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The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

By Alex Ross, published by Fourth Estate, £20, hardback, 624pp, ISBN 978-1-84115-475-6

Review by David Matthews, appeared in Musical Opinion, July-August 2009

The premiere of Arnold Schoenberg's Gurrelieder at the Musikverein in Vienna on 23 February 1913 was a triumph. Schoenberg's two-hour work for soloists, chorus and the largest orchestra anyone had ever used took him over ten years to complete: he had begun the composition in 1900, but the orchestration was not finished until 1911. Meanwhile his music had changed from opulent late-Romanticism to the Expressionist atonality of Erwartung and Pierrot Lunaire. Public performances of the orchestral tone-poem Pelleas und Melisande and the First and Second String Quartets had been greeted with bewilderment and some hostility. But this evening was different: as the music reached its sumptuous C major conclusion, the audience burst into ecstatic applause and rose to their feet, their cheers mingling with shouts of "Schoenberg! Schoenberg!" The composer, however, was nowhere to be seen. Eventually he walked to the podium and bowed to the orchestra. But he turned his back on the audience, refusing to acknowledge them. As his friend the violinist Francis Aranyi said, it was "the strangest thing that a man in front of that kind of a hysterical, worshipping mob has ever done."

It was, nonetheless, a calculated response. A month later, a concert in the same Musikverein including Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony of 1906 and recent works by his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern was brought to a halt by a near-riot during the attempted premiere of Berg's Altenberg Lieder. The police had to be called and a lawsuit ensued. Schoenberg soon decided he had enough. He had bared his soul in his early music, which is full of intense emotion, expressed with prodigious technical skill; yet audiences had continually rejected it. "If it is art, it is not for all", he was later to write, "and if it is for all, it is not art." He formed a Society for Private Performances, to which only paying members were invited, and critics excluded. A rift between the composer and his public had been formalized. Schoenberg's later twelve-note works make few concessions to accessibility: however much they are admired by a few, they have never been accepted by the general listener and are never likely too, though Schoenberg himself still sometimes imagined they would. He wrote to Hans Rosbaud in 1947:

But there is nothing I long for more intensely (if for anything) than to be taken for a better sort of Tchaikovsky - for heaven's sake: a bit better, but really that's all. Or if anything more, then that people should know my tunes and whistle them.

A forlorn hope; yet it shows that, despite everything he had said and done, Schoenberg had not renounced the ideal of wider communication. Certainly he never went as far as his American disciple Milton Babbitt, who wrote in 1958:

I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute and voluntary withdrawal from the public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition.

The role of the composer within society is naturally enough one of the chief themes of Alex Ross's compelling book, which sweeps through the turbulent history of twentieth-century music, pins down many of its main creative figures in deft portraits, and gives concise and intelligent accounts of their most important works. Particular societies and places are vividly evoked and the role of music within them acutely examined: Paris and Berlin in the 1920s, Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, the Darmstadt school after the Second World War. There is, however, a serious drawback to Ross's approach. He admits at the start that "there is no attempt to be comprehensive" and that "much great music is left on the cutting-room floor". What this means in effect is that someone like Shostakovich or Strauss who was caught up in the political drama of the twentieth century will generally get more attention than a composer who may have written superlative music but who lived a uninteresting life (Ross makes a notable exception with Messiaen). A prime case is Carl Nielsen, who is allotted one sentence (a complimentary one, admittedly) in the chapter on Sibelius. I'm not alone in judging Nielsen's Fifth Symphony to be one of the greatest of twentieth-century works, the equal of Sibelius's Fifth; but Nielsen is an outsider to the main currents of the century, had no significant influence on posterity, and so has been sidelined.

