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.

Unlike earlier histories, however, which were either textbook surveys or polemics (Theodor Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music, Henry Pleasants’s The Agony of Modern Music), Ross’s book does not present the history of twentieth-century music as a story of ascendant (or descendant) modernism. The composers–dead white European males, it should be noted–who command his most sustained attention are Strauss, Sibelius, Britten and Messiaen, all of whom pursued paths that veered away from the constellation of the hard-as-nails modernists Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók and Boulez. The warring giants Schoenberg and Stravinsky appear in the book, but Ross is more passionate about composers who allowed their vulnerabilities to shape their music yet somehow were not destroyed in the process.

At the same time, Ross’s book mirrors the ambivalence toward modernism that prevails on the American music scene today. (Western Europeans still have not received the antimodernist memo.) Although our culture prizes innovation, many composers, performers and presenters blame modernism for their problems in finding audiences, attracting attention or just balancing the budget: Schoenberg has much to answer for. Composer John Adams presciently foresaw our current skepticism of modernist progress in his symphonic Harmonielehre, composed in 1985. Adams named his piece after the title of Schoenberg’s harmony theory book to underscore a historic parting of the ways. Though published in 1911, two years after his first atonal breakthroughs, Schoenberg’s treatise restated traditional tonal theory: Was he hedging his bets? That same year Jean Sibelius wrote his Symphony No. 4, wrestling with the forces of disorder that pushed Schoenberg over the edge but reaching different conclusions. Adams’s work could have been titled The Road Not Taken. Following Adams, leaning (perhaps too deferentially) on recent musicology and invoking the tragic history of Thomas Mann’s accursed fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn as a guide, Ross sees the course of modernism more as a result of idiosyncratic reactions and fatal personal choices than as a unified progressive achievement.

Despite Ross’s command of recent scholarship, his approach is traditional. He writes about composers and their works, not institutions, critics or performers–indeed, throughout the book the music seems to be playing itself. Ross makes a small nod in the direction of Joseph Horowitz’s writings in a brief passage on the mass-marketing of classical music on American radio. But he seems to reject Horowitz’s larger contention that American music, at least in the twentieth century, was shaped by performers, not composers. He does not discuss Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Wanda Landowska, Glenn Gould or Maria Callas, all artists who influenced the course of twentieth-century classical music as much as any composer; he examines Leonard Bernstein the composer but not Bernstein the conductor or educator. Ross writes eloquently about gay composers but seems unmoved by feminist musicology. Where are Laurie Anderson and Meredith Monk, among others?

Nor is Ross interested in reception history, which tracks the evolution of the reputations of pieces and composers. The prices of shares in Bartók, Schoenberg, Hindemith and Webern have fluctuated wildly during the past five decades, but Ross hardly discusses the mechanisms of musical marketing. Sometimes his emphasis on a work’s genesis clouds his historical sense. In a section devoted to turn-of-the-century Viennese modernism, he calls Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra (Op. 6) the finest example of atonal composition, yet it was barely known until after World War II. By contrast, Ross has next to nothing to say about another atonal masterpiece, Pierrot Lunaire, which from its premiere in 1912 convinced so many listeners of the expressive validity of Schoenberg’s “emancipated” dissonances and glow-in-the-dark tone colors. Does Ross downplay Pierrot, much as he blows off Mahler’s Ninth as a “long goodbye,” on historical grounds or aesthetic ones? Or is he simply declining to discuss works for which there is already a considerable body of literature? It’s hard to tell.

The Rest Is Noise is divided into three sections. The first retells the glories of the Golden Age of classical music in the decadent decade before World War I. What a time to be a composer! Composers were treated like “princes of the realm,” as Alma Mahler said of her husband and Strauss after a music festival in then-German Strassburg in 1905. On that occasion, neither composer seemed to mind that his music had been enlisted in a Kulturkampf to celebrate the might of the German Empire. In this contested Alsatian setting, the supersized, densely contrapuntal new works chosen for the occasion, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and Strauss’s Symphonia Domestica (alongside Brahms’s Fourth and the obligatory Beethoven’s Ninth), could be heard as proof of not only Germanic musical superiority but also German scientific and intellectual prowess. (The Germanophile French writer Romain Rolland complained that there was no Debussy on the program to offset German triumphalism.) Instead of discussing politics, the two princes of orchestral composition met in a piano store, where Strauss mesmerized the Mahlers by performing the almost completed score of his opera Salome–a work whose success would propel Strauss to international stardom and whose calculatedly scandalous fusion of German realism and French Symbolism would inspire calculatedly scandalous works like Pierrot Lunaire and Le Sacre du printemps within just a few years.

