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Great Quotes from Modern Composers

- May 4, 2008

bq. In the spring of 1928, George Gershwin, the creator of Rhapsody in Blue, toured Europe and met the leading composers of the day. In Vienna, he called at the home of Alban Berg, whose blood-soaked, dissonant, sublimely dark opera Wozzeck had had its premiere in Berlin three years earlier. To welcome his American visitor, Berg arranged for a string quartet to perform his Lyric Suite, in which Viennese lyricism was refined into something like a dangerous narcotic.

bq. Gershwin then went to the piano to play some of his songs. He hesitated. Berg’s work had left him awestruck. Were his own pieces worthy of these murky, opulent surroundings? Berg looked at him sternly and said, “Mr. Gershwin, music is music.”

That is the opening of The Rest Is Noise, a fascinating history of modernism in music by Alex Ross, classical music critic of the New Yorker. (The book’s website, including a blog, is here; buy the book here.) It nicely links the musical trends and movements to political events, particularly in Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. (Lenin on music: “I can’t listen to music too often. It affects your nerves, makes you want to say stupid nice things, and strike the heads of people who could create such beauty while living in this vile hell.”)

Somehow, Ross seemed never to repeat himself in describing musical works in shorthand. I wanted to listen to every work he described.

Below are some quotes from composers of the period. You can test yourself by matching the person to the quote. Answers are below the fold.

1. If it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.
2. I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise.
3. The symphony must be like the world. It must be all-embracing.
4. All music turns out to be ethnic music.
5. Repetition is a form of change.

a) Steven Reich
b) Schoenberg
c) Brian Eno
d) Gershwin
e) Mahler

1. b
2. d
3. e
4. a
5. c