A slightly different approach might also, for instance, have assigned more space to Busoni and Scriabin, both of whom did in fact attract much attention during their lives but are still at a tangent to the mainstream on which Ross tends to concentrate. It could be claimed that, in the long run, both composers will be seen to have been as important figures as Schoenberg. Busoni's theories, which are concerned with expanding harmonic language while preserving the laws of tonality, may well appear more significant for the future of music in the long run than Schoenberg's dogmatic rejection of tonality and his attempt to replace it with a new system of his own devising. Busoni's masterpiece, his opera Doktor Faust, is surprisingly ignored by Ross, who throughout the book makes copious references to the Faust legend and in particular to its treatment in Thomas Mann's story of Adrian Leverkühn. Scriabin invented a harmonic system almost as revolutionary as Schoenberg's but staying just within the bounds of tonality, which had a profound influence on Stravinsky (though he later denied it) and also on Messiaen; his late sonatas are masterpieces by any reckoning. Scriabin's monomaniacal plan for a cosmic piece that would transform the universe, unrealized at his death, is the ultimate Faustian gesture, and looks forward to the similarly grandiose ambition of Stockhausen's opera sequence Licht.

Ross is music critic of The New Yorker and understandably writes from an American perspective. So American composers are given proportionately more coverage than those from other countries. Certainly the American contribution to twentieth-century music cannot be undervalued. It could be claimed that Charles Ives virtually invented modernism single-handed; Gershwin, Ellington and Copland were all important in countering the idea that the composer should not court popularity; John Cage, whatever the intrinsic value of his anti-compositions (I happen to find almost all of them extremely tedious), had a huge influence during his lifetime by the sheer force of his personality; while the Minimalists - Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams - not only overthrew the hegemony of the postwar European avant garde but have affected much of the music that is being written today in all parts of the world, both serious and popular. But Ross also provides a comprehensive history of twentieth-century American music which includes accounts of obscure black composers from the early years of the century and eccentric experimentalists such as Harry Partch and Henry Cowell.

A British reader will find it hard not to feel that the music of this country has been undervalued. Britten deservedly has a chapter of his own, but otherwise, Elgar is allotted a few sentences in Ross's opening chapter on Mahler and Strauss, Holst and Vaughan Williams are merely examples of "folkish composers", Walton is mentioned in a list of symphonists and the name of Delius does not appear at all. I'm aware that Britten is the only one of these composers whose music is played worldwide and whose acceptance outside this country is unproblematic. Elgar's Cello Concerto is a repertoire piece in most countries, yet Germans for instance still find his symphonies baffling (exactly why is hard to fathom, since to my ears Elgar has much in common with both Strauss and Mahler). Vaughan Williams's symphonies, which I would rate alongside Shostakovich's, are, it seems, incomprehensible to much of the rest of Europe, as is Tippett's opera The Midsummer Marriage, which while not wholly as successful dramatically as Peter Grimes, could be claimed to be musically superior to anything that Britten wrote. I don't think these are merely the views of a biased nationalist, and time may justify them; after all it took over 350 years for the great Tudor music of Tallis and Byrd to become known outside this country. It is probably impossible not to be biased towards one's national music: a French reader (this English one too) will regret that Dutilleux is not singled out as one of the foremost living composers, while a Romanian will lament the omission of Enescu. Ross does not set out to be all-inclusive or objective, so it is perhaps unfair to go on criticising him for omissions. Suffice it to say that in a hundred years' time the relative significance of 20th-century composers will, I expect, look markedly different to how they appear in The Rest is Noise.

In American music, as in European, there is a division between those who have been concerned to speak to an audience and those who, like Ives, Cage, Babbitt and Elliott Carter, have accepted or even courted alienation. The former are in the majority: alienation has largely been a European phenomenon, with Boulez as its high priest (Boulez's absurd hostility towards his contemporaries in the 1940s and 1950s is amusingly chronicled by Ross). Ross tends not to take sides but I sense he sympathizes with the communicators. His heroes are Sibelius, Strauss, Stravinsky, Copland, Shostakovich, Britten, all of whom had a significant role within society. A few twentieth-century composers achieved extraordinary fame: Sibelius's fiftieth birthday in 1915 was front page news in the Finnish newspapers, his portrait was displayed in most of the Helsinki shops; at an evening concert where the first version of his Fifth Symphony had its premiere, he was presented with a civic address bearing fifteen thousand signatures, and he was also given a Steinway grand piano (Sibelius did comment in his diary "It is difficult to take this seriously."). It is inconceivable that anything like this would ever happen to a composer of classical music today. At best, he or she can only hope to create a mild ripple in the mass media pond: the last work whose premiere was a major public event was probably Britten's War Requiem in 1962. The great communicators today are in the world of rock music.

