best book I wish I’d had in college

I’m just one chapter into Alex Ross‘ magnum opus (so far) The Rest is Noise (Listening to the Twentieth Century). I’m loving it so far, and have learned several things so far that I never knew, but should have at least been aware of, specifically that Strauss’ Salome was not premiered in Vienna, but in Graz, and that Adolf Hitler may have been in attendance at the premiere. I was also not aware of the amount of interaction between Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. My bad! Alex’s good!

By Charles Noble

I'm the Assistant principal violist of the Oregon Symphony.

2 replies on “best book I wish I’d had in college”

I agree completely. I had also missed the significance in both music history and literature for the “Salome” premiere in Graz when I did an undergraduate thesis on Weber’s influence on Adorno and Mann’s “Zauberberg” and “Doktor Faustus.”

I’m just starting the chapter on Sibelius, delighted that it parallels Salonen’s retrospective of all of the Sibelius symphonies and numerous other works at Disney Hall. I enjoyed the “New Yorker” extract.

I have been impressed throughout Ross’s book not only because of his beautiful insights into aesthetic life that remind me of Musil or Proust but, more importantly, because of his enveloping empathy.

Because Ross understands who he’s writing about and is more generous with his empathy than all but the best music critics, you wind up trusting what he says about events and works of music you’re not familiar with. His “New Yorker” articles over the years were very readable intellectual and social history, so I ordered the book as soon as it appeared.

I would rank this book on a par with Jed Perl’s “New Art City” for deep and incisive thinking about something we thought we all knew what we needed to know — and now know there are a lot more challenges to experience and delights to rejoice in. I’m also impressed by how Ross keeps control over his material, which is wide-ranging geographically and musically; it’s rare that a long book wishes it had been even longer because of the respect one has for his judgments and especially the clarity and even beauty of his writing.

If you’re not a composer (and I’m glad a critical study privileges composers over star performers), you can learn the trade by reading a man who can compose starlight and sunshine in words. Steven Stucky’s new work, “Radical Light,” draws on a poem by A.R. Ammons that reads:

He held radical light
in his skull: music
turned, as
over ridges immanences of evening light
rise, turned
back over furrows of his brain
into the dark, shuddered,
shot out again
in long swaying furls of sound.

When a writer can make his words sound as music, he’s really worth reading in a world where we’re sometimes faced by noisy writing that fails to communicate a love of anything. Ross knows how to love, and how to excite his readers into that same kind of ecstasy.

I’m reminded a lot of A.N. Wilson’s Jesus: A Life in the sense of wonder and (as you describe it) empathy in Ross’ account – also of Jan Swafford’s biography of Brahms, in how literary his history reads.

Thanks for dropping by!

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