Much has been written about Richard Tarukin's magnum opus on the history
of western music. His opinions have been disputed by some, his writing
admired by many, the price of the book(s) deplored by all.
If you have not seen Rodney Lister's review in Tempo, it's worth going
to a music library to obtain (v. 60 #235, p. 50-61 Jan 2006). It is far
superior to Charles Rosen's overweight and underenlightened piece in the
New York Review of Books.
Here are some samples to whet the appetite:
On Taruskin the man: "Clearly a man of imposing intelligence, wide-ranging
interests and substantial achievement, he also seems to have worked very
hard to establish for himself a reputation as a musicologist you wouldn't
want to run into in a dark alley."
On Taruskin and Webern: "Taruskin takes Webern severely to task (to put
it mildly) for his assertion in his 1933 lecture "The Path to the New
Music" that 'for the last quarter of a century major and minor have no
longer existed' ... [R]ather than history it is 'rhetorical', 'myth',
'propaganda', and, in fact, 'browbeating' (IV: 359, 361). The most
iniquitous thing about this 'historiographical myth', he writes, is
that historians have believed it--and in books, particularly textbooks,
propagated it in association with the ideas of the ... 'collapse' of
(traditional) tonality, something which Taruskin flatly states never
took place (IV: 359).(After reading this passage one might well suspect
that Taruskinis able so easily to recognize propaganda, and especially
'browbeating', because he is master of it himself.)"
On getting closer to home: "As Taruskin traces his narrative of the
later years of the 20th century, his tone moves from the largely genial,
colloquial, and avuncular one of the earlier three volumes to one which
becomes ever harsher, more forceful, and stridently moralistic. Hardly
any composer is spared."
On a Taruskin paragraph about Davies' "Eight Songs for a Mad King": "This
passage can only be described as being filled with sneering half truths ...
Taruskin's narrative seems to indicate that the piece was received as a
failure and sunk into obscurity, when in fact it is one of Davies's best
known and most performed works."
On Modernism: "Taruskin's assault on all forms of modernism is bitter
and incorrigibly relentless, and he is eager to discredit modernist
composers with any and all means that comes to hand. Over and over
again he accuses all of them of having a complete disdain for an audience
or for any present comsumers of their music. Then, in any case where a
composer seems to be acting out of even the slightest concern for the
social world in which he or she exists, Taruskin excoriates this as
hypocrisy, condenscension and self-congratulatory insincerity."
On disagreeable music: " ... Hans Keller, in an analysis class,
observed that when a composer tells you about music he likes he will
tell you abut the music, but when he talks to you about music he doesn't
like he will only tell you about himself. Taruskin is not a composer
... but the maxim seems to apply to him. The earlier volumes ... are
compelling writing, ... the last two, despite a good deal of solid
information and music insight, are increasingly angry polemic rant. ...
It is an enthralling, grand, erudite, maximalist and, dare one say,
romantic epic with an unhappy ending; and its titanic hero is Richard
It should be noted that Rodney Lister studied with Davies and features
an endorsement by Milton Babbit on his website. Obviously, he was not
pleased by Taruskin's canards.
It seems like the waning throes of Modernism in music can still generate
Sunni/Shiite-like conflict. We instead should recognize that the Modernist
suzerainty has ended, that music should be judged by broader qualities
than conformity to this or that style, that art music in general is in
trouble, and that musicians of all stripes should do what they can to
keep it viable.
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