The "About" page on this blog says that it's "Books and music, mostly." So what could be more appropriate here than a book about music? I don't actually read very many of those, and maybe I should. This one was certainly worthwhile, to say the least. Only the fact that I don't have anything to compare it to keeps me from saying that it's essential for anyone interested in modern classical music. On second thought, I'll say that anyway, with the proviso that I'm not saying it's the only essential.
Subtitled "Listening to the Twentieth Century," and published early in this century, it's a comprehensive and judicious account of the wild journey of music over the past hundred-and-some years. It's the story of both the music itself and those who composed it, in roughly equal parts history and musicology (or, as Peter Schickele used to say "musicalology"). It begins with Richard Strauss conducting Salome in 1906. Not the premiere, which had happened some months earlier, but a performance in Graz (Austria) which was attended by Mahler (and his wife, who certainly had some significance in music), Schoenberg, Berg--and, surprisingly, Puccini.
Within a few pages Ross has sketched the scene, the personalities, and the cultural situation, then delved into the work itself, from overview to musical details. It's done with great skill and clarity. The two paragraphs of musical exposition take you very quickly from a couple of fundamental concepts (the octave, the fifth, the fourth, the third) to something fairly subtle:
The first notes on the clarinet are simply a rising scale, but it is split down the middle: the first half belongs to C-sharp major, the second to G major. This is an unsettling opening for several reasons. First, the notes C-sharp and G are separated by the interval known as the tritone, a half-step narrower than the perfect fifth.... This interval has long caused uneasy vibrations in human ears....
And if you don't have the ear and the training to grasp that, and don't have a recording of Salome handy, there's a web site accompanying the book which has audio excerpts illustrating many (or all?) of the musical examples considered in detail in the text. (Click here to hear the music described above.)
Ross is a vivid, clear, and personable writer--qualities which are by no means inextricably associated with music criticism. You feel like you're listening to a very good teacher, the sort who knows his subject deeply and can communicate it effectively.
And he has another quality which I value in anyone who opines about music: openness. He seems to have no strong stake in the argument between modernist and anti-modernist camps about the viability of the traditional system of Western music, taking the music on its own terms.
Sometimes I suspect the reality of the music under discussion may not have very good terms of its own--as, for instance, the apparently respectful reference to "R. Murray Schafer's radical music-theater cycle Patria, which can only be performed in the forests and lakes of the Canadian north." I admit to being slightly curious about that. But better to err in the direction of openness than the opposite.
My acquaintance with 20th century music is scattershot (well, so is my acquaintance with almost everything). This book has given me some helpful guidance as to where I might want to direct my attention.