Taruskin: The Oxford History of Western Music
reviewed by Michael Schell

The Oxford History of Western Music
Richard Taruskin
Oxford University Press
5 volumes, published 2010
Buy at Amazon.com

Music history courses have been a standard part of college-level music instruction in the West for several generations. With good teachers it really is fascinating to learn how a great tradition of cultivated music emerged from Gregorian chant and evolved through “the classics” into the cauldron of the 20th century. Indeed many of the fondest memories of my own university days in the 1980s are of encountering various old and obscure musics for the first time. I have less fond memories, though, of the kind of music history textbooks we had back then. Dry in style, reticent in tone, filled with names and dates, they treated their subject matter in a kind of vacuum, focusing mainly on formal and stylistic details with little examination of how the prevailing social, political and ecological milieu of an era might have conditioned the type of music launched into it. And then there’s the question of scope: our textbooks fixated on what the mass media call “classical music”, with scant coverage of folk music, non-Western music and the commercial music which in our own day has become preponderate worldwide. Most of the interesting learning experiences came in the lecture rooms, listening labs and discussion groups. There was little reason to actually sit down and read a standard music history textbook for pleasure…until now.

Though Taruskin, too, focuses almost exclusively on Western art music (henceforth “WAM”) in his multi-volume tome, I’m happy to report that he vastly improves on his predecessors in the other aforementioned respects. If you love this music and have the wherewithal to undertake a pretty intensive 3000+ page journey—or if you suffered through a dull music history curriculum at school and want to reengage with that subject on your own terms (and without pressure of time or grades)—then I encourage you to dive into this remarkable and fascinating work. It’s an entertaining read, often speculative, sometimes maddening, but invariably a far cry from those dull academic tracts that festoon their chapters with bland summary points and review questions, delivering all the excitement of a Soviet election.

Throughout these five volumes, Taruskin’s narrative is driven by a handful of key arguments summarized in an Introduction that’s reprinted at the start of each book:

  1. That WAM is, and always has been, an elitist tradition
  2. That major changes in this tradition seldom happen arbitrarily, but reflect the contingencies of the broader society, specifically that part of society whence come the aforementioned elites. Plenty of authors explore the theme of social and technological change as a background for musical change, but Taruskin is more insightful than most. You’ll read about how the political alliance between Frankish and Papal authorities led to the first notations of Gregorian chant, and how the bloody English reformation impacted both Catholic and Protestant music-making in Britain. Taruskin cautions against “confusing causes or purposes with enabling conditions”, and his view of the chain of musical causality is that “certain conditions make a development, say the art of the Meistersinger, possible” rather than inevitable. This is prudent guidance, but in the process Taruskin ends up understating the ability of music and other cultivated arts to anticipate social changes—and not just react to them—in ways that allow innovators in politics, science, engineering, etc. to think this or that new thought. He also has a propensity to cross from scholarship to conjecture on the topic, as with his frequent indictment of musicians for supporting nefarious political interests (Taruskin’s zeal is particularly sharp when these involve anti-Semitism or German nationalism). But despite these indiscretions, Taruskin’s willingness to take risks in engaging this topic is much of what makes the Oxford History of Western Music such an compelling read
  3. Most salient of all is Taruskin’s insistence that WAM is, above all else, a literate tradition, distinguished from other musics by being disseminated chiefly through notation—in other words through the writing of music. Reflecting on the invention of the staff around 1028, Taruskin declares that “the notion of a piece of music could only arise when music began to be thought of in terms of an actual piece of paper or parchment”. And Taruskin attributes the allegedly tenuous social standing of contemporary art music in our times to the transition to postliteracy that he feels is now underway. This transition, driven largely by modern technology, is postulated to mark the terminal stage of WAM itself

