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Positive Feedback ISSUE 18
march/april 2005


The History of Western Music, Richard Taruskin. Six Volumes, Oxford University Press
by Bob Neill


The Escape from Modernism

This is the "book" I have been waiting for all of my life, a history of western classical music, not just a history of the music. A study that seeks to tell the whole story of where the music came from, why it came into being in the way that it did, who brought it into being. The days of my formal (formalist) education a generation ago safely behind me, I have learned to want both the context and the music and to know that they are always, often fundamentally, intertwined.

My formalist education—in literature, music, and the visual arts—took place during the high tide of the modernist critical view that, to quote Donald J. Grout in his A History of Western Music (1960) that most of my contemporaries and I read in college, the "history of music is primarily the history of musical style," the history of the artifacts. Consideration of anything outside the works themselves was neither legitimate nor useful. Our professors taught us that the knowledge the arts strive for is different in kind from other kinds of knowledge. Illuminating one kind of knowledge with another – the whole idea of interdisciplinary knowing – was generally seen as soft and muddled, taking us away from rather than toward a purer apprehension of reality.

To be fair, Grout's book is a monument of its kind. It was reedited in 1973 and has gone through six editions. While it is cautious when it looks outside the world of musical style, within it, it is highly instructive and a delight to read. But we have grown more knowing about how art is made since 1960; and, as Taruskin discusses early in his study while speaking of Gregorian Chant (which was very nearly inseparable from its use), we have grown more knowing about how impure and worldly art is in the half-century since Grout's book appeared. And we have grown more knowing about why in the first half of this century so many of our artists and critics felt the need to insist on the purity and transcendence of art: why a need to abstract themselves from the modern world led to the creation of a highly abstract art—and an abstract ideal to complement it. Most of us still find the experience of listening to a violin sonata different in kind from other experiences; but we have learned to question the imperviousness of art to other kinds of knowing, the separation of art from the world around it. We have learned more about the roles that social and cultural institutions play in determining what kinds of art are made, why composers make some of the choices they make, and why certain ideas about art come to be held. In a word, we have become less willfully ignorant, which is what I now consider my earlier self to have been. We read and looked and listened with blinders on. We thought, with the aid and inspiration of T.S. Eliot and his modernist contemporaries, that we had escaped history or at least had found a means for doing so.

The History of the Music

I was therefore excited to hear of Richard Taruskin's monumental study now before me. To tell just the history of musical style up to 1970, allowing the twentieth century but 65 pages (!), took Grout 727 pages in all. To tell Grout's story and the history of which it is an integral part, along with the history of our changing tastes and preconceptions has taken Taruskin nearly 4000, in five volumes—two alone on music of the twentieth century. And a sixth for the index! Now that's more like it.

A particular aspect of Taruskin's inclusiveness that pleases me greatly is its pedagogical self-consciousness. The continuous presence of this quality should surprise none of us who have followed his telling critique of the posed (?) unselfconsciousness of the Early Music movement. Taruskin is aware of what it means to write a history: what conventions are involved, what distortions and limitations they introduce in order to deliver the kind of knowledge we seek; and as a pedagogue, he wants to talk about this, to get it on the table. This is something we did not really concede about the writing of history (or anything else) until 'after modernism,' and it gives this book an integrity that should keep it definitive for a long time. Taruskin sees the problem in writing history; he sees similar problems at work in the 'development' of music itself. I am going to introduce a quotation from early in Volume 1 here to give you a sense of what this means to the intellectual texture of his history. I won't be able to do this again in a review of this length, but this one strikes me as worth the space. Reading it should give you a strong taste of what it is like to get music history from a mind and manner like Taruskin's.

From Volume 1, Chapter 4, "Music of Feudalism and Fin' Amors.

BINARISMS One of the lessons the study of history can teach us is to appreciate the futility of rigidly oppositional distinctions and to resist them. Hard and fast antitheses, often called binarisms, are conceptual rather than empirical: that is, they are more likely to be found in the clean laboratories of our minds than in the messy world our bodies inhabit. (And even to say this much is to commit several errors of arbitrary opposition.) One can hardly avoid categories; they simplify experience and, above all, simplify the stories we tell. They make things intelligible. Without them, writing a book like this—let alone reading it!—would be virtually impossible. And yet they involve sacrifice as well as gain.

The invention of staff notation, placed at the climax of the previous chapter and presented as a great victory, is a case in point. The gain in (apparent) precision was accompanied by a definite loss in variety. The staff is nothing if not an instrument for imposing hard distinctions: between A and B, between B and C, and so forth. These distinctions are gross as well as hard; singing from a staff is like putting frets on ones vocal cords. One has only to compare the staffless neumes of early chant manuscripts with the staved notations of the "post-Guidonian" [i.e. staffed] era to see how much more stylized notation had to become—and how much farther, one must conclude, from the oral practice it purported to transcribe—in order to furnish the precise information about pitch that we now prize…. Anyone who has heard the classical music of Iran and India will have an idea of what may have been lost from the European tradition.


Taruskin then goes on to make a similar critique of the distinction we moderns have come to make, presumably out of our own needs and sense of the world, between sacred and secular music, concluding,

'Sacred' and 'secular' are not so much styles as uses. The distinction between them is at least as much a social as a generic one.

Who is Richard Taruskin?

