Serialism, atonalism, 12-tonalism, spectralism, minimalism, polytonalism, microtonalism, whole tonalism, tritones, open fifths, symphonies, sonatas, and music concrete. If you've ever wanted to understand classical music in the twentieth century, this book may be for you. Alex Ross introduces us to the wild world of twentieth and twenty-first century music--from Schoenberg's Harmoniolehre to John Adams's Harmoniolehre and Nixon in China. Along the way we have whole chapter divergences into the work of Jean Sibelius and Benjamin Britten.
I have to admit to not fully comprehending all that the book had to offer by way of commentary. Nevertheless, Ross opened my eyes to some of the developments within music and made me more inclined to try to understand and appreciate what had happened in this century. The book starts with Debussy, Ravel, Les Six, and Stravinsky and move chronologically through the century. Chapters cover "totalitarian music" including the music of Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, and let's face it, Roosevelt's America (a more gentle kind of totalitarianism thanks to the system of checks and balances.)
There are a few seeming problems with the book. Particularly in the latter half, Mr. Ross tends to be a little gossipy, telling me far more than I need to know about the sex-and-drug lives of composers. I don't really need that much detail to understand the development in the music. However, to his credit, I may need to know that much to understand the "meaning" of music. Additionally Mr. Ross leaves out some major composers entirely--there is hardly a mention of Holst, Elgar, and Vaughn Williams, and not mention at all of Rachmaninov, Bax, Arnold, Scriabin, and other such. However, that too is less a fault than a matter of focus. The undertaking represented by this work was difficult enough--if Mr. Ross had tried to take in more and explain where Elgar and Holst fit into the whole, the book may have fallen into an incoherent set of vignettes. As it is, the book trembles on the threshold, but always manages to retain integrity as a history of the development of musical theory during the twentieth century.
As a result of this, I came to understand why Ligeti, Pärt, Gorecki, Reich, Glass, Riley, and Adams are all so immediately appealing to me and why Stockhausen, Boulez, and Schoenberg are not. I came to have small arguments with the sometimes nonsensical aesthetic positions of the composers (most particularly Schoenberg and Boulez--"We've come to set music free from the tyranny of tonalism; however, we'll impose a new tyranny, so it isn't really free after all, but we'll say it is.")
It's a long work and an involved one, but anyone interested in music with a little understanding of theory has much to gain from making the attempt to understand it. It was fascinating to see Duke Ellington, Brian Eno, and the Velvet Underground (as well as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the whole be-bop ensemble) in conjunction with Schoenberg and the atonalists. Understanding the drone behind "All Tomorrow's Parties" can only help increase ones appreciate for the complexity of some music that appears to have none at all.
For those interested in music and its development, this is simply a must-read. Highly recommended.