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Remembering Richard Taruskin, a writer who made you care about 1,000 years of music

UC Berkeley Professor Richard Taruskin, whose 4000-page book <em>The Oxford History of Western Music</em> set a benchmark for writing about the history of classical music.
San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst N
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San Francisco Chronicle via Getty
UC Berkeley Professor Richard Taruskin, whose 4000-page book The Oxford History of Western Music set a benchmark for writing about the history of classical music.

Nearly two decades ago, shortly before the publication of his 4,000-page magnum opus, The Oxford History of Western Music, the polarizing American musicologist Richard Taruskin agreed to sit with NPR for a very long interview about, well, the very long history of Western music. Taruskin, who died earlier this month in Oakland, Calif. at age 77, was notoriously prickly, but his work was also a supremely important – it has been described as having "upended conventional classical music history."

Taruskin's reputation accompanied him into that 2004 interview with Performance Today host Fred Child. The author was known for sending inflammatory letters to critics, but those of us who produced what would become a short five-part radio series were pleasantly surprised to find him as tame as a kitty cat. Behind the microphone, he was generous with his time, unflustered by any question, whether it be a softball he could hit out of the park with his magisterial command of music history, or a hard-nosed confrontation of his sometimes radical ideas.

I thought of that moment while reading obituaries for Taruskin. In The New York Times, critic Alex Ross is quoted describing him as having been "The most important living writer on classical music," while Tim Page, writing in The Washington Post, characterized him as "a music scholar and historian of wide influence and spectacular fecundity."

In the end, you can debate the superlatives lauded on him and you can debate his rebellious positions on everything from historically "authentic" performances of old music to composers like Elliott Carter, Sergei Prokofiev and John Adams. But the important thing about Taruskin is that he made you want to debate in the first place. He made you care about classical music, an art form that, by the time his giant book was published in 2005, had already become marginalized in American culture.

Listen to any one of these interviews below, first broadcast in late 2004, and you'll get a glimpse of the Grand Canyon-sized scope of knowledge that Taruskin had at his fingertips, surveying 1000 years of music history. He firmly believed that no music, no composer could be separated from their socio-political circumstances, and that our vision of the past is always clouded by looking through the lens of present.


Chant & Early Church Music

Right from the beginning, Taruskin makes an important point about documenting a millennium of music history: Its development is not linear. There's no perfectly clean horizontal timeline to follow. And the historical record is not a complete representation of the music of any particular moment. A good example can be found in what we call "early music." Just because Gregorian chant was the first style of music written down, doesn't mean that other, more sophisticated music didn't exist at the same time or even before. There may have been secular, 4-part harmony songs in the 9th century, Taruskin says, but it would have likely sounded different than what we learn in school today. "But there was such a thing as harmony and there was such a thing as accompanied melody," he adds. "No doubt about that."

The Class of 1685

One of Taruskin's most controversial viewpoints is his criticism of the practice of performing old music on instruments of the era (or copies of them) to present a so-called "historically authentic" performance. Taruskin doesn't think it's possible – especially when it comes to the revival of Baroque-era operas by George Frideric Handel, and others, which starred virtuosic castrati (castrated men) in the lead roles. "I think that what we are hearing [today] is a pale reflection of what Handel's audience heard," Taruskin says, "and I've never been able to take too serious an interest in the revival of Baroque opera for that reason."

Nationalism in Music

Moving on to the 19th century, Taruskin makes the point that music and composers cannot be separated from their national and political circumstances. He lays out the trend of nationalism in music, which he said was a reaction to the dominance of Germanic music. As more and more composers from France, Spain, Russia and Slavic countries began writing music tied to their homelands, Taruskin says nationalism became trendy. "It's a paradox to put it this way," he says, "but nationalism was a universal trait in European music. All countries were valuing their unique qualities and trying to foreground them in their art."

America Between the Wars

What is American classical music? Is there a so-called great American symphony or opera? "America doesn't have a single ethnic stock," Taruskin says. When the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák came to the States in 1894, he told American composers to look to their own Black and Native American music to create a truly American sound. "It was well meant advice, but I don't think it was good advice," Taruskin argues. "So the American composers who were contemporaneous with Dvořák found it rather odd that they would be asked to write in a style that was not their own ethnic style. You see, to put on Blackface, you might say, or to wear feathers. That's how they would regard Dvořák's advice."

The 20th & 21st Centuries

Another example of what made Taruskin controversial was that he appeared to take pot shots at composers, even ones very much alive like John Adams, with whom he once sparred in the press over Adams' opera The Death of Klinghoffer.

Here Taruskin talks about the influences governments, propaganda and the Cold War had on composers and the challenging music they wrote. The atonal music of Arnold Schoenberg in the early 20th century, he believes, couldn't be coopted to fit any agenda, "And so it became a kind of symbol in the minds of many for real freedom." A composer like Adams, on the other hand, represents for Taruskin, someone "responding to a consumer demand" with his news-driven operas like Nixon in China and Dr. Atomic. But that doesn't mean, Taruskin adds, that Adams and others are "lessening their integrity as composers."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.