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Telling Tales on Musical Genius

Benjamin Skipp

Alex Ross
The Rest Is Noise
Fourth Estate, 2008
624 pages
ISBN 978-1841154756

Oliver Sacks
Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
Picador, 2007
400 pages
ISBN 978-0330418379


The identification of the musical moment when a fissure appeared between the Romantic and the Modern is a constant source of historical debate. For many, the harmonically ambiguous chord at the beginning of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde reflects the breakdown of bourgeois social codes, while for others modernism’s first steps are better represented by the unbounded flute solo which begins Debussy’s Prélude à L’après-midi d’un Faune. Alex Ross chooses to initiate his sweeping history of twentieth century music with the Austrian premiere of Strauss’s Salome at Graz in 1906. Certainly he has good reason to: within its luxuriant folds of orchestration the opera seems to contain both the final remnants of the glorious ‘Teutonic’ tradition—of Beethoven, Liszt, and Wagner—and the seeds of a revolutionary order where strangeness began to overtake beauty as the guiding spirit of composition. Indeed, Salome can be described as both anarchic and cacophonous, in contrast to the carefully ordered rituals of opera-going which does not escape Ross’s attention. After experiencing the opera, Kaiser Wilhelm II is reported to have commented of Strauss that ‘normally I’m very keen on him, but this is going to do him a lot of damage’. The monarch, in politics as in matters of art, was proven somewhat na√Øve, for the opera’s reception was such that the work arguably coloured a whole generation of musical innovators whose significance was to stretch to the end of the twentieth century.

So begins a history whose purpose is to encounter every significant, and many insignificant, moments of twentieth century music. No character is deemed too small in the telling, no musical style considered inconsequential. As a result there is something almost histrionic, rather than historic, in Ross’s claim to capture the repertoire of the last century in its entirety. This is not to denigrate his accomplishment, as few writers outside the academic arena have tackled what is, musically, a multifarious century of extremes. Ross should be applauded for attempting a history that is arguably beyond the limits of a single volume. But it is somewhat inevitable that charting every cultural movement within a period that experienced rapid social and economic changes will result in a somewhat blurred account. The danger is that, without the space to differentiate carefully between the truly important trends and the mere flashes, we are subject to a sensory overload in which the vibrancy of events thwarts a discernable teleology.

Nevertheless, Ross does achieve a convincing, if somewhat unbalanced, three-part division of the twentieth century: the first section covers European modernism from 1900 to 1933; the second runs from 1933 to 1945 across Russia, America, and Germany; and the third embraces all national styles from 1945 to 2000. The least satisfying of the three is the final section, which, as so often is the case with contemporary music criticism, becomes an encyclopaedic list of composers, mentioning many styles but dissecting few.

The middle section of the book, where Ross discusses the relationship between political and cultural despotism, is the most persuasive, partly due to the fact that he gives more space and time to developing his theses. Modernism, like the political regimes that characterise the first half of the twentieth century, is conceived as the final, terrible flowering of the Enlightenment project, but one incompatible with the stifling cultural policies of Nazism and Stalinism. Clearly Ross’s decision to begin his tale of modernist music in the decaying glamour of fin-de-siècle Vienna accords convincingly with his thesis that national socialism signalled the ‘death fugue’ of European music. Here was a system that could not permit music to continue on its path to chaos, for in doing so, it would have undermined the belief in the power of order. The strength of the collective too would have been breached if Schoenberg and the other lone celebrities of modernism had been heralded as individual geniuses.

There was space for only a single dignitary in Nazi Europe, and he had ears exclusively for Wagner. Indeed, one of the more surprising elements that materialises in Ross’s reading is the constant presence of Adolf Hitler, not only as a historical figure—possibly present at the Graz performance of Salome and definitely there at the Bayreuth festival—but also as a shadow cast across the entire canon of Western art music. Looking back over the twentieth century, Ross almost suggests that the negative reception that classical music currently experiences is partly the due retribution for an art form that courted the attention of history’s most evil bogeyman.

To the cynical onlooker, orchestras and operas houses are stuck in a museum culture, playing to a dwindling cohort of aging subscribers and would-be elitists who take satisfaction from technically expert if soulless renditions of Hitler’s favourite works.

The implication here is of classical music’s perfect suitability as an agent of social stagnation, preventing radical innovation and maintaining class hierarchy. In keeping with Ross’s agenda, which is left unsaid but clearly sensed throughout, it is seen as imperative that music save itself from reactionary forces epitomised most obviously by Nazi policy but also to an extent by our current form of bourgeois ‘museum culture’.

