The Rest Is Noise | Alex Ross

Summary of: The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
By: Alex Ross


Embark on a fascinating exploration of the tumultuous and transformative power of music during the twentieth century with our summary of Alex Ross’s ‘The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.’ Discover the profound influence of classical giants such as Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler on a new generation of daring composers constantly pushing the limits of tonality and harmony. Immerse yourself in the world of Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, and other avant-garde artists who defied expectations and shaped the music landscape as we know it today. Amidst political upheavals, changing tastes, and global conflicts, witness how classical music evolved and intertwined with other art forms and genres, giving birth to a rich legacy that continues to inspire and innovate.

The Legacy of Wagner

At the turn of the twentieth century, Richard Wagner’s influence over music was pervasive, and his grandiose operas still captivated European audiences. His impact was so profound that the next wave of composers, including Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, grew up under his influence. However, this new generation of composers sought to challenge Wagner’s dominance with new and different styles of music. Strauss, in particular, pioneered a new direction in music with Salome, which incorporated dissonances and unconventional harmonies that were sometimes deemed disturbing. Strauss’s work signaled a new epoch in music, one defined by creative exploration and a rejection of the past.

Mahler, Strauss, and the Battle for Viennese Music

Mahler and Strauss were friends, but their competitive drive caused strains in their relationship. While Mahler was impressed with Salome, his friend Strauss was envious of Mahler’s status as a popular composer. However, what excited young composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg was not necessarily what appealed to the general public. Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, which premiered in Essen, pushed boundaries with competing musical themes that merged and culminated in an explosive final chord. While Strauss found the symphony to be “over-instrumented,” it solidified Mahler’s status as an exciting artist within the Second Viennese School of classical music.

Schoenberg’s Sonic Revolution

In early 1900s Vienna, Arnold Schoenberg pioneered a musical movement that embraced atonality, taking dissonance further from traditional tonality and melody. Troubles in his personal life and the influences of his disciples Anton Webern and Alban Berg propelled him into a prolific period of early atonal works that culminated in a scandalous concert featuring a particularly grinding dissonant chord which caused a commotion amongst the audience. Despite the backlash, Schoenberg remained committed to his revolutionary style.

Stravinsky: Bold Innovator of Classical Music

Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky gained fame in the early 1900s with his melding of Russian folk traditions and French influences. Portable sound recording equipment introduced city-based composers to the music of different societies around the world, and Stravinsky’s use of complex rhythmic patterns and dissonance in compositions like The Firebird and The Rite of Spring cemented his status as a forward-thinking composer. The Rite of Spring’s debut caused uproar from some audience members, but Stravinsky’s standing ovations set him apart from contemporaries like Schoenberg.

The Impact of World War I on Classical Music

After World War I, classical music underwent a transformation. Composers and listeners alike were eager for a new sound that had no ties to the past and was free of any associations that may have been tainted by the war. In Paris, a group of composers called Les Six emerged, who were influenced by the early avant-garde stylings of Eric Satie and the new aggressive music of Stravinsky. They shunned the grandiosity embraced by previous generations, and a new type of music that incorporated American jazz and classical influences began to emerge. Moreover, amidst changing musical trends, there was a push towards formalism, which would have a long-lasting influence. The war brought forth a reckoning and forever changed the evolution of classical music.

American Classical Music

Discover the story of American classical music and its struggle to emerge from the shadow of its European counterpart. Despite the preference for homegrown music, American composers like Charles Ives created strong work in a European-dominated profession. Some composers, like George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, blurred the line between opera and musical theater, while others, like Duke Ellington, successfully blended jazz and classical music. American classical music continues to evolve, proving that it can be just as sophisticated as its European counterpart.

The Politics of Music

After the chaos of World War I, the Weimar Republic in Germany struggled to stabilize and the music scene reflected this political turmoil. Composers were divided between creating accessible “music of use” and pushing boundaries with formalism and atonal dissonance. Kurt Weill stood out as a composer who sought to make music simpler, clearer, and more transparent. However, the twelve-tone form of composing, which used every note before any repetition, became a primary influence on classical music from the 1930s onward.

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