Ross briefly touches on rock: he is interested for instance in the links between the Minimalists and groups such as The Velvet Underground, and in Stockhausen's influence on The Beatles, but he doesn't really deal with the fact that for the majority of educated Westerners today, who read contemporary novels and look at contemporary art, their main experience of new music is through rock. If they are interested in classical music, it is likely to be the music of the past. Rock music, with its direct appeal to the emotions, seems to stand at the opposite extreme from contemporary classical music, which is held by most people to be 'difficult' and remote from ordinary life. But rock music, however good - and I'm as big a fan of Bob Dylan as anyone - is limited in its expressive range and by its avoidance of musical complexity; it cannot plumb the depths of our experience. Classical music can do that, but contemporary classical music, it seems to most people, does not (Minimalism, some of which is genuinely popular, has the same limitations as rock). While the levelling-down of society in the last fifty years has tended to marginalize serious and complex music, composers themselves are partly to blame for their failure to communicate directly on a emotional level, leaving the field open for rock music to take over.

Ross also chooses not to discuss melody, which has become perhaps the chief problem in the music of today. The popular music of the mid twentieth-century - Kern, Berlin, Porter, Gershwin - was exceptionally rich in memorable melody. Rock music, with a few exceptions (outstandingly, The Beatles) relies less on melody and more on striking short motifs, like the opening guitar riffs of Rolling Stones' songs ('Satisfaction', 'Jumpin' Jack Flash'), or simple but memorable chord progressions, as in most Dylan songs. In classical music, it is now possible for a composer to reach a position of considerable eminence without having written any memorable melodic ideas, which is curious. Some composers would no doubt claim that the invention of melody is no longer their concern, yet how can music survive into the future as a communicative language if it denies its origins in song? The best music is singable; we remember it by singing it to ourselves, either in our heads, or aloud. Which brings us back to Schoenberg and his desire for his tunes to be whistled. Schoenberg began as a gifted melodist, as in Gurrelieder, or Pelleas und Melisande, whose gorgeous love theme I sometimes whistle myself. But his twelve-note melodies are almost impossible to remember, not just because of his self-imposed rule that the twelve notes of the scale must be traversed without repetition on the way, but also because of the underlying non-tonal harmony, which makes it very hard to pitch the notes accurately. It is possible to invent a memorable melody containing all twelve notes of the scale, for example the B minor fugue theme from Book I of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, but Bach's tune repeats a few significant notes, and one can always sense the tonal background in B minor, which makes all the difference.

Since hardly anyone writes twelve-note music these days, the particular melodic problem associated with it should no longer apply. Yet somehow memorable melody faded out of classical music in the last part of the twentieth century. It seems to be fast disappearing from popular music too. Ross, who seems unaware or unconcerned about the problem, is optimistic about twenty-first-century composition: "In a decentered culture, it has a chance to play a kind of godfather role, able to assimilate anything new because it has assimilated everything in the past... in the freedom of their solitude, [composers] can communicate experiences of singular intensity." Maybe, but freedom and solitude are also likely to foster isolation. I can see a few more things that stand in the way of a wealth of meaningful music in the future. One is academicism, represented at its most extreme by the attitude of Milton Babbitt: this inevitably leads towards sterility. Then there is the widespread self-consciousness that makes composers afraid to express emotions. Music must be from the heart, to the heart, as Beethoven said, not just from the brain. True music comes into being in a mysterious interaction between the unconscious and the intellect, but it begins in the unconscious, and unless composers trust in their feelings and in unconscious sources of inspiration they will not bring their music fully to life.