When the 20th century began, classical music was popular culture—as New Yorker music critic Alex Ross points out in his new book, Viennese cab drivers used to spot composer/conductor Gustav Mahler on one of his daily strolls and note to their fares, “Der Mahler.” By century’s end, the two most famous composers still under the marginalized “classical” rubric, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, had spent time driving taxis to make ends meet, and certainly neither would be recognized on the street by the average hack. Tracking that change, and how it happened, is but one small part of Ross’ achievement with his formidable but eminently readable history of 20th-century composition.
The book traces the lives of composers and their works from the dawn of the modern musical era up through the upheavals brought about by atonality pioneer Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples and on into the mid-century, where the artistic sniping between the old guard and the avant-garde was for a time brushed aside by fascism and Soviet totalitarianism, which twisted and destroyed music and music-makers alike. Along the way, Ross pauses for fascinating peeks into the lives of the likes of Mahler, Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, and Benjamin Britten, and delves into key compositions with musicological depth as well as a fan’s contagious enthusiasm. (Ross’ accounts are sure to spike sales of pieces such as Strauss’ savage opera Salome.)
The waning of classical music’s wider significance is woven into the book’s narrative itself: The purist avant-garde pointedly left listeners behind while more emollient contemporary composers had trouble competing against both the aging classic repertoire and the rise of television, rock ‘n’ roll, and other mass-culture movements. Indeed, if the book has any flaw, it’s that Ross doesn’t devote enough time and attention to what “classical music” is today, sprinting through the explosive expansion and change of the last 40 years of the century in less than a hundred pages. That said, this story isn’t over, and the generally excellent job Ross does here recommends him for the follow-up.