That WAM is essentially an elitist tradition is unassailable, though as an unabashed elitist and meritocrat I consider that a feature not a bug. I find Taruskin’s idea of “writing” as the chief differentiator of WAM to be captivating but somewhat overplayed (WAM is also distinguished from vernacular traditions by the way that it evolves and intersects with the rest of society). As for his prediction about WAM’s imminent demise, I reject this bit of musical dispensationalism and believe that WAM will continue to live and evolve. But I do feel that the next revolution in the art form, perhaps one that’s already perceptible, will be more of an epistemological one (indeed the first such revolution since WAM’s origins) than an ontological one of the kind that deliniate the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern and Postmodern periods from their predecessors (c.f. Physics and Philosophy about the epistemology/ontology dichotomy, which Heisenberg applied to the physical sciences but which can also apply to the cultivated Western arts). Viewed from this perspective, Taruskin’s notion of postliterate music culture, minus the doom-mongering, is a useful concept. Regardless of how you feel about Taruskin’s “three theses” though, they do form a coherent framework that propels and contextualizes his writing in a way that keeps it dynamic and interesting over 69 ambitious chapters.

Several more modest themes recur as well:

  • Female composers, and their historical struggles and marginalization, are highlighted in each volume. Special attention is given to Hildegard von Bingen, the underappreciated Barbara Strozzi, and the more familiar Fanny Mendelssohn and Amy Beach. But Ruth Crawford, clearly the most important female composer of the modernist period, is slighted in favor of Lili Boulanger (tragically short-lived and probably of less historical impact than her sister Nadia). And more recent figures of such prominence as Thea Musgrave and Pauline Oliveros go unmentioned
  • Certain stylistic traits, such as tonality, diatonicism, cadences and dynamic curves, are shown to be present in WAM from its very beginnings, becoming ensconced by the Late Middle Ages and remaining unchallenged until the 20th century
  • As noted above, the sordid history of European anti-Semitism provides ample grist for Taruskin. Wagner and Nazi Germany present obvious topics, as do Mendelssohn, Mahler and Schoenberg, and all are covered within the broader theme of the interrelationship between music history and social history. Less expected, and sometimes head-scratching, are Taruskin’s digressions about anti-Semitism in the Victimae Paschali Laudes sequence, in Neidhardt’s songs and in Bach’s sacred music

You will not always agree with Taruskin. In real life he’s notorious as both a prolific superbrain and an acerbic polemicist, kind of an academic counterpart to superstar athletes who are also inveterate trash-talkers. Opinions that Taruskin has taken as a critic often imbue his narrative as a historian, and it’s probably best to approach this series as an engaged history rather than as an objective survey. Also, be warned that some musicians or compositions that you admire may be ignored or marginalized. Taruskin admits that in order to focus on “why and how things happened as they did…a lot of famous music, and even some famous composers, go unmentioned in these pages”. Among the latter are Pierre de la Rue, Gibbons, Charpentier and Clementi. Among the former are Obrecht’s Missa Maria Zart and Wagner’s Parsifal. Sibelius gets the briefest of citations, and British neo-romantics like Vaughan Williams are missing entirely despite their prominence in Anglocentric CD catalogs. Fans of Theodor Adorno will not appreciate the way that Taruskin trashes him and his influence. And although Taruskin often excels at drawing chains of enablement between sociopolitical factors and musical changes, he’s less adept at finding isomorphisms between musical developments and innovations in other contemporaneous intellectual pursuits. There’s no connection drawn between Renaissance polyphony and vanishing-point perspective, for example, nor between atonality and abstract painting, nor between indeterminacy in postmodern music and “limit of knowledge” concepts in modern physics and mathematics. Taruskin has a bizarre perspective on musical modernism, claiming among other things that the “real 20th century begins” not with Debussy, Pierrot Lunaire or The Rite, but with 1920s neo-classicism. And as far as his take on post-WW2 music goes…well that will warrant its own critique later.

