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-siècle 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.