I’ve been reading a fascinating book recently which I can recommend: The Rest Is Noise, by New Yorker music reviewer Alex Ross. It’s a history of music in the 20th century. It wouldn’t be suitable as a textbook for a music history class, since there are no musical notation examples (although he doesn’t shy away from describing polychords or complex modulations): it’s a book intended for general audiences. And it’s extremely well-written, and engaging.
Ross envisions the last century’s music as a web of human interactions and motivations. He peppers the text with fascinating anecdotes, such as the time Stravinsky went to a jazz club in New York, and Charlie Parker, who was playing, recognized him and inserted a phrase from The Firebird into the song he was playing. The interplay between popular music and classical music is extensively explored, from Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat to Gershwin to Philip Glass.
Ross provides a political backdrop to much of the musical development of the century. Aaron Copland’s homespun style, for example, was popular with the establishment in the 40’s because its folky appeal was a counterweight to the complex music preferred by the Nazi régime (Hitler, a music afficianado, loved the music of Wagner and Richard Strauss and was pretty receptive to atonality). But after the war, when the enemy du jour became the USSR, the American establishment moved their loyalty to the European avant-garde, who represented a freedom of artistic expression prohibited in Stalin’s Russia; and Copland, whose music now seemed suspiciously similar to the Communists’ ideal music of the proletariat, had an uncomfortable interview with Senator Joseph McCarthy.
I was kind of surprised to learn how much popular appeal modern music had in the early part of the century. In the movie Laura (1944), the investigator/protagonist catches a suspect saying he saw the symphony play a program of Bach and Brahms as an alibi. Aha, the detective exclaims, you didn’t know they replaced the program with an all-Sibelius concert — you can’t really have been there! I had always taken that line to be very off-the-wall, but evidently Sibelius was extremely popular in America at the time, and an all-Sibelius concert wouldn’t have been surprising. Similarly, when Shostakovich made a well-guarded visit to New York in 1949, demonstrators surrounded his hotel with signs encouraging him to “jump through the window” (i.e. defect).
Stravinsky, Poulenc, Strauss, Weill, and even Schönberg had huge followings, evidently (Ross dismisses the famous demonstration at the première of Le Sacre du Printemps as an everyday occurrence in Paris), and their concerts were well-attended and endlessly discussed in newspapers as well as salons. The ivory tower mentality of composers who didn’t care whether anyone understood their music didn’t come until Boulez and the whole Darmstadt school in the 1950s.
Choral music only makes an occasional appearance in the book, mostly in large orchestral works such as Symphony of Psalms. In part this is undoubtedly because a professional music reviewer gets paid to go to every performance of the symphony and opera but only occasionally would show up at a choral concert, but it’s a reality that choral music wasn’t really all that important in 20th-century music.
Although there are no musical examples in the book, Ross provides hundreds of MP3 examples on his website so you can listen to the pieces he’s describing. Also, by the way, a good half of the text is available on Google Books, although it would be tiresome to read it all online.