So now that we have got ourselves at least halfway into this review and managed to get second and third things first, who is Richard Taruskin that we (and Oxford University Press) should trust him to tell this story? He is a musician (of the viola da gamba); a leader and conductor of an Early Music ensemble (Capella Nova); a music scholar who has not only written many books, most recently the monumental Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions (University of California Press), but who also contributes to professional journals and fairly regularly to The New Republic and the New York Times. He is probably best known for providing the Early Music movement of our times with its first proper critique, the principal articles of which have been anthologized in Text and Act; Essays on Music and Performance (Oxford University Press), which I highly recommend. Initially seen as an enemy of the movement, he was eventually seen, correctly, as the champion of its liberation from antiquarian purists who strove to lock this music into a rigid conception of performance and interpretation that is the very antithesis of its original life and spirit. He is currently professor of music at the University of California at Berkeley. In a word, he has the knowledge, experience, and intellectual disposition to tell the story of Western music as fully and accurately as any living candidate I know.

The History

If I could choose one word to describe Taruskin's history, it would be knowing. Taruskin is wonderfully knowing, and this virtue comes out not only in his self-consciousness as a historian but more literally when he takes up individual composers. He recounts the principle features of the composers' lives, careers, and music, as we should expect; but he continually ranges out into the culture and history of the times in what invariably prove pertinent ways. His discussion of Benjamin Britten, a composer I know fairly well and so whose section I went to early to see if I could read Taruskin with confidence, is brilliant. Not only is the story told clearly and compellingly, all of the essential material that bears on Britten's life as a composer in his time is brought in. Other studies are referred to when critical issues about the composer arise, in order to open them up further. Taruskin seems to know everything that one would like one to know to assess Britten's place in the history of western music. His handling of what I have always believed is the central theme in Britten's music, homosexuality experienced as moral conflict, is introduced very powerfully, as the missing link in interpretations of the opera Peter Grimes that find it incomplete, and then discussed pertinently in connection with other works.

Taruskin is knowing, he also a brilliant narrative strategist, which one has to be to write a history of virtually every important composer in even as many as 4000 pages. He knows how to tell whole stories by telling parts of stories. Again in the Britten section, Taruskin rightly chooses the operas to get at most of what needs to be said to understand the composer and his relation to his times and other composers around him, and then focuses in on the Britten's principal opera, Peter Grimes. Britten's instrumental music—the cello suites, the quartets, the Symphony for Cello—which strikes me as among his most powerful work (and even the composer's relation to cellist Mistislav Rostropovich), are essentially 'passed over in silence,' a common practice throughout the history. I miss a discussion of Vivaldi's operas and then there are Marais' gamba suites. But Taruskin makes it clear at the outset that "a lot of famous music goes unmentioned in these pages," and that "inclusion and omission imply no judgment of value." He is not concerned with "coverage" but with writing "a true history," not an encyclopedia; and this requires making choices, many of them hard ones. And what one would say of my favorite Britten instrumental works would likely not change the story Taruskin is telling. Arguably what needs to be said about Britten's place in the history of western music can be more effectively said through a treatment of the operas. Taruskin's choice for a study of this kind feels right, and the results provide a portrait of the composer as clear and true as any of the full-length studies I have read. Sometimes truer.

Taruskin's use of narrative strategy is evident throughout his history, even with more major composers like Schubert, whose range of composition is huge. After giving us a sense of the life and then doing detailed analyses of specific pieces chosen from the composer's broad instrumental repertoire, Taruskin rightly moves on to the composer's most significant contribution, lieder. He then lets this discussion evolve into a discussion of lieder in general during the period, which ultimately tells us who the author thinks Schubert essentially is as a composer. And it keeps Schubert's story a chapter in the larger story he is telling. This last point is one of Taruskin's most masterful strategies. He takes up composers when their contributions are important to music history, which sometimes means taking them up several times before and after his principal treatment of them. We get Vivaldi in the discussion of 'the Italian concerto' and then later, when the author feels it is time to consider his life and career as a whole. Again, we get the sense that it is the story of western music that is in charge here, not its stars, essential to its telling though they are.

Point of View in a History

What else does a prospective reader of Taruskin's work require? Does he give musical examples? Scores of them. Serious music students will find this study speaking to them far more than they are accustomed to having 'histories' do. Does the author express a point of view? There is no escaping Taruskin's musical values in this history; but because he is so thoroughly forthright and professional, they distinctly color but do not slant or distort it. What this point of view is will surprise no one who knows the author as commentator on music in the scholarly and popular press. Taruskin introduces it early and lets it run through his history as a leitmotiv. He is highly critical of the enterprise of pure, abstract music, specifically composers (and their critical apologists) who have their eyes exclusively on the muse St. Cecelia rather than on the world around them—including us, their audience, the music lovers of the world. Though he gives both composers a fair and objective assessment, he prefers Britten to Eliot Carter and opposes them to each other in a fascinating section of Volume 5 that helps to dramatize this theme. And he is deeply interested in Stravinsky within whom he sees the war between traditional and abstract music taking place. Stravinsky is thus presented in two separate sections of the history, graphically representing his early success with the more traditional ballets as The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, and later atonal and serialist period. And no opportunity is lost to give us glimpses of the composer increasingly speaking and working against, even misrepresenting, his traditional inspiration by submitting it to his developing modernist and abstract aesthetic. Where this modernism comes from, in Stravinsky and in his many contemporaries, is a fascinating story in itself and central to Taruskin's understanding of twentieth century music as a whole. He has much to teach us in this regard and is supported by many critical interpretations of modernism in the other arts.

His point of view also enables him to take up jazz and rock when he reaches the 1960's, with as much seriousness and knowledge as he brings to the classical tradition.

What Taruskin's point of view provides his history with is a human voice, something entirely consistent with the persona he offers us as historian. He chooses on principle not to pretend to step out of history, but to stand deeply but self-consciously within it where he can see and say more. Those who prefer abstract avant-garde music will know they are not reading a story told by one of their own. Those who prefer their art history transcendental will be distressed by the worldliness of his tale. But both will learn a great deal from Richard Taruskin, as have I.