Summary for the Busy Executive: Missed it by that much.
Right off the bat I should tell you that I consider Alex Ross the dullest music critic the New Yorker ever gave a byline to. However, despite its flaws (and it does have them), Ross's book heroically tries to make the most artistically polyglot of centuries cohere and will probably become a classic work.
Even with what seems like the palatial room of 600 pages, you can't talk about everybody. You can at best discuss only a few of the many fine composers who belong to essentially the Modern and the Contemporary, and thus you need criteria. Most writers of books like this look for composers who have many connections to others leading from them – in other words, they seek out artists who will stand for movements rather than for just themselves. So most English composers get ignored, although Sibelius, who influenced many of them, receives extended treatment. As much as I love Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, and Ernest Bloch, they really do represent the end of something. I think the author has the right to choose those examples who make his case, even if that means passing over favorites.
Ross provides a pleasant surprise in that, unlike most of his New Yorker pieces, here he writes really good prose – elegant, humorous, and at times really eloquent. As many reviewers have remarked, this book's a page-turner, a feat not easily accomplished in essentially a survey. I also greatly appreciate that, unlike many who have tackled Modern music, Ross doesn't consider classical music in isolation, either from pop and jazz or from political history. Even a retreat from the times comments on the times, after all. The stories Ross tells are good (for example, how Schoenberg went Hollywood), and his descriptions of specific pieces of music insightful. The stuff on Strauss's Salome caught me, especially since Ross traces the influence of particular details in the score to other, not necessarily similar works. Classical composers, it turns out, tend not to stand in isolation, either from society at large or from each other.
Ross tackles big questions: How did non-musical events influence music? How did music influence history, if at all? How did musical developments in one area influence those in others? Any one of these would merit a book all to itself. One doesn't find much precedent, certainly not much successful precedent, although Ross has read what's available and the bibliography lists several such studies. How well has Ross carried out this program?
Ross's discussions succeed up to the point, unfortunately the most important, where specifics become general themes. Sure, the Nazis and the Stalinists suppressed composers who reacted or passively submitted in various ways, including deportation to death camps. Even in the detail, Ross adopts the all-too-prevalent present attitude about what people should have done, without really painting an adequate picture of the monstrous horrors and terrors their governments subjected them to. Karl Amadeus Hartmann, for example, known for many years as a moral force of resistance within Nazi Germany, is downgraded by pointing out his independent means and the fact that he once gave a Nazi salute to party officials. Shostakovich gets scolded for groveling to the Communist Party (although Ross to a great extent spares Prokofiev) even though Shostakovich had the example of friends and colleagues imprisoned and killed. To me, it's a whim of fate that Shostakovich survived, although he did so at great cost to his physical and mental health. I might as well admit I lack Shostakovich's and Prokofiev's courage, let alone Dallapiccola's, who found himself on the run from Italian Fascists. In Germany, of course, I and my family would have been summarily rounded up and killed, so the matter of my personal courage is moot.
Of course the political upheavals, the migrations of refugees, and so forth would have an effect on music. Schoenberg might have remained strictly a Germanic phenomenon had he not come to California to teach. However, what consequences, if any, did Schoenberg's music have on the century? What habits of aesthetic thought changed? These questions get at the heart of Ross's problems. He doesn't really answer them. He doesn't even tell you what Modern is, let alone the difference between Modern and Contemporary. Why is, say, Chabrier Romantic and Ravel (who considered himself Chabrier's disciple) Modern? If Mahler and Sibelius, as musicologists so often tell us, straddle the Romantic and Modern eras, what in their music belongs to either Modernism or Romanticism? What makes Picasso, Stravinsky, and Joyce Modern? I think it unfortunate that Ross hasn't sufficiently stepped back from music to find commonalities with contemporary aesthetics in other arts. Composers may be fairly tight-lipped about their artistic outlook, but it seems to me writers love to delve into this stuff. Ross does a good job with presenting polemics, like Adorno's, but again he slights not only just about everybody else, he fails to find the overview. Perhaps it's a matter of the fly in the fly-bottle.
This results in a book not all that different from other straight surveys. Ross writes better than most, but because of a lack of overarching themes, you have little idea at all why certain sections crop up in the book. There's a fine chapter on Britten, with special attention paid to Peter Grimes – wonderful as far as it goes – but what has this to do with the music of the twentieth century, other than that's when it was written? Why single out either Britten or Grimes? It can't simply be because it's a wonderful opera and Britten a fine composer because there are many wonderful operas and composers in the century.
All of these loose ends work on me like increasing static. I like Ross's prose, appreciate his research, and get caught up by long stretches of narrative. Ultimately, however, the book simply doesn't deliver.
Copyright © 2010 by Steve Schwartz.