Ross rightly gives Salome the attention it has rarely received at the hands of those modernist critics who viewed the composer of Ariadne auf Naxos as an apostate to the cause even before he was politically compromised during World War II. Ross emphasizes two aspects of Salome, which he in turn makes the leitmotifs of his discussion of modern music in general: its basis in questionable ideas and its huge popularity despite, or because of, its shocking story and sounds. A century ago, modern music was headline news; even in distant New York, and in a far different cultural environment, Irving Berlin exploited the notoriety of Strauss’s opera with a hit novelty tune, “Sadie Salome, Go Home!”

But the music’s vitality sprang from malevolent elements. This golden age of music was also the golden age of imperialism, racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny; the best and brightest exploited, promoted and rarely criticized these noxious notions. Much as department stores ransacked the globe for goods to stimulate the appetites of consumers, composers pursued every variety of exoticism that gunboats and Foreign Legions put within reach. And yet this music–that of Puccini, Strauss, Mahler, Debussy and Ravel–belied later modernist myths of rejection and resistance: a novelty-hungry public embraced most of their works, along with the early works of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, as instant classics. And despite the warnings of M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang’s postimperialist riposte to Puccini, we still listen to them with guiltless pleasure today. Only after the war did new music lose touch with an audience and seem to withdraw into a narrow ghetto of unfestive festivals and competing cliques; for the first time in musical history, composers viewed the “everyday” as another planet.

Ross presents the 1920s in terms of the dancing-on-a-volcano mood of Ravel’s La Valse, but the ground-shifting cataclysm had already happened. The Great War severed the thread of European musical history. The defeat of Germany and Austria put the musical tradition of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms on the losing side. Three empires (Russia, Germany, Austria) that had prided themselves on their music were a shambles. Experimental societies arose in Russia, Germany and Italy, and the heartless musical styles of factory music, Constructivism and Futurism mirrored their social agendas. Just as important was the spread of jazz beyond the confines of New Orleans. The development of cheap phonographs for soldiers in the trenches of France gave a regional folk genre a global audience. The Jazz Age began; a non-European, nonclassical musical genre defined a decade.

Unfortunately, Ross adopts a Eurocentric view of jazz. Instead of examining how Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington, among others, cultivated the new form to an astonishing early maturity, he focuses on the transatlantic imitations of Satie, Stravinsky, Milhaud, Poulenc, Hindemith and Weill. Europe had discovered a new source of exoticism, and by this time techniques of musical colonization were second nature to conservatory-hatched composers. Take a saxophone, add a muted trumpet and some Bach, stir, and presto: a charming exercise in chic primitivism. This European slant obscures the obvious answer to the question Ross raises in chapters on postwar Paris, Berlin and New York: why was new music suddenly cut off from the audiences that had thrilled to its innovations just a decade earlier? The answer is that new forms of music had arrived, under the general rubric of jazz, that were more in touch with the times, more expressive, more creative than anything the classical composers could produce. Just consider how many popular songs from this period are still part of our musical consciousness, and then try humming a few bars of Hindemith or Milhaud, who were considered hot classical commodities at the time. Or listen to Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines playing “West End Blues,” a touchstone of the jazz canon, which Ross ignores.

The audience was not shrinking; classical music was. Thanks to phonograph recordings and radio, the audience for all music had multiplied exponentially. The new technologies leveled the older hierarchy of music, a pecking order based on venue. Music played in an opera house had been deemed better than music played in a pub or bordello. Now your living room could be an opera house–or a bordello. Emerging from a record player or radio, all music was created equal, but some pieces were more vital than others. For the rest of the century classical composition would try to re-establish its former artistic hegemony, but the battle was already lost by the mid ’20s. Today newspapers use the terms “music” and even “contemporary music” only for popular genres; classical music is relegated to “The Arts.”

Perhaps the oddest chapter in the book is “Invisible Men,” which concerns American composers in the 1920s, a grab bag that includes Charles Ives, before he was discovered; Will Marion Cook, who remains a curiosity of genius battling racism; and Ellington and Gershwin, who were anything but invisible. Yet as Carol Oja argues in her book Making Music Modern (2000), even the bad-boy radicals of the Jazz Age–like Varèse, Antheil, Cowell and Copland–attracted media attention within a rich cultural marketplace that was also witnessing a boom in popular song, blues and jazz. Ross’s preservation of European notions of composing leads him to underestimate the stylistic synthesis that was a common goal of New York modernists and overlook the way cultural categories were evolving in mongrel Manhattan. Ellington was not a composer in the European sense; he was a virtuoso impresario–at once composer, pianist, bandleader, arranger, improviser and celebrity–whose music tapped African-American sources that remain invisible in Ross’s book because they are not valued as “composition.” Similarly, to speak of Gershwin, or American popular music throughout the century, without paying close attention to Irving Berlin or Harold Arlen pushes the monumental achievement now called the Great American Songbook into the shadows. Invisibility is in the mind of the beholder.

