire James MacMillan, especially his work for choir. His orchestral music (I am thinking of the Easter Triptych especially) I have found too formless.

    I can appreciate your difficulties finding time to read the book. It is quite long. As much as I enjoyed it, it still took me about six months to work my way through it — a busy six months, but still!


  5. […] on the periphery of the avant-garde, it was only when I read Alex Ross’ warm appreciation in The Rest is Noise that I decided to seek him out and listen.  Despite some reservations, I am glad that I […]


  6. […] Alex Ross — The Rest is Noise (2007): A fascinating overview of twentieth-century history told through its music.  (Book Note) […]


  7. […] a history of twentieth-century music, Surprised by Beauty bears comparison with Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise, which I wrote about a few years ago.  Objectively, Ross’ book is the greater of the two: […]


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