The judgments that shape our view of music history can be volatile and cruel. As Ned Rorem once pointed out, the day after Béla Bartók died he suddenly appeared to be the greatest composer of the century, but the day after Paul Hindemith passed away people had already forgotten who he was. Other composers who once loomed large in books on twentieth-century music, such as Roy Harris and Darius Milhaud, are now remembered, if at all, for a single piece from a large oeuvre.
Hasn’t it always been so? Perhaps for nothing other than convenience we have reduced the rich musical culture of modern Europe to a mere handful of names. But today there is a bigger temptation: to treat the entire movement of modern concert music as a mistake. Even major reputations seem uncertain. Eighty years after its composition, audiences still find Arnold Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, a self-conscious magnum opus, to be as charming as an industrial park; fifty years after its creation, Stravinsky’s Threni, similarly monumental, languishes unperformed and barely remembered. And worse, recent musicological research has emphasized that composers once portrayed as heroes were skirt-chasers, boy-chasers, alcoholics, anti-Semites, homophobes, crass opportunists and political dupes, among other things.
Such tangled lives and mangled creations are the subject of The Rest Is Noise, an engaging new book by The New Yorker‘s classical music critic, Alex Ross. Who would have thought that a 600-page history of music that few people love could be such a page turner? The book’s strongest section is a bleak, unsparing account of composers all too easily compromised by Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union and the cold war. During three low, dishonest decades, Ross claims, backed with plenty of evidence, music lost its moral authority. Yet I wonder if the question that haunts twentieth-century classical composition is not the loss of moral authority–in Nazi Germany philosophy, physics and medicine lost any claim to it as well–but the loss of musical authority. Ross subtitles his book “Listening to the Twentieth Century,” but somehow he does not hear the sounds of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, Frank Loesser–well, it’s a long list. Are they just the noise to Ross’s ear?
Indeed, Ross’s title encapsulates, perhaps ironically, the arrogant belief of the classical music world that anything beyond its shrinking borders, whether jazz or rap or the sounds of the city, is nonmusic, nonart or at least noncomposition. The grand irony of the book is that so many extraordinarily talented composers produced a body of music that is still Greek, if not noise, to most listeners, even after a century of exposure. Yet the book is most persuasive and even hopeful when Ross finds pathos behind the irony and doesn’t let politics drown out musical pleasure.
Ross’s emphasis on the political settings of modern music mirrors the general tendency of musicology today, especially the ideas of Richard Taruskin, the grand master of the field. Due in part to Taruskin’s groundbreaking work on Stravinsky, the study of twentieth-century music has moved from the field of music theory to musicology, a historical discipline. While theorists see themselves as allies of composers and have treated twentieth-century music as a series of quasi-scientific discoveries, musicologists study the age of modernism as just another chapter of the past, something to be examined rather than defended.