Richard Taruskin, vigorously polemical musicologist, dies aged 77

Richard Taruskin, vigorously polemical musicologist, dies aged 77 | Pro Club Bd

Richard Taruskin, a pre-eminent musicologist and public intellectual whose polemical scholarship and criticism upended conventional classical music history, died early Friday in Oakland, California. He was 77 years old.

His death in a hospital was caused by cancer of the esophagus, his wife Cathy Roebuck Taruskin said.

Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley and a specialist in Russian music, Mr. Taruskin was the author of a number of seminal musicological studies, including the comprehensive six-volume Oxford History of Western Music. He was also a contributor to The New York Times, where his trenchant, witty, and erudite writings represented a bygone era when debates about the meaning of classical music held mainstream relevance.

“He was the most important living author of classical music, be it in academia or in journalism,” Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, said in a recent interview. “He knew everything, his ideas were strong and he wrote with a dashing style.”

At a time when the classical canon was considered sacrosanct, Mr. Taruskin’s philosophy was that it was a product of political forces. His Bête noire was the widespread notion that Beethoven’s symphonies and Bach’s cantatas could be extracted from their historical context. He sharply criticized this notion of ‘music itself’ which, he wrote, ‘represents a decontaminated space in which music can be composed, performed and listened to in a cultural and historical vacuum, ie in complete sterility’.

Recognition…Oxford University Press

His words were anything but sterile: Mr. Taruskin solicited controversy in almost everything he wrote. In the late 1980s, he helped ignite the so-called “Shostakovich Wars” by proving the veracity of “Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov” (1979), which portrayed the composer as a secret dissident. (Mr. Volkov is a journalist, historian, and musicologist.) Drawing on careful debunking by scholar Laurel Fay, Mr. Taruskin called the book’s positive reception “the biggest critical scandal I’ve ever witnessed.”

In a controversial 2001 Times article, Mr. Taruskin defended the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s cancellation of a performance of excerpts from John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer after September 11 of that year, arguing that the opera romanticized terrorism and contained anti-Semitic caricatures. Even if he advocated the censorship criticized by some, he underlined a central part of his worldview: that music was not neutral and that the concert hall was inseparable from society.

“Art is not blameless,” he wrote. “Art can do harm.” (His writing can do harm, too; Adams countered that the column was “an ugly personal attack and an appeal to the worst kind of neoconservatism.”)

Mr. Taruskin’s most momentous flamethrower was his campaign against the movement for “historically authentic” performances of early music. In a series of essays, summarized in his 1995 book Text and Act, he argued that the use of historical instruments and techniques was a consequence of contemporary taste. He didn’t want conductors like Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Roger Norrington to stop performing; he just wanted them to drop the pretense of “authenticity.” And many did.

“To be the true voice of one’s time is (as Shaw might have said) about 40,000 times more important and important than the assumed voice of history,” he wrote in The Times in 1990. “To be the medium of expression of one’s own time is – obvious, no? – a far more worthy goal than historical veracity. After all, what is truthfulness other than correctness? And correctness is the most wretched of all virtues. It’s something that needs to be asked of students, not artists.”

Mr. Taruskin had an uncompromising approach to intellectual combat, and once compared a fellow scholar’s championing of a Renaissance philosopher to Henry Kissinger’s defense of oppression in Tiananmen Square. He has been accused of constructing simple straw men and lacking empathy for his historical themes. After a 1991 broadside from Mr Taruskin alleging that Sergei Prokofiev had written Stalinist propaganda, a biographer complained of his “sneering antipathy”. Mr. Taruskin’s answer? “I’m sorry I didn’t flatter Prokofiev enough to please his admirers on his birthday, but he is dead. My concern is for the living.”

But his feuds were often productive: they changed the conversation in the academy as well as in the concert hall. Such vigorous arguments, Mr. Taruskin believed, could help rescue classical music from its increasingly marginal status in American society.

“I have always thought it important that musicologists put their expertise at the service of the ‘average consumer’ and alert them to the possibility that they are being duped not only by commercial interests but also by accommodating academics, biased critics and overbearing performers be led. ‘ he wrote in 1994.

Mr Ross said: “Whether you thought he was right or wrong, he made you feel that the art form really mattered on the broader cultural stage.” Mr. Taruskin’s polemic, he added, “ultimately served a constructive end, classical Bringing music from fantasy land to the real world.”

