I’m almost reluctant to even talk about Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, which is a history of twentieth century classical music. Because the problem is that the book is excellent in ways I can’t do justice to.
Basically, what Ross does is take you through the history of the twentieth century from a musical perspective. So you start off in cozy, fussy Vienna at the turn of the century; then move to the excitement of Paris in the ‘20s; the jazz age in America; the chaos of the Weimar Republic; the totalitarianism of the Nazis and Stalin; post-WW2 avant garde-ism in all its forms; and finally into the syncretism of the present day.
And as he does this, he’s giving you at once an in-depth, detailed overview of how all this music evolved, how different periods relate to and influenced each other; and a broad cultural history, of the sort that makes twentieth-century history feel vivid and real by capturing the spirit and feel of the times in a way that you can maybe only do by looking at music.
If you have any interest at all in the twentieth century or classical music, you must read this book.