Wednesday, July 6, 2022

in memory, Richard Taruskin

A few days ago I pulled out some of my books by Richard Taruskin to browse through during casual reading time. I always enjoy these. Taruskin, whose professorship at the UC Berkeley music department began after my days as a student, created the most intelligent, broadly knowledgeable, and entertaining reading of any scholar of music, outranking even my own professor at Berkeley, the late Joseph Kerman. I once described him as "something of the Harlan Ellison of musicology, or at least the Harlan before Harlan started groping people: loud, opinionated, combative, insanely prolific, and often annoyingly right."

I didn't know then that Taruskin had died last Friday. Dash it: we'll miss his voice. I only ever saw him once: he was in the audience at the first Stanford "Reactions to the Record" symposium in 2007. I didn't attempt to speak to him, even though I was just off a Shostakovich centennial article that leaned strongly on his work: he was just too awesome, even terrifying a figure. He was scheduled to speak at two subsequent conferences in that series, but both times had to cancel for health reasons.

Taruskin's magnum opus is a 5-volume (6 with the index) Oxford History of Western Music. Replacing earlier, more conventionally-written histories, it's selective and idiosyncratic, full of Taruskin's own views, not his opinions of what's good and bad, but his views of what's important to the history of music. Though Taruskin prefers to omit things rather than stuff everything in, it's stunningly comprehensive, covering the entire span of history of written musical composition in our culture (its designated subject), although it heavily concentrates on the last century, which gets two of the five volumes.

One may wonder what's there to write about, and why should a non-specialist care? But Taruskin's topic is the social history of composition (he doesn't have as much to say about performance): what social influences cause composers to write the way they do, how they react to it, how society treats their music. At least the last volume is like that: I picked it up cheap and haven't read the others, though I have friends who've bought the whole set.

But I have made a point of looking for Taruskin's essay collections. I have five of these, three of which are on his specialty, Russian music (of all periods, naturally). Here's my six Taruskin books with some highlights of each.

Defining Russia Musically: Historical and Hermeneutical Essays (Princeton UP, 1997)
Something of a "fix-up" in that it's presented as a succession of 14 chapters, not - despite the subtitle - a collection of essays, but it is in fact based on essays and reviews dating 1983-1996. The theme is the definition of "Russianness" in music and how this has led to the perception of Russia as a second-class nation musically, reliant on folk tunes and not up to the sublimity of German classicism. Taruskin, of course, thinks Russian musical identity is more robust than that. Often rather more technical than his other books. Covers composers from Glinka through Stravinsky and Shostakovich. I found the last the most interesting part: his prinicipal argument is that what we as listeners make of Shostakovich's music (what Tolkien would have called "applicability") is more significant than whatever the composer may have secretly meant (what Tolkien would have called "allegory"), and accordingly he's much less incensed by Volkov's fictions than in his later, more contentious writings.

Music in the Late Twentieth Century (OUP, 2005)
This is the final volume in the Oxford History series. It begins with the birth of the modernist/serialist hegemony in Europe in the wake of WW2, explaining how it began as a reaction to the war's destruction; considers subsequent trends like Cagean indeterminacy and minimalism, discussing the impetus behind those as well, and discussing the effect on classical composition of the rock revolution of the 1960s, which had a cultural impact on the reception of music unlike any previous popular music. Taruskin also takes two chapters in the middle to explore in detail two representative but contrasting composers, the elite modernist Elliott Carter and the conservative populist Benjamin Britten. Obviously it leaves out more than it puts in, but this has the virtue of enabling Taruskin to concentrate on the big broad picture, which he does compellingly. For a closer view of what he leaves out, there are other books.

