The Rest Is Noise Listening to the Twentieth Century

Alex Ross




Trade Paperback

720 Pages



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Winner of the National Book Critics Circle AwardWinner of the Grand Prix des MusesWinner of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers Deems Taylor Award
A Pulitzer Prize Finalist Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for NonfictionOne of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year
A Washington Post Best Book of the YearA Time Magazine Best Book of the YearAn Economist Book of the Year
A Fortune Magazine Top Book of the Year
A Newsweek Favorite Book of the YearA New York Magazine Top 10 Book of the YearA Los Angeles Times Favorite Book of the Year
A Slate Best Book of the Year
A Christian Science Monitor Best Book of the Year
A Choice Outstanding Academic Title
Winner of The Guardian First Book Prize
 The Rest Is Noise shows the origin and enduring influence of modern sound on twentieth century life. It tells of maverick personalities who have resisted the cult of the classical past, struggled against the indifference of a wide public, and defied the will of dictators. Whether they have charmed audiences with the purest beauty or battered them with the purest noise, composers have always been exuberantly of the present, defying the stereotype of classical music as a dying art. Ross takes us from Vienna before the First World War to Paris in the twenties, from Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia to downtown New York in the sixties and seventies. He follows the rise of mass culture and mass politics, of dramatic new technologies, of hot and cold wars, of experiments, revolutions, riots, and friendships forged and broken. In the tradition of Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches and Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, the end result is a history of the twentieth century through its music.


Praise for The Rest Is Noise

The Rest Is Noise is a work of immense scope and ambition. The idea is not simply to conduct a survey of 20th-century classical composition but to come up with a history of that century as refracted through its music . . . With its key figures reappearing like motifs in a symphony, The Rest Is Noise is a considerable feat of orchestration and arrangement . . . a great achievement. Rilke once wrote of how he learned to stand ‘more seeingly’ in front of certain paintings. Ross enables us to listen more hearingly.”—Geoff Dyer, The New York Times

“In Ross’s book, by far the liveliest and smartest popular introduction yet written to a century of diverse music, history winds through the pages like those highway signs and mountains. We linger over some; others whiz by. For a dozen years or so Ross has been the catholic-minded critic for The New Yorker, writing about new music without a chip on his shoulder or a tone of condescension and not as a defensive apologist for a supposedly embattled culture—but instead fluently, as if taking for granted that new music were on its own terms every bit as relevant and vital as contemporary art or literature. His prose is notable in a discipline that frets too much about its obsolescence . . . When he writes his way, Ross leads you to imagine you really are, to borrow his subtitle, listening to the twentieth century.”—Michael Kimmelman, The New York Review of Books

"What powers this amazingly ambitious book and endows it with authority are the author's expansive curiosity and refined openness of mind."—Jamie James, Los Angeles Times

“An impressive, invigorating achievement . . . This is the best general study of a complex history too often claimed by academic specialists on the one hand and candid populists on the other. Ross plows his own broad furrow, beholden to neither side, drawing on both.”—Stephen Walsh, The Washington Post

"Readers love The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by New Yorker critic Alex Ross. It was that most rare literary beast—both a lively read and an authoritative overview of a complex topic. In its sweep Ross' book offered a bird's-eye view of a massive arc of time and space that ranged from Imperial Vienna and Mahler's monumental symphonies to Silicon Valley and John Adams' 'Nixon in China.'"—Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Sun-Times

"It would be hard to imagine a better guide to the maelstrom of recent music than Mr. Ross, who worked on this book for a decade. He has an almost uncanny gift for putting music into words. No other critic writing in English can so effectively explain why you like a piece, or beguile you to reconsider it, or prompt you to hurry online and buy a recording."—The Economist

"Ross is a supremely gifted writer who brings together the political and technological richness of the world inside the magic circle of the concert hall, so that each illuminates the other."—Lev Grossman, Time

"[Ross] states that his subtitle is meant literally: 'this is the twentieth century heard through its music.' He informs the reader that the book is the result of fifteen years of work as a music critic. He also occasionally reiterates the purpose of the book as the text unfolds, as, for example, then he writes that the book illuminates 'the cultural predicament of the composer in the twentieth century.' These interjections make the book an excellent lesson and a wonderful ride . . . Ross divides the twentieth century into three parts . . . He uses the two world wars as major points of demarcation after writing about Vienna (prior to World War I), then Hitler and Stalin, then New York in the 1960s and 1970s, and music in other places thereafter . . . There is a large section of 'Notes' at the end of the book, complete with 'Abbreviations Used' to assist the reader . . . Names of musical organizations, such as the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein, are given with their English translations in parentheses to make things easier for the general reader to follow (All-German Music Association). Ross also describes individual compositions in ways that beckon the reader to listen to the musical composition itself—this provides wonderful encouragement to readers who might not otherwise wish to go that far. Furthermore, Ross refers the reader to the most comprehensive biographies on major composers . . . These referrals often occur in sections where Ross discusses a major composer’s work in depth. Ross’s prose is often quite elegant. He enjoys the use of metaphor and, at times, his prose is as enjoyable to listen to as it is to read . . . Ross succeeds in making all of his historical narratives comprehensible to the lay reader as well as to the musician and scholar."—Richard D. Burbank, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Notes

