Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Rest is Awesome

I finally finished The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross's awesome history of 20th century classical music. For those of you who don't know, I love music. The only thing that comes anywhere near my love for books and poetry is my obsession with classical music. And it just so happens that most of my favorite classical pieces come from the 20th century. My two favorite composers are Bela Bartok and Dmitri Shostakovich. So I am basically the ideal audience for Ross's book. And I was not disappointed.

Ross performs the miraculous feat of writing very meticulously about music while still making it accessible to general readers like myself. I admit that having taken a music appreciation course and a basic music theory class in college helped me to understand what Ross talked about, but as someone who can't read or really comprehend music in any tangible way, the book was still easy to read. Ross even manages to be unbiased and even-minded, although the careful reader can still see where his prejudices might lie (hence entire chapters on Sibelius and Britten, as well as constant references to Mahler).

I have to admit I enjoyed the first half of the book much more than the second half, probably because these parts take place during more interesting historical times - the world wars, Soviet Russia, etc. My favorite chapters were the ones on music under Stalin and Hitler. The Stalin chapter, "The Art of Fear," centered around Shostakovich and Prokofiev, with riveting details about how their government trapped them as both artists and as people. I've always found Shostakovich an extremely fascinating figure, and Ross is obviously as intrigued by him as I am. He spends a lot of the rest of the book referring back to the tragic Soviet composer. "Death Fugue," the chapter about Hitler's manipulation of Austrian/German music is completely bone-chilling. Ross's depiction of a government that values and undermines its art at the same time is terrifying and relevant. This is what makes the book so wonderful. Ross can seamlessly compare the history of the West in the 20th century with the history of its music.

Probably my favorite thing about the book came from its depictions of famous composers. Ross finds ways to be quietly funny and serious at the same time, celebrating and poking fun at a huge personality like Pierre Boulez at the same time. I came away from the book wrinkling my nose at the snobbishness of Schoenberg and Prokofiev, crushing on that rascal Alban Berg (I think I need to go out and pick up a recording of Wozzeck right away), and feeling deeply sorry for Jean Sibelius. I was particularly interested in the book's section on the influences of folk music on 20th century classical composers. While some composers like Bartok (whose Concerto for Orchestra happens to be my #1 favorite musical piece) took the preservation of folk music in classical forms very seriously, other composers (particularly Schoenberg and the hypocrite Stravinsky) thought the entire concept was ridiculous and derided Bartok for the rest of his life. For some reason, I found these little composer tiffs extremely poignant.

Anyway, all you really need to know about The Rest is Noise is that, for this particular reader, it was a total joy to spend time with. It gave me the chance to geek out about my love for classical music in a way I haven't been able to since I graduated college, and for that, I will always hold the book dear.

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