The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker, was published October 16. Itâ€™s been eagerly anticipated by a lot of new music fans, because Ross is an insightful, thoughtful critic with broad enthusiasms, and heâ€™s a fine stylist. During a recent trip to a local bookstore to pick up a copy, a clerk lit up like a sparkler when asked about the book: "It's selling so fast we can hardly keep it in stock!â€ Another clerk overheard the conversation and rushed over: "This is the most amazing book! I started reading it two nights ago, and itâ€™s like a thriller -- I canâ€™t put it down. It made me want to run out and listen to Webern!"
Reading just the first chapter made me understand the clerks' excitement. It describes the Austrian premiere of Richard Strauss' Salome in Graz, six months after its world premiere in Dresden. Word about the opera had spread, and just about everyone in the Austrian musical world and beyond was there, including Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Gustav and Alma Mahler, the widow of "the Waltz King," Johann Strauss II, Alexander Zemlinsky, Giacomo Puccini, and Adolf Hitler! Ross does a terrific job of establishing the opera in a musical, literary, political and sociological context, â€¦ but hang on -- I've got to run out and listen to Salome.