The Magazine

Notes for Moderns

The atonal sounds of the 20th century in music.

Jan 19, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 17 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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The Rest Is Noise

Listening to the Twentieth Century

by Alex Ross

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

640 pp., $30

Twentieth century music takes a lot of getting used to, and more often than not it turns out to be an acquired distaste.

The musical canon, especially if alliteration is your thing, still runs to Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, with perhaps Berlioz and Bruckner tossed in as a bonus. These continue to be the composers whose works get patrons to fill concert halls. Busoni, Bartók, and Berio don't have a comparable effect--indeed, they often have the reverse effect, keeping concertgoers away in droves. The serious music of the 20th century remains difficult, forbidding. We prefer to engage, or to indulge, simpler or more agreeable feelings in more readily intelligible forms, and the 18th and 19th centuries provide these as the recent past does not.

Why this should be so preoccupies Alex Ross, the classical music critic for the New Yorker, in his first book. It is because one hears the sinister darkness of the time in its music--think of Alban Berg, Arnold Schönberg, Kurt Weill, Anton Webern, Dmitri Shostakovich, John Cage, Benjamin Britten, Pierre Boulez, and Adrian Leverkühn, the fictional antihero of Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus, who contracts syphilis deliberately in order to invoke diabolical creative powers--that the ordinary listener runs screaming to the comforting arms of Mozart. Yet there are countervailing tendencies in modern music as well, which offer succor and solace, sometimes in the very face of horror and pain.

Ross opens with the 1906 performance of Richard Strauss's opera Salome that the composer conducted in Graz, Austria. Giacomo Puccini, Gustav Mahler, Schönberg, Berg--and Adrian Leverkühn--were all in attendance. Adolf Hitler may have been there, too.

The Judaean princess Salome is the epitome of sexually unhinged depravity who performs the Dance of the Seven Veils for her concupiscent stepfather, Herodes--as sopranos have grown slinkier, stage directors have increasingly enjoined them to end their dance nude--and demands as her reward the head of his prisoner Jochanaan, John the Baptist. After Salome kisses the decapitated head at the climax of a demented but undeniably lovely aria, Herodes orders his soldiers to crush her to death with their shields.

Ross analyzes the rising scale on the clarinet that begins the opera and finds it split between two "opposing harmonic spheres," C-sharp major and G major; separating the notes C-sharp and G is the interval of three whole steps, formally termed the tritone and informally the devil's interval, so called for its disturbing effect on the hearer. The primacy that auditory disturbance will assume in modern music is one of Ross's themes.

Salome was a smash--and its overwhelming success came as a shock. An artistic flair for rendering the morally reprehensible with the sonically bizarre evidently could be made to pay off big. Although no less a musical authority than Kaiser Wilhelm II predicted that Salome would do Strauss "a lot of damage," opera houses in 25 cities presently put on the work, and the composer would say that thanks to the damage he was able to build a villa in Garmisch.

Strauss's great rival was Mahler, who thought Salome an esoteric masterwork but could not fathom why the public professed such a yen for it. At least according to his self-created legend, in his lifetime Mahler never was able to win the adulation that Strauss did, and therefore set his sights on the good opinion of future music lovers.

"I am what Nietzsche calls an 'untimely' one. .  .  . The true 'timely' one is Richard Strauss," said Mahler. "That is why he already enjoys immortality here on earth." But Mahler had no real reason to complain, Ross insists: The critics may not have loved his symphonies, but the public did. His popularity, more than Strauss's, represented the twilight of ever-adored romanticism, however shot through with ironic modern monkeyshines it might have been.

With Schönberg, who followed Franz Liszt in breaking with the fundamental tradition of Western music and took to operating outside the boundaries of the major and minor key systems, modernity grew ever more grotesque blossoms. The Expressionist agonies of Schönberg's music flowered from living sores. In the summer of 1908 he discovered his wife Mathilde in flagrante with the painter and scoundrel Richard Gerstl. After trying to make a life with her lover, Mathilde went back to Schönberg and Gerstl hanged himself with particularly lurid élan--naked in front of a full-length mirror.