Alex Ross is the music critic for the New Yorker and here, over the course of 600 or so pages, he leads us through the story of classical music in the 20th century. Beginning with the premier of Strauss's Salome in 1906, Ross covers the decadence of the Twenties and the depression of the Thirties before considering music under the tyrannies of Hitler and Stalin and the post-war avant garde.
As someone who knows little about classical music I was fascinated by Ross's narrative. His enthusiasm for his subject is clear and infectious. As a writer myself I was impressed by his skill. He describes so many works and composers and yet manages to keep his descriptions fresh and engaging.
The pre-war sections are the most interesting, perhaps because there's a lot more to tell. Classical music slipped out of the mainstream after the war with the rise of popular culture and that's reflected on the page. The post-war years are dealt with in just a third of the book.
Though the jacket claims that Ross covers "music, from The Rite of Spring to the Velvet Underground", the book isn't about popular music at all. One chapter nods towards jazz, or at least Duke Ellington, and the Velvet Underground receive about two pages.
Ross deals with each style of music or school of thought by focusing on one composer. This is a good idea but its success depends on the composer chosen. I found that the chapter on Benjamin Britten dragged but I was more interested than I expected to be in Jean Sibelius and Charles Ives.
Although the book is organised chronologically, Ross frequently jumps backwards or forwards in time to make connections elsewhere. It's an effective technique and one that mirrors the music Ross describes.
However, while the writing is good, the editing is shocking. The book is littered with typos: avant-garde is spelled "avant-grade" on at least three occasions and grandiose appears as "grandoise". Another page has Ross saying that "the Berlin Wall was broached in 1989..." instead of breached, one assumes.
Worse are embarrassingly bad sentences such as this one: "Three years before he was born, Transylvania became part of Romania, and Ligeti went to study at the conservatory in Cluj..."
I read the book in hardback so perhaps someone has fixed those howlers for the paperback edition. As it is they undermine the seriousness of an otherwise exemplary exercise in criticism.