Anyone who has ever gamely tried and failed to absorb, enjoy, and--especially--understand the complex works of Schoenberg, Mahler, Strauss, or even Philip Glass will allow themselves a wry smile reading New Yorker music critic Alex Ross's outstanding The Rest Is Noise. Not only does Ross manage to give historical, biographical, and social context to 20th-century pieces both major and minor, he brings the scores alive in language that's accessible and dramatic.
Take Ross's description of Schoenberg's Second Quartet, "in which he hesitates at a crossroads, contemplating various paths forming in front of him. The first movement, written the previous year, still uses a fairly conventional late-Romantic language. The second movement, by contrast, is a hallucinatory Scherzo, unlike any other music at the time. It contains fragments of the folk song 'Ach, du lieber Augustin'--the same tune that held Freudian significance for Mahler. For Schoenberg, the song seems to represent a bygone world disintegrating; the crucial line is 'Alles ist hin' (all is lost). The movement ends in a fearsome sequence of four-note figures, which are made up of fourths separated by a tritone. In them may be discerned traces of the bifurcated scale that begins Salome. But there is no longer a sense of tonalities colliding. Instead, the very concept of a chord is dissolving into a matrix of intervals."
Armed with such a detailed aural roadmap, even a troglodyte--or a heavy metal fan--can explore these pivotal works anew. But it's not all crashing cymbals, honking tubas, and somber Germans stroking their chins. Ross also presents the human dramas (affairs, wars, etc.) behind these sweeping compositions while managing, against the odds, to discuss C-major triads, pentatonic scales, and B-flat dominant sevenths without making our eyes glaze over. And he draws a direct link between the Beatles and Sibelius. It's no surprise that the New York Times named The Rest Is Noise one of the 10 Best Books of 2007. Music nerds have found their most articulate valedictorian. --Kim Hughes