Thursday, May 15, 2008

Book Review

Listening to the Twentieth Century
Alex Ross
Pp 624
Fourth Estate £20

This book is well worth the money – the best survey I’ve come across, a worthy successor to Constant Lambert’s Music Ho! Which came out in 1834, wildly witty, entertainingly opinionated but wise at times. Alex Ross’s survey is more inclusive, also wise, not many jokes but entertaining, informative and eminently sane; and inducing compulsive page turning.

Both books preface with Shakespeare: Lambert has “The Music Ho! Let’s to billiards”; Ross has “…the rest is silence…. why does the drum come hither?” Ross does not scintillate like Lambert but the writing is good, reading more like a historical novel than a textbook.

Ross begins, interestingly not with Schoenberg or The Rite of Spring but with the premiere in 1906 in Graz of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome (dedicated to an English banker!) Apparently Mahler was there and Berg, Puccini and possibly Adolf Hitler and, in imagination, Adrian Leverkühn. Ross’s range is almost incredibly wide, he seems to have researched everything there is to know or has been written about the music, the composers and the times they lived in. Like Lambert, Ross thinks that Sibelius was a good way forward, even though many took the atonal path, perhaps for the general bad. Ross is good on jazz (as befits a writer many of us know and admire for his/her articles in the New Yorker), overpraises Copland, and sums up well Berlin in the twenties and the Soviet scene. There are very good sections on Kurt Weill, Peter Grimes and Wozzeck. Messiaen, minimalist and the latest trends, ways forward and dead ends all receive lively comment.

Quibbles; apart from Britten, our British worthies get short shrift, Tippett just mentioned, Adès considered over-rated; and Ross seems to point an accusing finger by smearing Strauss: “On the day that Capriccio was finished, 682 Jews are killed in Romania, 1500 in Latvia” and more in the same vein. Not nice, surely not germane.

Did you notice that I referred to Alex Ross as he/she? That’s because the jacket blurb refers to the author as he, whilst in the preface Ross thanks her husband. Never mind, which way Tiresias/ Ross dresses, he/she has written a mighty fine important book.


John said...

Hello John.
Good to find your site. Please visit my website and use the form on the contact page to send me your email address. I'm sure there's much we can exchange views about.
Meanwhile I should point out that I don't think Constant Lambert wrote Music Ho in 1834!
John Rushby-Smith.

Thomas said...

I thought someone should set you, er, straight on this: yes, Alex Ross is a man and yes, he has a husband (he writes about the 20th century but lives in the 21st).