In the middle of the eve-of-destruction view of the ’20s, Ross inserts the first of just two chapters devoted to single figures. His extended essays on Jean Sibelius and Benjamin Britten are two of the finest examples I know of the New Yorker profile genre. They also clarify Ross’s larger vision. The book, so scrupulous in its acknowledgment of sources, makes little use of the first-person singular, or autobiographical anecdotes; at one point Ross refers to himself as “the author of this book.” It also does not seem thesis-driven, aside from Ross grandly announcing that his story is “the cultural predicament of the composer in the twentieth century.” That is a vast Taruskinian claim and does not really explain Ross’s approach. Although he spends much time discussing new music’s cultural and political context, he is particularly drawn to enigmatic figures, composers whose lives and careers contain unanswerable questions. Why did Sibelius sit on his Eighth Symphony for thirty years and then destroy it? (Alcoholism, depression, modernist cabals?) Was Strauss a feckless opportunist, or did his card player’s blank expression (he favored skat) hide a capacity for self-understanding that we hear in the music–or, at any rate, that we would like to hear in it? (Is Metamorphosen an elegy for Hitler or for Strauss?) How did Britten, who by current standards might be branded a sexual predator, understand or sublimate his lifelong erotic attraction to pre-adolescent boys? (Does Death in Venice re-enact the fixation or transcend it?)

Ross’s objects of special attention are all holy sinners (like Mann’s Leverkühn) whose music and motives defy explanation or judgment. Late in the book, Ross writes that at the end of the War Requiem, wherein Britten gives Wilfred Owen’s poem “Strange Meeting” a homoerotic charge that has troubled some critics, the composer “cuts through the false complexities of politics.” That’s a stunning phrase coming after some 400 pages of music and political intrigue, but it showcases Ross’s preference for the personal over the political.

And yet politics must be given its due. Ross hits his stride in the central part of the book, depressing as it is. His accounts of music in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany should give pause to those who assume that government support is inherently good for the arts, but I wonder if the moral failures of so many musicians in these regimes were just magnified versions of careerist ambitions that seemed tolerable in less desperate times. On the other hand, many of the dire compromises of the period can appear to stem less from opportunism than from a delusional utopianism that placed art in the service of politics. For many composers, the diabolical wedding of culture and politics seemed to offer a benign cure for their feelings of isolation. Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini (and Mrs. Roosevelt) really cared about music. Dancing with wolves would warp musical culture for decades to come.

Tales of composers behaving badly in Germany and the Soviet Union are all too familiar by now. But Ross seems less interested than some scholars in finding either heroes or villains in this grim period. Strauss and Shostakovich attract his attention because they confound any easy alignment of moral and aesthetic judgment. The behavior of Strauss, who has never been accused of underestimating his worth, does not inspire either objectivity or sympathy. For one, he imagined that the Nazis would be good for the music business. Ross writes that “the composer of Salome warmed to Hitler chiefly because he thought that under the aegis of this music-loving chancellor he would be able to enact a series of long-dreamed-of reforms–new royalty schemes favoring classical composers over popular ones; the extension of composers’ copyrights; rules preventing spa orchestras from massacring Wagner overtures; guidelines discouraging young people from ruining their voices by bellowing patriotic songs.” Later Strauss introduced himself to American GIs as “the composer of Rosenkavalier” and imagined he could free his Jewish in-laws from Theresienstadt merely by announcing his name. And yet throughout the war, Strauss composed exquisite music, like the transformation scene in Daphne (1938) and the closing scene of Capriccio (1942), surpassing even Rosenkavalier as a comédie larmoyante. It is hard to think of any works of music more at odds with their surroundings; it’s the kind of music that gives the adjective “radiant” a bad reputation.