"In his long-awaited first book, The Rest Is Noise, Mr. Ross brings his gift for authoritative enthusiasm to a whole century’s worth of music . . . The result is a massively erudite book that takes care to wear its learning lightly. There are no musical examples in The Rest Is Noise and while Mr. Ross discusses some technical points—the polyrhythms of Stravinsky, the atonality of Schoenberg—it is not necessary to read music to understand his larger themes. Rather than delving deep into a particular composition, like a musicologist, Mr. Ross aims for synthesis, placing each work against the background of its composer’s life and times. This is music history for readers who know more history than music."—Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun

“Impressively omnivorous . . . The critic can be a maestro with his turns of phrase.”—James Sullivan, The Boston Globe

“A volume sharply different in tone from its predecessors—and truer, in my view, to the history of musical modernism . . . Ross’s taste is both wide-ranging and receptive, and he never makes the inverse error of assuming that a piece of music is bad merely because it does not sound like Copland or Sibelius, or because it is inconsistent with some other theory of modernism. Insofar as it is possible to do so, he takes music as it comes, and is open to the possibility that any kind—even the atonal kind—can be good. Needless to say, criticism is judgment first and foremost, and part of what makes The Rest Is Noise compelling is the fact that so many of its critical judgments are convincing. Time and again Ross puts his finger unerringly on the pulse of a composer or a specific work, summing it up with the pithy brevity of a first-class journalist. No less striking is his willingness to engage with musical modernism as a part of the larger world of both culture and politics . . . Far more important, in my view, is his overall recognition of the need for contemporary composers to forge stylistic languages (if not a language) that will be accessible to the common listener. This theme, which permeates the pages of The Rest Is Noise, is first sounded in Ross’s discussion of the emergence just prior to World War I of the ‘New Viennese School’ of hermetic modernists led by Arnold Schoenberg . . . In The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross shows himself to be a surpassingly eloquent advocate for beauty, by any means necessary.”—Terry Teachout, Commentary

"As absorbing as a novel, as researched and erudite as the most academic tome, argued with the force and strength of an incisive essayist and deep thinker."—Daniel Felsenfeld, Symphony

"Readers of The New Yorker are already familiar with music critic Alex Ross's insightful writing and his ability to bring sounds and styles alive through erudite yet passionate consideration. The Rest Is Noise, his long-awaited tome on 20th-century music, is, not surprisingly, a brilliant, hugely enjoyable, cultural history viewed—and heard—through, as he puts it, 'the chaotic beauty' of music from this past chaotic century. Ross's title plays off Hamlet's last words, 'the rest is silence.' Twentieth-century classical music—'an untamed art, an unassimilated underground'—sounds, Ross notes, like noise to many listeners. Ross's aim is to break down the boundaries between intellectual and popular repertories, to show that neither musical language is more intrinsically modern than the other, and to illustrate the ways in which popular culture and 'classical music' have influenced each other. By creating a cultural history rather than a pure history of composers and their music, Ross shows how much of 20th-century music was inextricably linked to the times and places and events during which it was written and premiered. Luminaries making cameo appearances include Orson Welles, Hitler and Stalin . . . John F. Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, and Picasso. Two World Wars, the Cold War, Paris in the 20s, Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, the Avant Garde era of the 50s and 60s, and the century's end are some of the cultural and historical backdrops from which portraits of composers and their music emerge.  Some of the best set pieces in Ross's book occur when people from different worlds intermingle, often at a musical event, such as a 1906 performance of Strauss's opera 'Salome' in Graz, Austria . . . The audience included Mahler, Puccini (Strauss's main rival in the opera world), and Schoenberg with six of his pupils. Also in attendance, it is believed, was Adolph Hitler, who worshiped what he considered 'German' music.  In the 19th century, music, especially German music, was considered a sacred realm sufficient in itself, floating far above the ordinary world . . . Much of 20th century music, Ross believes, is a struggle to come to terms with the aftermath of Hitler's 'corrosive love of music.' The Holocaust, Ross points out, murdered entire schools of composition . . . From the postwar 'catastrophic style,' with its 'instinctive attraction to the dreadful and the dire,' ('Rite of Spring,' 'Wozzeck,' 'Peter Grimes,' 'Lulu'), Ross deftly analyzes a mind-boggling array of recent styles 'between the life of the mind and the noise of the street.' Today's composers, he concludes, 'may never match their popular counterparts in instant impact, but in the freedom of their solitude, they can communicate experiences of singular intensity.'"—Susan Miron, The Christian Science Monitor

