Richard Taruskin: The Oxford History of Western Music, volume 1

One of my 2010 projects is to read this 4000 page, 5 volume history of Western classical music. It got outstanding reviews when it was published in 2005, and last year it was released as a reasonably-priced set of paperbacks, and when I finally got to browse them in the bookstore I was impressed enough to make the investment in time and money.

I’ve just finished volume 1, which takes us up to 1600, so I’m pretty much on track to finish this year (I figure my pace will go up once I get to the music I’m much more familiar with, about halfway through volume 2). It was very interesting, especially since I didn’t know a lot about the early evolution of classical music already.

Despite the fact that the work as a whole is thousands of pages long, Taruskin clearly intends this to be read front to back as a narrative; it’s not a reference, or even really a textbook. This has many advantages and a few disadvantages. One nice thing (to me) is that it is clearly written with some subjectivity; although of course he is writing a history, the author isn’t afraid to inject his own opinions on occasion, which makes it a much more interesting read than it could be. The biggest disadvantage to me is that it’s not as easy to use as a reference as a textbook would be. If he introduces some new term, it’s not going to be in boldface or set off in a sidebar; if you run into it again later and forget its meaning, you’ll have to flip around looking for its definition (and it’s not always in the index). This was a real issue for me in this volume because I’m unfamiliar with most pre-1700 musical jargon. On the other hand, I’m reading it for pleasure, not so I can pass an exam, so it wasn’t a huge deal.

He makes a big point about this actually being a history of written music, which is very different from being a history of music; we really don’t know a lot about pre-literate performance, or even a ton about the performance of the works we have scores of. And of course a lot of written music has been lost, or even intentionally destroyed (grr). So it was neat to read about the ways in which we have to piece together knowledge about what music was really like during this period.

The material itself I found really interesting. I wish I got a slightly better sense of the evolution of certain musical vocabulary from a more theoretical point of view. For example, somewhere during the hundreds of years covered by this book, harmony gradually changed from being mostly just a succession of consonances into having semantic meaning on a more “sentence-sized” level. Taruskin points to some individual examples of this, but I found myself wishing for a higher-level overview of how the shift occurred. Of course, the individual composers who made this shift happen probably didn’t think about it that way at all, so any attempt to impose some sort of teleological post-facto history on it is going to be pretty artificial anyway.

In any case, so far the series has been very entertaining and informative, and I’m not regretting my time spent with it at all. On to Monteverdi!

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