How the old became new again
John F. Kennedy preferred the Rat Pack to Rachmaninov, but classical music still held enough cultural sway that he (at the urging of the Mrs.) endured evenings at the White House with the day’s cutting-edge composers.
It’s hard to picture President Bush making time for photo ops with Arvo Part or Philip Glass; even sax-player Bill Clinton made no apologies for naming Kenny G as his favorite musician.
In his book, “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century,” New Yorker music critic Alex Ross explores classical music’s plummet from cultural eminence to a time when few can name more than a handful of living composers. He tells it matter-of-factly, refreshingly free of those-were-the-days wistfulness.
To non classical fans, the tale of a century-long battle for the heart of classical music may not sound like a page-turner, but Ross’ portrayal of power plays and bitter battles should appeal even to those who haven’t seen an orchestra pit in years.
There were hints that music’s old guard held a precarious place at the century’s beginning, but the chaos didn’t really start until late in the first decade. That’s when German composer Arnold Schoenberg developed his 12-tone technique, making atonal music that replaced traditional harmonies.
From there, the classical world splintered off into “us or them.” Composers who stuck with the tonal system worried for their relevance ” especially after World War II, when traditional classical music suffered from an association with the Nazis and fascism.
As Ross tells it, the cultural war escalated as the stakes grew more meager; audiences steadily drifted away from the spiky sounds of atonality. But Schoenberg’s creation wasn’t the only reason. Recording technology played a big part: Orchestras sounded tinny over early systems, while ragtime sounded snappy. Jazz assumed the role of America’s signature music, siphoning off much of classical’s potential audience.
A recurring theme in Ross’ book: Even rebels become old fogies. Stravinsky, famously booed for the confounding sounds of “The Rite of Spring” in 1913, gets booed decades later ” only this time for doing the same-old same-old. Even Schoenberg is drubbed in his own obituary by his one-time disciple Pierre Boulez. The Frenchman, who comes off in “The Rest Is Noise” as classical music’s angriest man, sneered at Schoenberg’s “romanticism” and charged that he didn’t go far enough in his overhaul of Western music.
Ross writes in an easy, conversational style and avoids preaching the virtues of classical music (though his vivid descriptions of some pieces will make you wish for a companion CD). He shows the fluidity of genres and how classical has seeped into pop music ” whether in the experimentalism of Bjork or the use of turntables in hip-hop (presaged by the musique concrete experiments of the 1930s avant-garde).
For those of us less musically inclined, it helps that Ross knows his way around jazz and rock ” he demystifies Stravinsky’s odd rhythms, for instance, with a comparison to the famous Bo Diddly beat.
You’ll feel for Dmitri Shostakovich, hoping he’ll finally stand up to the Soviets’ ludicrous arts policies, only to get a taste of what it must be like to root for the Chicago Cubs. Shostakovich and his contemporary, Sergei Prokofiev, come off as two of the most tragic figures here. Stalin’s cultural goons alternately rewarded and persecuted them. Shostakovich regained some artistic spirit after Stalin’s death, but no such luck for Prokofiev, who died less than an hour before Stalin.
Ross tosses us great anecdotes along the way: Charlie Parker spots Stravinsky hanging out at Birdland and knocks out a few bars from the composer’s “Firebird.” Schoenberg, negotiating a deal to score a Hollywood film, insists on controlling the dialogue so that it would flow with his music. And Ross’ descriptions of John Cage’s musical antics are fun to read (probably more than actually listening to the works).
Despite everything, Ross seems bullish about the future of classical music. He notes that arbitrary distinctions between the classical and pop worlds are fading, and composers no longer feel pressured to hew to the atonal agenda (even Boulez has softened his edge).
Whether you share Ross’ optimism or not, “The Rest Is Noise” is a unique look at a tumultuous century through its music.
William Weir is a Courant staff writer.
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