The imperiously genius music historian Richard Taruskin, who died on July 1 at the age of seventy-seven, brought together several qualities rarely found in one person. He was, first of all, incredibly knowledgeable about his chosen field. His near-total mastery of classical music history and practice spawned The Oxford History of Western Music, a five-volume, forty-three hundred-page juggernaut, which Taruskin published in 2005. with the same the bravery of Gregorian chant, polyphonic masses, baroque concertos and Russian opera rested not only on deep learning, but also on deep musicality. A Queens native and graduate of the High School of Music & Art, Taruskin played the viola da gamba for many years in New York’s early music scene. as a choir director, he made fascinating recordings of Renaissance repertoire with the New York group Cappella Nova. Later, on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley, he moved away from performance, but a fundamental musicality animated everything he wrote.
People with an encyclopedic mind are often paralyzed by the amount of what they know. Taruskin could step back from the mass of facts and pull them together into moving lines of thought. As the musicologist William Robin noted, in a Time Obituary, the defining thesis of Taruskin’s career was his insistence that music cannot be detached from social reality and confined to an autonomous sphere. Today, with art discussion heavily politicized, the point may seem trivial, but Taruskin had grown up in a different time, one in which formalist aesthetics prevailed. Classical music was considered a “kingdom”. . . not of this world”, in the words of arch-romantic author ETA Hoffmann. In this barely extinguished view, timeless masterpieces float above the mud, communing with each other through time.
In attacking this paradigm, Taruskin chose as one of his main battlefields the work of Igor Stravinsky, who once proclaimed that “music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express what whether it be a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. The “etc.” may be assumed to contain politics. Taruskin’s two-volume treatise Stravinsky and Russian Traditions, from 1996, showed that once the composer became a bulwark of Western modernism, he downplayed his ties to the traditions in question, especially his huge debt to his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky. Korsakov. Taruskin’s initial interest in Russian music was in itself a gesture of defiance, as the field had been considered a musicological backwater. The Germanic bias of the instrumental canon was Taruskin’s main bogeyman; he resisted the idea that Bach and Beethoven are “universal” in appeal while Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov are merely national. He liked to quote an ironic comment from political scientist Stanley Hoffmann: “There are universal values, and they happen to be mine.
Taruskin was by no means the only scholar of his generation to challenge the declining norms of classical music discourse. In a similar vein, Lydia Goehr analyzed the canon as a constructed museum and Susan McClary drew attention to gender, sexuality and race. Indeed, McClary’s approach was more radical and, these days, has become more influential. If Taruskin confronted German chauvinism in concert culture, McClary went further, questioning the male chauvinism that underpinned the whole structure. The change she helped bring about is evident in recent efforts to incorporate the likes of Fanny Mendelssohn and Florence Price into the repertoire.
What ultimately made Taruskin a singular phenomenon – and, in my opinion, the most formidable modern writer on music – was not what he wrote but how he wrote it. He had a fluid and captivating style, seamlessly blending the literary and the conversational, the meticulous and the evocative. Even when her prose dives into technical thickets, she keeps moving forward. In a section of the “History of Oxford”, he uses Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor to evoke the vast expanse of improvised music that has gone unrecorded over the centuries. Another of his recurring themes was the defense of virtuoso display against snobby rebuke, and he relished the opportunity to harness the sublime Mozart to his cause:
In Taruskin’s writings, too, scholarship and journalism were one. When he perused the pages of the Timethe New Republicor the classical music magazine Opushe needed no substantial change in his stylistic gears, although a more streetwise voice would come into play. scariest” music.
Taruskin also had a penchant for invective, which he exercised freely. Sometimes it was deserved, as when he devastated Solomon Volkov’s “Testimony”, the so-called memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, or the urban legend of Tchaikovsky’s suicide. In other cases, Taruskin got lost. In 1996, he launched a bizarre assault on twelve-tone composer Donald Martino, calling his music both “arcane” and “simplistic”. If the composer had been a widely acclaimed colossus, Taruskin’s use of hyper-amplified Time pulpit might have been justified; but Martino was nothing of the sort, and the harangue had an intimidating bark. Taruskin’s polemics against John Adams’ opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” were even more troubling. In an article published shortly after the September 11 attacks, he accused Adams of “romanticizing terrorists” and playing on “anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-bourgeois” biases. When, in 2014, the Met staged “Klinghoffer,” the production was greeted by a reactionary, proto-Trumpian protest rally starring Rudolph Giuliani. I was appalled, but not surprised, to hear one of the speakers mention Taruskin’s name.
He loved stirring up controversy – little Time critics could never elicit so many letters of protest to the editor, but he also spent an inordinate amount of time bickering with his opponents. Later he collected his journalistic and scholarly essays in a series of volumes for the University of California Press: “The Danger of Music”, “On Russian Music”, “Russian Music at Home and Abroad” and “Cursed Questions “. – and the bickering dragged on in the postscripts, sometimes longer than the articles themselves. In the case of the “Klinghoffer” imbroglio, Taruskin protested that, although he accused Adams of restoration to anti-Semitism, he hadn’t accused the composer of being anti-Semitic per se – just the kind of snoopy evasion he would have lambasted in someone else’s writing.
If egocentrism sometimes got the better of him, his main achievements – “Oxford History”, “Stravinsky and Russian Traditions” and the collections of essays “Musorgsky”, “Defining Russia Musically” and “Text and Act”, the latest a biting overview of the field of early music – which still dominates literature. Even the rants document the urgency he brought to every discussion. An underlying program of Taruskin’s work was his desire to convince lay readers that music mattered– not in a timeless fairy-tale kingdom, but in the strained lives of people in the 20th and 21st centuries. He made it clear that something huge and vital was at stake. His assaults would have caused less of a stir in the battlefields of literature, art, or film; it was only in the religious atmosphere of classical music that they constituted a scandal. Taruskin’s refusal to speak in a low voice was salutary.
At this point, I seem to hear Taruskin say, “How long are you going to keep this God’s voice routine going, Alex?” Fair enough: I’ve known Richard for nearly thirty years and idolized him from the start of my own critical career. Indeed, his articles for the Time and the New Republic in the late 80s and early 90s got me interested in the idea of writing about music for a living. I imitated him, as best as I could. He noticed me and sent me a postcard.
Most of Richard’s obituaries mentioned postcards – brief notes he sent to colleagues and critics. Later came quick emails, from an intermittently hacked AOL account. I have a considerable collection of these Taruskin-grams, which have identified instances of puffiness, cant, cliche, and freewheeling in my work. In 1995 I completed a Time article on wartime recordings by Richard Strauss with the following: “It may be wishful thinking, but the terrible anguish that arises in 1944’s ‘Death and Transfiguration’ – is it, perhaps, remorse?” A few days later the postcard arrived: “Dear Alex, Wishful? U-bet. And not just at the end. All the best Richard T. My first instinct has always been to bristle, although on reflection I often realized he was right, or at least not wrong. Certainly, he was right about Strauss’s remorseless rendition of “Death and Transfiguration.”