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Classical Notes

Classical Notes: October 31, 2007 Archive

Alex Ross--The Skinny

Posted at 3:50 PM on October 31, 2007 by Rex Levang

Keen interest continues to build around Alex Ross's new book--certainly on the part of yours truly, and also the New York Times, who put it on the front page of last Sunday's Book Review.*

(His book tour brings him to the Fitz next week, with the Turtle Island String Quartet.)

But I shouldn't assume that everyone is equally immersed in this--so a few quick basics.

Ross is the classical critic for The New Yorker, carrying on ably the magazine's tradition of engaging music writing, even for those who don’t necessarily consider themselves aficionados. He's also a wry and prolific blogger.

His new book, "The Rest Is Noise," has been described as twentieth-century history, seen through the lens of classical music. Fair enough, as long as you know that the music is at the forefront, and the history is the backdrop. Still, I doubt if there's ever been a book on music with such prominence given to Hitler or Stalin, or gay politics, or nuclear weapons.

(Or to the mundane human side of famous composers. Who knew? Messiaen had a sweet tooth. One of Schoenberg's neighbors was Shirley Temple. John Adams used to live in the headquarters of a former marijuana farm.)

The opening anecdote is a good suggestion of the book's wide-ranging scope: "In the spring of 1928, George Gershwin, the creator of 'Rhapsody in Blue,' toured Europe and met the leading composers of the day. In Vienna, he called at the home of Alban Berg, whose blood-soaked, dissonant, sublimely dark opera 'Wozzeck' had had its premiere in Berlin three years earlier. To welcome his America visitor, Berg arranged for a string quartet to perform his Lyric Suite, in which Viennese lyricism was refined into something like a dangerous narcotic.

Gershwin then went to the piano to play some of his songs. He hesitated. Berg's work had left him awestruck. Was his own piece worthy of these murky, opulent surroundings? Berg looked at him sternly and said, 'Mr. Gershwin, music is music.' "

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