I didn’t know how much I needed this book until I began reading it. I realise now that there was an enormous gap in my musical knowledge which Alex Ross’ brilliant study has helped to fill. By the end, he won me over to his central argument that “at the beginning of the 21st century, the impulse to pit classical music against pop culture no longer makes intellectual or emotional sense“.

One of the main strengths of the book is that Ross does not write from an elitist perspective. He is all too aware of the negative popular perception of classical music which means that it is “widely mocked as a stuck-up, sissified, intrinsically un-American pursuit“. At the same time he doesn’t argue that self appointed musical experts are always right : “Mainstream audiences may lag behind the intellectual classes in appreciating the more adventurous composers, but sometimes they are quicker to perceive the value of music that the politicians of style fail to comprehend“. It is this open minded, even handed approach that makes his description of  100 years of ‘difficult music’ so illuminating.

In saying this, yours truly found the occasional technical descriptions of how the music works baffling. For instance, as a non-reader of music, I am none the wiser when Ross writes that in a sequence Britten’s ‘Peter Grimes’ “…we are hurled across the tritone into the E-flat minor tonality of the second interlude“. I’m also not sure I could recognise the 12-tone music Schoenberg invented.

Thankfully, this ignorance on my part didn’t spoil my overall reading pleasure since for the most part Ross writes of the wider effects and philosophies behind the sounds.  This book is, after all, the story of “cultural predicament of the composer in the 20th century” rather than an analysis of musical form.

It is a story which takes us from Richard Strauss’ ‘Salome’ in 1906 up to the music of modern composers like John Cage, Steve Reich and John Adams.  Not surprisngly, Stravinksy comes out as probably the most towering figure of the century’s music, a composer who “prophesised a new type of popular art – lowdown yet sophisticated, smartly savage, style and muscle intertwined“, he is as vital to the understanding of modern music as Picasso is to an understanding of the modern art.

The musical journey inevitably takes us to the dark period of Hitler and the world wars. Here Ross doesn’t romanticise his subjects or put artists onto pedestals . He writes:  “The automatic equation of radical style with liberal politics and of conservative style with reactionary politics is a historical myth that does little justice to an agonizingly ambiguous historical reality“.

The story of classical music is in many ways a story of survival given that it often seems remote and even irrelevant to contemporary life. As Ross shows, it hasn’t yet fallen victim to what he calls the “ravenous consumer culture” which constantly craves newness. It is the crossover between the old and new which ensures the continuing relevance of ‘serious’ music.

Ross’ eloquent conclusion is therefore optimistic: ” as the behemoth of mass culture breaks up into a melee of subcultures and niche markets, as the internet weakens the media’s stranglehold on cultural distribution, there is reason to think that classical music, and with it new music, can find fresh audiences in far-flung places“.

This is a fantastic book and one which has opened my ears up to music I had previously dismissed and made me realise that to fully appreciate the music of the present you have to step back into the past.

More about the book, including audio samples, can be found at Alex Ross’ website.