Beauty Amid the Discord: Music in the 20th Century

Alex Ross

hide captionAlex Ross weaves a tale of the 20th century through its music in his new book, The Rest Is Noise.

Photo: David Michalek

20th Century Classics

Hear some of Alex Ross' top picks of the 20th century.

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  • "Farben"
  • Album: Five Pieces for Orchestra
  • Artist: Arnold Schoenberg
  • Label: Deutsche Grammophon
  • Released: 1987
 
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  • "Sacrificial Dance"
  • Album: The Rite of Spring
  • Artist: Igor Stravinsky
  • Label: Sony
  • Released: 1969
 
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  • "Section VI"
  • Album: Music for 18 Musicians
  • Artist: Steve Reich & Ensemble Modern
  • Label: Nonesuch
  • Released: 2007
 
Arnold Schoenberg (self portrait)

hide captionArnold Schoenberg (Self-Portrait, 1910) pioneered atonal music in the first decade of the 20th century.

(Image by permission of Belmont Music Publishers)

Apart from a few popular composers who wrote memorable melodies — Copland, Gershwin, Debussy — the music of the 20th century is still viewed with a surprising amount of skepticism.

In his new book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross wonders why paintings by modernists such as Jackson Pollock sell for millions while challenging pieces of music, from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring onward, still make many listeners uneasy.

In his book, Ross explores the richness of music in the 20th century, explains how it evolved from the late romantic formulas, and sets the century's great composers within their vibrant, and sometimes violent, social and artistic terrain.

Ross is best known for his insightful music criticism in The New Yorker. He recently spoke with Robert Siegel about his new book, as well as the lingering reputation of 20th-century music as "difficult listening."

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The Rite of Spring

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  • Album: The Rite of Spring
  • Artist: Igor Stravinsky
  • Label: SONY
  • Released: 1988
 

Sibelius: Symphonies 4-7

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  • Album: Sibelius: Symphonies 4-7
  • Artist: Herbert Von Karajan
  • Label: Deutsche Grammophon
  • Released: 1999
 

Music for 18 Musicians

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  • Album: Music for 18 Musicians
  • Artist: Steve Reich
  • Label: Nonesuch
  • Released: 2006
 

Quartet for the End of Time

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  • Album: Quartet for the End of Time
  • Artist: Olivier Messiaen
  • Label: DELOS
  • Released: 1986
 

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