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In Memory of Richard Taruskin, a Writer Who Made You Care About 1,000 Years of Music: Deceptive Cadence: NPR | Pro Club Bd

UC Berkeley Professor Richard Taruskin, whose 4000-page book The Oxford History of Western Music set a standard for writing about the history of classical music.

San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst N/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty


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San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst N/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty


UC Berkeley Professor Richard Taruskin, whose 4000-page book The Oxford History of Western Music set a standard for writing about the history of classical music.

San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst N/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty

Almost two decades ago, just prior to the release of his 4,000-page opus magnum, The Oxford History of Western Music, polarizing American musicologist Richard Taruskin agreed to do a very lengthy interview with NPR about the very long history of Western music. Taruskin, who died earlier this month at the age of 77 in Oakland, California, was notoriously prickly, but his work was also hugely important – it has been described as “turning conventional classical music history on its head”.

Taruskin’s reputation accompanied him in this 2004 interview performance today Host Fred Kind. The author was known for sending inflammatory letters to critics, but those of us producing a short five-part radio series were pleasantly surprised to find him as tame as a kitten. Behind the mic he was generous with his time, unperturbed by any question whether it was a softball he could knock out of the park with his mastery of music history or a hard-hitting confrontation of his sometimes radical ideas.

I thought of that moment as I read Taruskin’s obituaries. in the The New York TimesCritic Alex Ross is quoted as calling him “the most important living author of classical music” while Tim Page was writing in it the washington post, characterized him as “a musicologist and historian of great influence and spectacular fecundity”.

At the end one can discuss the superlatives he vaunts and his rebellious positions on everything from historically ‘authentic’ performances of early music to composers such as Elliott Carter, Sergei Prokofiev and John Adams. But the most important thing about Taruskin is that he got you to debate in the first place. He got you interested in classical music, an art form that had already been marginalized in American culture by the time his massive book was published in 2005.

Listen to one of the following interviews, first broadcast in late 2004, and you’ll get a glimpse of the knowledge Taruskin had at his disposal at the size of the Grand Canyon, spanning 1000 years of music history. He firmly believed that no music, no composer, can be separated from his socio-political circumstances and that our view of the past is always clouded through the lens of the present.

Singing & Early Church Music

“That’s where our story begins, but that’s not where the music begins.”

From the outset, Taruskin makes an important point in documenting a millennium of music history: its development is not linear. There is no perfectly clean horizontal timeline to follow. And the historical record is not a complete representation of the music of any given moment. A good example can be found in what we call “early music”. Just because Gregorian chant was the first style of music to be written down doesn’t mean that other, more sophisticated music didn’t exist at the same time or even before. There may have been secular four-part harmony songs in the ninth century, Taruskin says, but it would probably have sounded different than what we learn in school today. “But there was something like harmony and something like accompanying melody,” he adds. “There is no doubt about that.”

The Class of 1685

“What we hear is a pale reflection of what Handel’s audience heard.”

One of Taruskin’s most controversial positions is his criticism of the practice of performing early music on period instruments (or copies thereof) in order to present a so-called “historically authentic” performance. Taruskin doesn’t think that’s possible – especially when it comes to reviving baroque operas by George Frideric Handel and others, in which virtuoso castrati (castrated men) appeared in the leading roles. “I think what we’re hearing [today] is a pale reflection of what Handel’s audience heard,” says Taruskin, “and for that reason I could never take a serious interest in the revival of baroque opera.”

nationalism in music

“We never look absolutely straight at a historical figure, do we?”

Looking at the 19th century, Taruskin points out that music and composers cannot be separated from their national and political circumstances. He outlines the trend of nationalism in music, which he believes is a reaction to the dominance of Germanic music. As more and more composers from France, Spain, Russia and Slavic countries began to write music connected to their homeland, Taruskin said nationalism had become fashionable. “It’s paradoxical to put it that way,” he says, “but nationalism was a universal feature of European music. All countries valued their unique qualities and tried to bring them to the fore in their art.”

America between the wars

“America does not have a single ethnic makeup.”

What is American Classical Music? Is there a so-called great American symphony or opera? “America doesn’t have a single ethnic makeup,” says Taruskin. When Czech composer Antonín Dvořák came to the States in 1894, he challenged American composers to look to their own Black and Native American music to create a truly American sound. “It was well-intentioned advice, but I don’t think it was good advice,” argues Taruskin. “So the American composers who were contemporaneous with Dvořák found it quite strange that they were asked to write in a style that did not correspond to their own ethnic style. You see, you could say to put on blackface or wear feathers. That’s how they would take Dvořák’s advice.”

The 20th and 21st centuries

“Our story ends as it must. Right in the middle of things.”

Another example of what made Taruskin controversial was that he appeared to shoot at composers, even very lively ones like John Adams, with whom he once had an argument in the press about Adam’s opera The death of Klinghoffer.

Here Taruskin talks about the influences that governments, propaganda and the Cold War had on composers and the challenging music they wrote. The atonal music of Arnold Schönberg in the early 20th century, he believes, could not be co-opted into any agenda, “and so in the minds of many it became a sort of symbol of genuine freedom.” For Taruskin, on the other hand, a composer like Adams represents someone who with his news-driven operas like “responding to a consumer demand”. Nixons in China and dr atomic. But that doesn’t mean, adds Taruskin, that Adams and others are “decreasing their integrity as composers.”

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