The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (UC Press, 2009)
Collection of 42 essays and talks dating 1987-2007, mostly for a popular audience. They're short and they're usually contentious. Taruskin is a compelling writer and a brilliant mind who's usually right, but he's exhausting to read in other than short doses, and perusal of the book convinces me that he's also a troll. In the sense that we use the term here on the interwebs. Virtually every reprinted essay is followed by a postscript, gleefully recounting all the completely wrong objections made by readers on first publication and explaining how completely wrong they were. Sometimes this was as much as twenty years earlier, and here's Taruskin lurking all that time just waiting for an opportunity to show these people up. Nor are these transgressors ordinary blokes off the street, but noted writers on music, themselves extremely sharp, people whom Taruskin otherwise respects. Much of the time their flaw, to hear Taruskin tell it, is that they assumed incorrectly that he was saying something that he was coming close to but not actually saying. Topics include a defense of Vladimir Horowitz from those who'd deride him as low-brow, the pointlessness of orchestras announcing a "Beethoven season" because for most of them every season is a Beethoven season, a magnificent critique of a set of "with friends like these ..." books ineptly defending the worth of classical music, and his infamous essay suggesting a little "forbearance and discretion" before programming offensive pieces, e.g. a certain opera extolling terrorism in the immediate wake of 9/11. This was of course mistaken as a call for censorship, and the postscript is as long as the essay.

On Russian Music (UC Press, 2009)
Collection of 36 articles dating 1975-2006, largely for a popular audience (some are for concert programs or record liners). Arranged roughly in chronological order by subject. Despite the relatively limited topic area, these are often just as contentious as the ones in the previous book. This is where Taruskin criticizes performing groups for using up some of their limited concert time reviving groveling Odes to Stalin by Soviet lackeys on the (dubious, frankly: I've heard some of this stuff) grounds that the music is good. This is also where Taruskin re-opens the Shostakovich wars. Let us specify that in the factual matters at hand, Taruskin and his more mild-mannered ally Laurel Fay (who did the actual scholarly work here; Taruskin's role was that of "Darwin's bulldog") were completely correct and their antagonists completely wrong and more than a little trollish themselves. Nevertheless it is rather startling to read Taruskin explain that he can say that one of those antagonists "is the very model of a Stalinist critic" and that his "method is precisely what is known in the West as McCarthyism" but that is absolutely not the same thing as calling the man a Stalinist or McCarthyite, not at all! He's not criticizing the man, you see, but only what he did. But what is a Stalinist or a McCarthyite other than a person who does the things associated with those names? Whom does Taruskin think he's kidding here? However, my favorite piece in the book isn't contentious at all: it's a tribute to Nikolai Miaskovsky. A second-rank Russian composer of the 20C's first half, Miaskovsky is beloved by connoisseurs of obscure classics because he poured his compositional energies into no fewer than 27 symphonies. "That heap of symphonies was to us record geeks what grapes were to Tantalus," says Taruskin, and is he ever right about that.

Russian Music at Home and Abroad: New Essays (UC Press, 2016)
Collection of 20 speeches and articles dating 1998-2015, though most are 2008 or later. Taruskin says in his introduction that he's mellowed out and become less contentious than in his previous collections. Who is he fooling? He's just as contentious as ever, defending Rimsky-Korsakov from charges of being a hack, defending Mussorgsky from Rimsky-Korsakov, defending Tchaikovsky from claims that he committed suicide, defending Shostakovich from Volkov and his acolytes, defending musical groups' right to cancel performances of pro-Stalin or anti-Semitic music, and defending Stravinsky from just about anything. I agree with Taruskin a lot more than I disagree, but my, is he exhausting.

Cursed Questions: On Music and Its Social Practices (UC Press, 2020)
Collection of 13 pieces, mostly talks and addresses, dating 2004-2017, all with titles phrased as questions. This collection is more obviously in hte spirit of his Oxford History than the other collections, mostly because of its concentration on what he calls "social practices." The essays being longer than in other books, they explore in considerably esoteric, but - as always with late Taruskin - compulsively readable depth. Some of the essays are specifically about trying to write music history. Others branch off it, discussing the invention of tradition (an old Taruskin bugaboo, most fully explored I think in an early book I don't have), the attempts by the serialist hegemony to dictate what modern music is, the arbitrary and changing definitions of highbrow and lowbrow, the difference between western and Russian perception of the meaning of music (also brought up in the specifically Russian books), and of course the eternal topic of the difference between discretion and censorship.

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