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Richard Taruskin: The Oxford History of Western Music, volumes 2-5

I wrote about volume 1 of Richard Taruskin’s history of Western music a couple of years ago. Although I finished volume 2 shortly thereafter, I never got around to writing about it, and then I stalled on the whole thing early into volume 3 until this year, when I got motivated again and ended up tearing through the rest of it in the space of a month.

See my old post for opinions on his style in general, which I haven’t really changed my mind about. One big difference is that once he got to the year 1700 or so, I was suddenly about 80% familiar with the music being described rather than 10%. You may question the wisdom of reading 2000 pages of material on a subject that I already knew pretty well, but it was actually quite nice; it’s fun to nod sagely in approval as the author declaims to readers things that you already know, and having the context of that 80% made me appreciate the remaining 20% more than I otherwise would. I also knew the repertoire a lot better than the history, so it was nice to get a sense of the connective tissue that lies between all of those individual works.

Taruskin tells a good story, and he is pretty good at not falling prey to the temptation in a history book to divide everything very neatly into discrete boxes. In fact he takes great pains to blur the traditionally stark lines between Baroque and Classical music (in the mid 18th century) and tonal and atonal music (in the early 20th century), showing that there was much more of a continuum at the time than often appears in retrospect.

One particularly interesting take was his assertion that modern music really began in the mid-1800s, not in the early 1900s where most people put the dividing line (when traditional tonality was dissolving). His point is that it was the mid-1800s when music criticism became established, one consequence of which being that composers and listeners started to think of historical progress in music, with composers having some sort of scientist-like responsibility, against which they can be evaluated, to push the boundaries of music forward. It’s that change in perception that to Taruskin really marks the beginning of the modern attitude towards composition.

As I said, there was a fair amount of material I wasn’t really familiar with, so it was nice to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of musical history, such as the development of Italian opera and early Russian and East European music. I feel like I much have a better bird’s-eye view of the developments of classical music over the last few centuries now.

Taruskin continually warns against the temptation to treat music history in a teleological way, in which music composition “makes progress” over time as composers invent and discover more advanced and “better” techniques. But I felt like he falls victim to the same trap a bit when he enters the 20th century. There is very little attention paid to some very fine 20th century composers, presumably because they don’t fit his forward-pointing narrative. Sibelius gets a couple of pages. Nielsen gets one sentence. To take a few examples of superb recent composers who have created lots of important work, Nancarrow, Lutosławski, and Nørgård are not mentioned at all. On the other hand, Roy Harris gets 13 pages (maybe he was considered a lot more important at the time than he is in retrospect, but still, it’s weird) and David Del Tredici gets 7. (There’s a general American slant to Taruskin’s 20th-century history that he acknowledges but claims to be based in fact.) Especially given that the last volume is shorter than the others by 200 pages, you’d think that he could have found room for a couple of chapters surveying some of these important composers that didn’t fit so neatly into his narrative.

Despite my issues with what he chooses to concentrate on in the 20th century, I did find the material that he did write about very interesting and thought-provoking. I think that his take on who-cares-if-you-listen complexity vs more traditionally audience-oriented music is pretty fair, although I understand why those of the complexity school (especially if you have been raised with the music-history-as-progress meme) might not think so.

I should also mention that the whole thing, all 3800+ pages of it, is also a great read. It’s not dry at all, and Taruskin occupies just the right position on the facts-vs-opinions spectrum to keep things interesting but still grounded. Not only did I learn a lot, I also enjoyed it very much and was sad when I ran out of history to read about.

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