Richard Filler Taruskin was born on April 2, 1945 in New York City, Queens to Benjamin and Beatrice (Filler) Taruskin. The household of his youth was liberal, Jewish, resolutely intellectual and musical: his father was a lawyer and amateur violinist, his mother a former piano teacher. He began playing the cello at age 11, and while attending Manhattan High School of Music and Art (now Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & the Arts), he voraciously consumed music history books in the New York Public Library.

At Columbia University, Mr. Taruskin studied music along with Russian, in part to reconnect with a branch of relatives in Moscow. He stayed with music historian Paul Henry Lang as his mentor for his PhD while researching early music and 19th-century Russian opera. He also began playing the viola da gamba in the New York freelance scene and, while subsequently teaching at Columbia, directed the Cappella Nova choral group, which gave acclaimed performances of Renaissance repertoire. In 1986 he joined the faculty at Berkeley.

In the 1970s, musicology was still largely focused on the revival of obscure motets and the analysis of Central European masterpieces. Mr. Taruskin participated in the “New Musicology” movement, a generation of scholars that disrupted the discipline by drawing on postmodern approaches, feminist and queer theories, and cultural studies.

“Richard had a very keen sense of the political challenges of music history,” said scholar Susan McClary, a pioneer of New Musicology, in an interview. “He was also an extraordinary musician. And so he wouldn’t sacrifice the music itself to context; that always went together for him.”

While researching Russian composers for his doctoral thesis – at a time when scholars largely dismissed them as marginal figures – Mr. Taruskin realized how 19th-century politics had insidiously shaped the classical canon. It was no coincidence, he argued emphatically, that Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were so respected: their popularity and acclaim were the aftermath of a long unrecognized and deeply rooted German national ideology. His monographs on Russian opera and Musorgsky redefined the study of music in Eastern Europe and dispelled old myths.

In 1984, Mr. Taruskin began writing for the short-lived Opus Magazine at the invitation of his editor, James R. Oestreich. After Mr. Oestreich joined the New York Times, Mr. Taruskin contributed extensive essays for the newspaper’s Arts and Leisure section, dealing with composers who were often treated as demigods; the section’s mailbag soon filled with angry readers. (He had no qualms about sending letters himself, sending gruff postcards to prominent music critics to denounce their mistakes or logical fallacies.) His writings for The Times and The New Republic were later published in the books On Russian Music and On Russian Music” collected. The danger of music.”

Teaching a Stravinsky seminar at Columbia inspired the two-volume Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, a seminal 1996 study that turned on its head the cosmopolitan image that the composer and his followers had long cultivated. Mr. Taruskin drew attention to traditional Slavic melodies that Stravinsky had embedded in The Rite of Spring and how the composer himself had deliberately veiled the folk roots of his revolutionary ballet.

The Oxford History of Western Music, published in 2005, grew out of Mr. Taruskin’s undergraduate courses at Berkeley and his dissatisfaction with textbooks, which presented a parade of unassailable masterpieces. In more than 4,000 pages, he wove intricate analysis with rich contextualization, revealing the history of music as a difficult terrain of argument, politics, and power.

Criticisms of Oxen abounded – that it betrayed its author’s personal grudges, that it treated modernists like Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez unfairly. But it remains a central, seemingly unsurpassable text. “This is the last time anyone will tell this story,” said Dr. McClary. “And it was told as well as it could have been.” (Her own criticism of the ox is perhaps the most enduring: Mr. Taruskin’s survey almost entirely ignores black musical traditions.)

Dressed in a purple blazer, Mr. Taruskin was a larger-than-life figure at American Musicological Society conferences, where his presentations were blockbuster events. In recent years he has renounced lectures and instead attended lectures by his many former students.

He married Cathy Roebuck, a computer programmer in Berkeley, in 1984 and lived in El Cerrito, California. In addition to his wife, he is survived by his son, Paul Roebuck Taruskin; his daughter Tessa Roebuck Taruskin; his sister Miriam Lawrence; his brother Raymond; and two grandchildren.

Among Mr. Taruskin’s numerous awards was Japan’s prestigious Kyoto Prize, which he received in 2017. His most recent book was the 2020 compilation Cursed Questions: On Music and Its Social Practices. When he died he was completing a book of essays that would serve as an intellectual biography.

Despite his high-handed personality, Mr. Taruskin had a gentle side that was well known to colleagues and students. For years he argued with the music theorist Pieter van den Toorn about the importance of Stravinsky’s music – Mr. Taruskin argued that it was not influenced by 20th century politics.

Nevertheless, Mr. Taruskin dedicated one of his books to Mr. van den Toorn. The inscription: “Public opponent, private mate.”

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