| The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is an incredibly good book by the music critic for the New Yorker magazine, Alex Ross. In “serious” or classical music, the 20th century was a period of uproar, just like it was in history, with two world wars, a great depression, and some of the vilest “leaders” in history. Alex Ross shows us how history affected and reflected music during these turbulent times. His stories of Gershwin, Mahler, Stravinsky, Ellington, Schoenberg, and others come alive. When Igor Stravinsky’s great work the Rite of Spring premiered in Paris, it was so different, so “edgy,” that it almost caused a riot. More than just learning about music, and the innovations of, relations between, and controversies around the composers, the reader really feels like he or she is reliving this historic epoch. Music in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and FDR’s America each get a chapter, and you realize how politics and sounds were inseparable.
It is rare to find a well-written book that tells great stories but also links our world together, makes sense of it. This is one of those books. One friend of mine spent thousands of dollars just buying all the music discussed in this book. It will never sound the same once you understand the full story behind the music, the human passion and historic circumstances of its creation. The book recently came out in paperback.