Shostakovich usually gets a more sympathetic treatment than Strauss, but, as Ross shows, their cases are not dissimilar. Both men could toe the party line one day and retreat into something resembling internal exile the next, and both lent their prestige to brutal regimes. Ross reprises the familiar story of the Fifth Symphony (which Shostakovich wrote in 1937 amid the Great Terror after being denounced in Pravda the previous year) and restates the unanswerable question raised by its blaringly affirmative conclusion: “Who or what is triumphing?” Ross refuses to draw the many clues he detects in the music (references to Carmen, allusions to Pushkin) to a neat conclusion, but he does note that most listeners accepted the affirmation at face value. The symphony quickly traveled around the world; critics and audiences heard the course of the work from oppression to victory as a much-needed twentieth-century equivalent to Beethoven’s Fifth.

Ross’s account of the CIA’s influence on European music after World War II brings to the public eye an issue that has been simmering in musicological circles. Charged with reconstituting and de-Nazifying German musical life and then locked in a battle with the KGB for the minds of Western European intellectuals, the CIA secretly funded festivals and journals that promoted post-Webernism, a style of musical radicalism, neither American nor Soviet, that was, with the exception of the works of Communist composer Luigi Nono, apolitical. This well-masked patronage tamed politics into formalism; serialists denounced nonserialists the way party members attacked Trotskyites. The semitalented Mr. Ripley of the postwar scene was Stravinsky’s own booster-cum-CIA operative, Nicholas Nabokov, a colorful and slippery player who also had a hand in promoting Elliott Carter’s music.

Unfortunately, The Rest Is Noise devotes relatively little space to the last third of the century, and aside from a sustained hagiography of Olivier Messiaen, Ross’s account of the era is a breathless roll call of names and movements similar to that found in Paul Griffiths’s several books on the period, though with an occasional hint of ironic bemusement at the absurd circuslike quality of the avant-garde scene. Ross doesn’t wax sentimental about the vanguard, nor is he much attracted to the “maverick” line in American music, though he gives it its due. Despite a century of antiart and fifty years of rock and roll, he’s still a symphony and opera kind of guy, which brings him, naturally, to the composer of Harmonielehre and Nixon in China, John Adams.

Conspicuously absent from the book is the full text of Ross’s superb New Yorker profile of Adams, “The Harmonist” (reprinted in The John Adams Reader), which would have complemented the Sibelius and Britten chapters. The profile ends ecstatically: “I hummed Adams’ palm-tree song [from El Niño] to myself, and it seemed to me that I had just spent the morning with a man who was never going to die.” Adams is one of the few composers in the book whom Ross has interviewed at length–and so, uniquely in the book, we feel his immediate presence, his voice and his personality. (In his acknowledgments, Ross says that Adams inspired the book’s style; he might have thanked Adams for its worldview as well.) The Adams profile, lacking the studiously impersonal stance of The Rest Is Noise, is also a profile of Ross, a far more passion-driven enthusiast than the nearly invisible narrator of the book. The contrast raises a gnawing question about the book’s dutiful pursuit of a kind of official party-line judgment, vetted by a sizable group of scholars at the expense of the daringly personal approach that has characterized Ross’s New Yorker writings since at least his uncloseted review of Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat in 1993.

Unlike Ross, I don’t think Adams is peerless in American music today; Joan Tower, for one, is an equally skilled and original composer. Adams’s work, however, seems in touch with the full range of the music discussed in The Rest Is Noise, from Sibelius to Ligeti and from Ives to Carl Stalling (the composer for the Warner Brothers cartoons), and his relation to the cultural issues latent in all this music is complex without being nihilistic. Adams still believes in the masterpiece; his huge orchestral work Naive and Sentimental Music takes up the heroic, visionary, affirmative stance of Sibelius’s Fifth. Like Mahler’s symphonies and Strauss’s tone poems, it is a big work, aimed at a big audience. But is there a big audience for music still rooted in the classical tradition and that still embraces the modernist demand for difficulty? For all his references to popular culture, Adams is no populist. At the Los Angeles Philharmonic premiere of Naive and Sentimental Music in February 1999, many in the audience seemed baffled; they would have preferred John Williams to John Adams. Is Adams’s neo-Romanticism as quixotic as the neoclassicism of an earlier generation?

In our boutique culture, any notion of an aesthetic mainstream seems as quaintly obsolete as The Ed Sullivan Show or American Bandstand. Today everyone wants to be alternative; the quirky, edgy side of much contemporary classical music, typified by the punk style and diverse repertory of the Kronos Quartet, now seems like a virtue, not a problem. But the symphony orchestra and the opera house are not boutiques. They are civic institutions designed to present works of an encompassing social vision. Such music will not play itself (at least for a few years to come). It will require intelligent and sympathetic performers. And it will not explain itself. It will need intelligent, sympathetic critics. We are fortunate that Alex Ross is well suited to the task.