“Ross writes so engagingly and evocatively that the tale flows, and the spirit of the music shines through.”—Fred Kaplan, Slate

“Just occasionally someone writes a book you’ve waited your life to read. Alex Ross’s enthralling history of twentieth-century music is, for me, one of those books.”—Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian (UK)

“In his stunning narrative, visionary music critic Alex Ross comes closer than anyone to describing the spellbinding sensations music provokes.”—Blair Tindall, Financial Times

“One of the great books of 2007 . . . A masterwork about an immensely important subject . . . Ross is revelatory on so many subjects—the Nazis and music, Stalin and music . . . There are times, in fact, when this exceptional history is jaw-dropping.”—The Buffalo News (Editor’s Choice)

“A towering accomplishment—an essential book for anyone trying to understand and appreciate one of the most fertile and explosive centuries in the history of classical music . . . A genuine page-turner . . . A fresh, eloquent, and superbly researched book.”—Kyle MacMillan, The Denver Post

“Deeply readable musical history . . . What distinguishes Noise is [Ross’s] ability to weave the century’s cataclysms into a single, compelling narrative . . . The book reads like a novel.”—David Stabler, The Oregonian

“Impressive . . . Mr. Ross has a gift for black humor, and his language is often colorful.”—Olin Chism, The Dallas Morning News

“Comprehensive, imaginatively wrought, insightfully informative, and vastly entertaining.”—Jed Distler, Gramophone

“Over the past decade, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross has established himself as one of our most talented practitioners of the art of the feuilleton, the popular journal piece. He thereby carries on a great tradition of musical writers including Hector Berlioz, Claude Debussy, and George Bernard Shaw. Now, for the first time, Ross has turned his feuilletonist’s sensibility to a longer form, the book, and he’s made a terrific debut on the big stage. The Rest Is Noise aspires to present ‘the 20th century heard through its music.’ The book is a series of sweeping set pieces, held together by recurring characters and themes—such as the promiscuous adventures of a few notes from Richard Strauss’s Salome that were nicked by several other composers. Each chapter tells the story of a period or train of thought and centers on the main composers of the time . . . The book tells a compelling, epic, and entirely human story. It’s a scholarly work, with a formidable train of endnotes, but it doesn’t read that way. Ross is the rare author who knows his stuff technically but can write about it for everybody. His prose is lucid and engaging, and he has a particular gift for conjuring the sound and effect of music. Often, he manages to be analytical and evocative at the same time . . . A splendid success, thorough and well researched, eminently readable, with a sense of storytelling hard to find in books of music history. Seven years into a new century, it’s time to start toting up the last one, and Alex Ross has proved himself the right person to provide some perspective on this ‘abundant, benighted’ era. He consistently connects classical music to the life of creators and of cultures, and so conveys as few writers do the human reality of the music. As Charles Ives put it, ‘Music is life.’”—Jan Swafford, Wilson Quarterly

"As quickly becomes clear, Ross's ambition in writing this book is neither to be a completist nor a music appreciator.  He aims to make a coherent narrative of the sprawling, violent, confused and confusing hundred years that propelled world history from cozy excesses of the waning Hapsburg Empire to the techno-revolution of California's Silicon Valley, and from Gustav Mahler to Terry Riley. Along the way, he writes extensively about Hitler, Stalin, FDR, John Kennedy, among other political figures. In the tradition of the cultural historian, Ross includes snippets of history, sociology, biography, philosophy, music theory, and literature . . . Ross gives us the story of 20th-century music—and it is nuanced, complex in its conception, and insightfully original. Moving chronologically and dramatically, the tale is not told but rather is shown through dramatic writing and subtle adjacencies of composers, aesthetic movements, political and social history, and discussions of the music. Few critics can evoke music as compellingly as Ross . . . Another of Ross's gifts as a writer is his ability to explicate musical theory for a literate but non-specialist readership. his cogent description of the whole-tone scale, in a discussion of Debussy's music, and his sensibly simple discussion of Stravinsky's turn from neo-classicism to a new kind of serialism are illuminating for any reader . . . the prose is bedizened with references from a rich variety of sources . . . Dramatic, erudite, and culturally expansive, this book makes fresh connections that narrate the story of 20th-century music in an original way. Ross has written an important work that I—and my students—will pick up, for pleasure, again and again."—Johanna Keller, Syracuse University, Chamber Music magazine