Assuredly, Ross’s history is dazzling, not only in the vastness of the subject matter, but also in the energy of the prose, which skips around from one performance to the next, across continents and time periods almost with impunity. However like any bright light stared at for long enough, The Rest is Noise begins to cause something of an almost migrainous pain. Music critic for The New Yorker, Ross clearly belongs in a journalistic milieu whereby palatability trumps depth and intricacy. The rush to include as many composers as possible leads him to reduce these highly complex characters to a glib list of adjectives so that Mahler (‘childlike, heaven-storming despotic, despairing’), Schoenberg (‘sharp-witted, widely cultured, easily unimpressed’), and Berg (‘a debonair, handsome man, self-effacing and ironic’) lose their individuality under a barrage of cliché. Similarly, the rapaciousness of Ross’s interest in non-musical art forms leads occasionally to wild simplifications of both music and visual art, as in his under-developed notion that Rauschenberg and Reich can be termed unequivocal adherents of ‘Pop Art’. Most saddening from a scholarly perspective is the absence of any notated musical example. It should not be expected that everyone who reads The Rest is Noise can interpret notation, but for the majority who can, musical examples could have served as evidence for Ross’s deductions, strengthening his prose rather than creating a distraction as the publishers must have foreseen. One might interpret this as indicative of a writer whose own voice, cutting stridently across the twentieth century, cannot resist talking over the music.


The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, a book about Oliver Sacks’s experiences as a consultant neurologist, provided the inspiration for Michael Nyman’s 1986 opera of the same name. It seems particularly apt that Nyman’s music should be repetitive, obsessive, and seemingly devoid of rational development, given that Sacks’s book shows how the human mind regularly operates in similarly illogical ways. Sacks’s latest book continues his exploration of the connection between anomalies in the neurological condition and the manifold experiences that listening to music generates. Musicophilia is essentially a collection of medical notes, a re-telling of various real-life experiences in which a malfunction in the subject’s brain is accompanied by an alteration in their attitude to music. Results range from an increase in the ability to aurally memorise complex and lengthy passages of music, to the discovery of a synesthetic ability to visualise colour or smell with certain intervals to, in some unfortunate examples, the onset of convulsions at the sound of a particular tune. Incredibly, these neurological symptoms are not limited to those who consider themselves particularly ‘musical’, but often affect people who have had no, or very little, training and exposure to a formal musical education.

The most extraordinary history is of a male subject—Dr. Cicoria—who, previous to being stuck by lighting, had no musical gifts at all. He enjoyed some rock music, but remained unmoved by the classical repertoire. Something in the near-death experience of being electrocuted sparked an obsession for piano music, particularly for Vladimir Ashkenazy’s recordings of Chopin’s works, which resulted in many hours of repeated playings and practice. Dr. Cicoria’s personality underwent severe alteration too, from being an ‘easygoing, genial family man’, he became a figure ‘inspired, even possessed, by music’, believing he had been ‘saved’ for the higher purpose of developing his ‘gift’.

As fascinating as these stories are, the number of anecdotes that Sacks includes becomes tiresome. The lack of any kind of narrative across what is essentially an almanac of neurological curiosities means that the book is perfect for dabbling in, but frustrating when read from cover to cover. From a clinical perspective, Musicophilia is deliberately not a technical book and, thankfully for those uninitiated in the language of statistics and cerebral scans, the author has the happy ability to translate highly specialised neurological discussions into transparent prose. Indeed, at times Sacks’s endeavour to simplify medical information results in his own language bordering on the gratingly colloquial. In the same way that Ross resists the inclusion of musical examples, so Sacks shares a reticence to provide any scientific data. The anecdotal nature of his collection requires the incessant use of the first person throughout, which by itself creates an ambiguity of tone. Musicophilia is neither comfortable as an academic work nor characterful enough to be convincing as a personal memoir. Just as Sacks’s individual voice remains submerged beneath anodyne prose, so the patients linger as anonymous figures, displaying little interest to the reader beyond the peculiar gift they demonstrate. As a result, it is a struggle to be involved in the human side of the personalities beyond raising an eyebrow at some especially bizarre condition.