As I mentioned earlier, despite the appellation “Oxford History of Western Music”, Taruskin himself admits that “Western music here means what it has always meant in general academic histories: it means what is usually called art music or classical music”. Folk and commercial traditions are relegated to the margins. Despite this, Taruskin seems a reluctant elitist. He draws on Marxist and revisionist thinkers like Hobsbawn and Walser (and to an extent on art sociologists like Becker) to characterize WAM as an “invented tradition”, a variation on the “Emperor’s new clothes” argument that Taruskin deploys against targets that he regards as overrated (these include Elliott Carter and even Josquin and Beethoven). However deplorable such dips in the caustic waters of conspiracy mongering might be, they not all that far removed from the better argued and less cynical contentions of Polanyi and others regarding the way that sharing of conviction through institutions of culture (including recital halls and conservatories) and communal rituals (such as concerts and academic conferences) can foster a kind of group loyalty among artists and intellectuals. It's also hard to argue with Taruskin’s assertion that through the agents of modern media and technology, the “dominance of the academic curriculum [in music] is in an irreversible process of decline”. Nevertheless Taruskin, whether in his scholarly books or in his less considered remarks as a critic, is no orthodox Marxist, but promulgates an odd (and not always coherent) mix of cultural populism, analytical Marxism, anti-authoritarianism, capitalist apologetics, musical conservatism and, perhaps, Cold War era xenophobia.

The first two volumes of the series are the most solid and interesting. Taruskin’s training is mainly in early music (among other things, he played viola da gamba in the Nonesuch Consort under Joshua Rifkin), and his chapters on medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music are filled with affectionate analysis of paradigmatic compositions from those eras. Indeed the presence of so many pages of printed music and analysis of actual pieces is in welcome contrast to typical music history books. Taruskin’s third volume, on Romantic music, is, while still insightful, not as consistently good as its predecessors, trying a bit too hard at times to find something…anything…new to say about the 19th century’s familiar warhorses. The two volumes on 20th century music, while offering many unique perspectives on particular works and composers, grow increasingly disfigured by Taruskin’s prejudices against complex and atonal music to the point that by the time the fifth volume gets going, it’s more of a polemical essay on postmodern music than a legitimate history text. I’ll have more to say on these topics as I review the individual volumes, but despite these criticisms this the most enjoyable and thought-provoking of any work I’ve read that purports to canvass the history of WAM. Whatever else he is, Taruskin is a conversant and stimulating writer who is not afraid to go out on a rhetorical limb.

Boulez, Maderna, Stockhausen
Richard Taruskin

Now for a couple of practical points:

  • These are fairly technical books ostensibly intended for use by music students at the collegiate or graduate level. They’re well-suited for independent reading too, but to keep up you’ll need to be familiar with music-making in general and WAM in particular. Knowing how to read music is essential, as is familiarity with Western musical terminology and instruments. This doesn’t mean that you have to be a professional—if you’ve played in a high school orchestra, for example, then I think you’ll be adequately prepared even if you’ve had no further training or experience. It also helps if you have some basic knowledge of European history from about 800 onwards, and you should also be familiar with Christianity in general and Roman Catholic ritual practice in particular
  • Regarding the physical quality of the books, my paperback copies have held up well over a few years of use, but some reviewers have reported deteriorating bindings, so caveat emptor there. The photographic reproductions in my copies are of disappointing quality: black and white only, and the paintings in particular tend to look like cheap photocopies
  • Actually listening to the quoted compositions is something of a challenge for independent readers. Many of Taruskin’s musical examples come from well-known pieces that you can often hear for free on YouTube. But other cited works are hard to find, especially if you don’t have access to a formidable music library, and a handful are even completely lacking in downloadable recordings (at least as of this writing). The publisher has CDs and MP3 files for sale that accompany the “College Edition”, a single-volume paraphrase of Taruskin’s series put together by Christopher Gibbs. But the music quoted in the College Edition doesn’t always match what’s in Taruskin’s full edition. In a university setting, of course, you’ll go to the library and put on headphones, or perform or listen to the quoted excerpts in class. But the rest of us will have to spend a lot of time at the keyboard, or else a lot of time (and money) locating recordings of hundreds of compositions. If you have a collector’s love for this kind of endeavor, it can actually be quite fun, but for others it could be a burden and a chore

At the end of the day, though, it’s worth it. Because this is an exciting and provocative work, as intriguing in its insights as it is stunning in its scope. The sheer audacity of its realization by a single author is itself impressive, and though I often find Taruskin’s polemics infuriating and even incoherent, I never find them boring. Canvassing these books, cherishing their many musical examples, spending hours on supplemental listening and reading, I'm reliving the feelings of awe and exhilaration that marked my first immersion in music history. It's like coming back to a first love who hasn't aged at all.

- First published May 2016

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