"The Rest Is Noise is one of those captivating cultural histories that manages both extensive sweep and engaging specificity, and it should come with a warning to readers that it might persuade them to quit their jobs in favor of sitting around listening to classical music for a year or two. (If you decide to do so, see Ross’s recommended recordings at the back of the book.)"—Radhika Jones, Bookforum

"As Alex Ross, the classical music critic of The New Yorker, writes in his superb narrative history, The Rest Is Noise, 20th-century music ‘still sends ripples of unease through concert audiences’ . . . When we encounter the works of György Ligeti, Hans Werner Henze, Witold Lutoslawski, or Olivier Messiaen—to name just four giants of 20th-cnetury music—we do not, alas, hear great music. We hear only noise. And we are all the poorer for it. How did it all go so very wrong? Why, over the course of the last century, did composers of classical music veer so sharply away from their audiences? Answering these questions, while illuminating the peculiar predicament of the composer in 20th-century culture, is Ross's project in this magisterial book. One could not hope for a better guide; his knowledge of both music and the historical forces that shaped it is deep and nuanced, and his descriptions of specific musical passages are rich and evocative, always employing the right metaphor or turn of phrase."—Sundip Bose, The American Scholar

"[The Rest Is Noise] demonstrates that it is impossible to understand the larger historical narrative of the last century—or of any century, for that matter—without its music. In other words, Ross's achievement is all the more astounding because it makes music essential to the understanding of history beyond the history of the music itself. And what could matter more than that?"—Jonathan Rabb, Opera News

"With perpetual grace and excitement, Ross reanimates music buried in history and super-obscure record stores, and allows us to feel just how contemporary it can be."—Kevin Berger, Salon

"This elegant book imparts to the music itself—that airy and elusive vibration—what so many critics cannot: three dimensions."—James Marcus, Newsday

"A narrative that embraces the contradictions that characterize so much about the century just past, both in life and in art."—Steve Hicken, The High Hat

"Perhaps the least combative and doctrinaire of American classical-music critics, The New Yorker's Alex Ross turns out to be a brilliant chronicler of the combative, often stiflingly doctrinaire 20th century."—Gavin Borchert, Seattle Weekly

"In The Rest is Noise . . . [Ross] does not simply catalog major figures and artistic highlights, but presents music as an exciting phenomenon vitally related to broader political and social developments . . . [He] grasps music on a profound, composerlike level."—Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"[Ross's] brave goal is nothing less than to bridge the gap between modern composers and listeners. In this task, he is almost phenomenally successful."—Timothy Mangan, Orange County Register

"Early into The Rest Is Noise, I felt like I was reading a book I had been waiting for all my life."—Juliet Waters, C-Ville

"Sweeping yet compulsively readable . . . Lucid technical descriptions illuminate the densest of pieces without dulling their inherently thorny nature."—Hank Shteamer, Time Out New York

"The best book on what music is about—really about—that you or I will ever own."—Alan Rich, LA Weekly

"Ross, the formidable New Yorker music critic, here takes a new approach to 20th-century music. Instead of putting music in the context of 20th-century history, he uses music as the context for history. Major historical events and composers of masterworks become the featured performers. For example, at the end of his discussion of Schoenberg, the author offers a brilliant comparison of the ends of Alban Berg's Wozzeck and Claude Debussy's Pélleas et Mélisande as representative depictions of orphans of the fin de siècle. Benjamin Britten gets the most sympathetic treatment of all in Ross's analysis of Peter Grimes. This is scholarship at its best—masterful and approachable. Ross provides new photographs and takes advantage of sources previously untapped for such discussions, e.g., Hitler's speeches and Goebbels' diary. This volume joins such classics as Charlie Rosen's The Classical Style and The Romantic Generation. Extensive bibliographic reference notes serve well."—J. P. Ambrose, emerita, University of Vermont, Choice

"There seems always to have been a ‘crisis of modern music,’ but by some insane miracle one person finds the way out. The impossibility of it gives me hope. Fast-forwarding through so many music-makers’ creative highs and lows in the company of Alex Ross’s incredibly nourishing book will rekindle anyone’s fire for music."—Björk

"Alex Ross has produced an introduction to twentieth-century music that is also an absorbing story of personalities and events that is also a history of modern cultural forms and styles that is also a study of social, political, and technological change. The Rest Is Noise is cultural history the way cultural history should be written: a single strong narrative operating on many levels at once."—Louis Menand, author of The Metaphysical Club