Perhaps it is most exasperating that Sacks does not show an inclination to be more scientific when it comes to the music itself. The question of why it is that Chopin should be the composer with whom Dr. Cicoria becomes obsessed is never broached. Is it, one wonders, because Chopin’s music sounds improvisatory, flouting formal constraints, and thus continually suggestive of new, imaginary horizons? Or is it something about Chopin’s peculiar handling of the piano’s rich sonorities that inspired Cicoria to practice so obsessively? Could it even have been a narcissistic desire to be like Vladimir Ashkenazy, to inhabit the role of the virtuoso? Sacks could have been more exploratory through his writing, reducing the number of patients discussed and spending more time on the music that inspired them.


What is clear from a joint consideration of these extensive books is the presence of a form of antinomy in the way music is understood. Through his excessive contextualisation of musical works alongside contemporary developments in philosophy, visual art, literature, and politics, Ross underlines the manufactured nature of music. The canon is a collection of artefacts constructed in the image of their particular zeitgeist, be that artistic, urban, or ethnological. Made by human hand, works are dependent on the mediation of composers who, grounded without choice in their social environment, cannot but compose in the way they do. Musical compositions, in Ross’s world, do not simple float down from the sky. As Ross claims in his introduction, his subject is not just music but the ‘politicians, dictators, millionaire patrons, and CEOs who tried to control what music was written.’ It is a noble thing, according to our scientific principles, to explain music in this way—that is, to prove that good music is dependent on its historicity, its ability to speak for a community in time and the repressions they battled.

Conversely, Sacks’s stories of people with inexplicable musical abilities only highlight the innateness of music. This is admittedly not an attitude currently in favour within a society that prefers to overlook difference in pursuit of egalitarianism, but if Sacks tells us anything, it is that creativity operates for reasons as yet unknown, strongly felt by some and not at all by others. Those in power tell us that music should be available for all and, as proof, every society in the world has its own music through which its members’ identity is partly constructed. It seems a falsehood, however, to claim that within those societies every member has an equal ability to compose, perform, and appreciate music, even as this recognition may seem to go against our anti-elitist values. Is it too cynical a view to suggest that the characters that make up Sacks’s study would inspire enraged jealousy if their genius were not portrayed as the counterbalance to some neurological fault? This trend has presented itself most notably in the recent past with the emergence of the not unreasonable idea that Mozart suffered from Asperger syndrome. In this way, his prodigious talent is not only explained but justified by his foul mouth and scatological sense of humour (according to the sources). In Beethoven’s reception there is an even greater sense of justice in the fact that, being profoundly deaf towards the end of his life, his music was in some way a reward for battling against adversity. In our era of supposed meritocracy, it is easier to swallow the pill of unearned musical genius when it is accompanied by a good dose of perceived heroism or disability.

The questions of defining what we recognise as musicality and where we locate genius stem from the paradoxical situation where music operates both as an object (a score, a recording) that exists with a high degree of autonomy, and as a temporal experience that only comes into being through the perception of the listener. Conceptions of musicality and genius are therefore based on an uncomfortable mixture of two sets of criteria: an objective criteria based on knowable facts such as the work’s formal structure and its historical context; and, secondly, an interpretative criteria based on the feelings the music evokes in the listener. In the music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the two criteria seemingly coalesced: Bach’s music, for example, is both fascinating to analyse structurally and highly affecting in performance. At some point, however, the two criteria diverged so that a composer like Schoenberg, whose music is distinctly discordant and unsettling, is heralded a genius for his quasi-scientific grasp of structure, while Rachmaninov, whose music exhibits a looser form, remains beloved for his emotional warmth. The twentieth century is endlessly exciting for this particular reason—it was perhaps the first time that the conviction of a composer was all that was required to stand as the purpose for a work of art, in place of the previous intention of communicating an objective idea to a wide audience. As a consequence, the century has become infamous for the gradual loss of a consensus as to what constitutes musical beauty, even of rationality’s disappearance altogether from in aesthetic judgements.

The Rest is Noise and Musicophilia have something to say to all who love music, but individually they present somewhat unfinished impressions of what a musicological discipline could be. They are, if anything, rather apologetic, with Ross’s dissolution of music into a web of culture, and Sacks’s portrayal of music as a divine illness. But ‘discipline’ implies a sense of struggling to control excessive desires, in this instance the desire to discuss music purely in terms of emotional content and the temptation to reduce its almost mystical elements to graphs and facts. Musical composition equally needs to be assessed as evidence for a disciplined mind, with the term ‘genius’ used sparingly for the rare figure who creates works of art that touch both our objective faculties and our heartstrings. To ignore one or the other is not only to misrepresent music, but implies a denial of an integral aspect of being human.