Alex Ross’s new book. ‘Listen to This’, has been languishing on the floor by my bed since it dropped through my letterbox from Amazon a week or so ago. With an hour’s commute to work in prospect yesterday, I put the book in my briefcase, and read the first chapter on the way to Notting Hill, and the chapter on Schubert (‘Great Soul’) on the way back. I hardly noticed the commute – in either direction….
I did not read Ross’s previous book. ‘The Rest is Noise’, though I expect I will one day (too many books, not enough time – just like the piano repertoire!). I have read various articles by him, as well as the text of his Royal Phiharmonic Society Lecture, given at the Wigmore earlier this year (download the text here).
Alex Ross is no musicologist, nor is he a dry, ‘old school’ music critic, but his breadth of knowledge is clearly very wide, covering not just the world of classical music, but also that of jazz, rock and pop. His writing is lively and erudite, and his engaging style piqued my interest from the very first line. The opening chapter debunks much of the mythology and traditions of Classical music, reminding us that concert conventions took a rather “anything goes” attitude until the mid- to late-19th century, when concert-goers and promoters took it upon themselves to impose a more formal etiquette on classical concerts, demanding reverential silence and no applauding between movements, a convention that continues to this day (he expands on this subject at length in his RPS lecture).
Likewise, the chapter on Schubert also attempts to unravel some of the traditionally-held views, and urban legends surrounding this composer (Was he homosexual? Did he have syphilis? Should we care?), reminding us of Schubert’s deep love of poetry, his ability to spin the agony (and ecstasy) of his desire in his extraordinary melodies and harmonic shifts, and his prolific output. The subject is sensitively handled by a writer who clearly loves this composer’s music. As Ross says, “[Schubert’s] music is another thing altogether. Its presence – its immediacy – is tremendous…..he could play the entire gamut of emotion as one ambiguous chord, dissolving differences between agony and joy……There were no limits whatsoever to his musical imagination.”
The book is a collection of essays, which makes it easy to dip into, and I am looking forward to grazing my way through it over the weekend. It would make an excellent Christmas gift for anyone with an interest in music and culture.