"You don't have to be an aficionado of modern music to love this book: Alex Ross’s extraordinary gifts as a writer, his deep knowledge of music, and his fresh forays into cultural history make The Rest is Noise a complete delight."—Jean Strouse, author of Morgan: American Financier

"The Rest Is Noise reads like a sprawling, intense novel, one of utopian dreams, doom, and consolation, with the most extraordinary cast of characters from music and history alike."—Osvaldo Golijov

"In words that are beautiful, passionate, witty, and utterly compelling, Alex Ross has written a true rarity—a book about music that makes you want to run and listen to every note he talks about."—Emanuel Ax
"A rare and successful weaving together of musical and cultural history, at once sweeping and accessible, written felicitously by a seasoned music critic at home in the history of the last century. An enticing and bold invitation to learn something of the great themes of the past century."—Fritz Stern, author of Five Germanys I Have Known

“With every page you turn, the story departs further from the old fairy tale of giants bestriding the earth and looks more like the twentieth century we remember, with fallible human beings reacting to, reflecting, and affecting with symbolic sounds a flux of conditions and events created by other fallible human beings. And turn the pages you do."—Richard Taruskin, author of the Oxford History of Western Music

"The music critic for The New Yorker tells the story of the 20th century through its music. Ross explores 'the cultural predicament of the composer,' tracking how the composer's role has changed from its privileged status in fin-de-siecle Europe, where people like Mahler were celebrated like rock stars, to the composer's current status, compromised by the advent of mass communication, the Great Depression, World War II and America's rise as a global superpower. The author is a careful historian aware of the pitfalls of conventional histories about music since 1900. He calls such histories 'teleological tales,' narratives under the shadow of Arnold Schoenberg—the German composer and champion of atonality—that myopically focus on a particular goal of the study of music history and omit that which doesn't fit into the achievement of that goal. Ross cites Jean Sibelius as an example, devoting an entire chapter to the troubled Finnish composer, whose music was acclaimed in his lifetime but has since been marginalized by historians who qualify him as a 'nationalist' composer, implying his music lacks universal resonance. Ironically, Ross notes, Sibelius has influenced contemporary composers perhaps more than Schoenberg. In choosing to eschew the convenience of these streamlined teleological tales, the author is faced with a complicated matrix of styles, ideas and personalities. But this is no plodding history. With his typically lyrical and attentive style, the author presents a lucid, often gripping story of a complex century. A must-read for those who have struggled with understanding modern music and a benchmark book that should eventually become a classic history of the 20th century."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Ross, the classical music critic for the New Yorker, leads a whirlwind tour from the Viennese premiere of Richard Strauss's Salome in 1906 to minimalist Steve Reich's downtown Manhattan apartment. The wide-ranging historical material is organized in thematic essays grounded in personalities and places, in a disarmingly comprehensive style reminiscent of historian Otto Friedrich. Thus, composers who led dramatic lives—such as Shostakovich's struggles under the Soviet regime—make for gripping reading, but Ross treats each composer with equal gravitas. The real strength of this study, however, lies in his detailed musical analysis, teasing out—in precise but readily accessible language—the notes that link Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story to Arnold Schoenberg's avant-garde compositions or hint at a connection between Sibelius and John Coltrane. Among the many notable passages, a close reading of Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes stands out for its masterful blend of artistic and biographical insight. Readers new to classical music will quickly seek out the recordings Ross recommends, especially the works by less prominent composers, and even avid fans will find themselves hearing familiar favorites with new ears."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



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The Rest Is Noise
Part I1900-1933I am ready, I feel free To cleave the ether on a novel flight, To novel spheres of pure activity.--GOETHE, FAUST, PART I((( 1 )))THE GOLDEN AGEStrauss, Mahler, and the Fin de Siècle 
When Richard Strauss conducted his opera Salome on May 16, 1906, in the Austrian city of Graz, several crowned heads of European music gathered to witness the event. The premiere of Salome had taken place in Dresden five months earlier, and word had got out that Strauss had created something beyond the pale--an ultra-dissonant biblical spectacle, based on a play by an
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  • Alex Ross on Music in New York City

    Alex Ross talks about the New York City music scene and how he developed his taste in classical and popular music.



  • Alex Ross

  • Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, is the recipient of numerous awards for his work, including two ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards for music criticism, a Holtzbrinck Fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin, a Fleck Fellowship from the Banff Centre, and a Letter of Distinction from the American Music Center for significant contributions to the field of contemporary music.
  • Alex Ross David Michalek
    Alex Ross