Saturday, April 28, 2012

Footnote to Taruskin

As I said, I just finished reading all five volumes of Taruskin's monumental Oxford History of Western Music and occasional musings sparked by that have popped up here from time to time--and will again! It is really above and beyond any quibbling I might engage in, but here are a couple anyway. It is not possible that a book of this kind will be free from error, but I noticed very, very few. One was the claim that Berlioz, who played the guitar, wrote no music for guitar. Well, of course he did, but nothing terribly significant.

There was one particularly comic moment that I enjoyed. Throughout the book, Taruskin adopts the historian's neutrality, even though he often quotes strong opinions from others, critics and composers, as important historical evidence. These quotes are, of course, footnoted. But on one occasion, when he quotes a particularly scathing review of the opera by John Adams, The Death of Klinghoffer, accusing the composer of "moral blankness and opportunism", if one turns to the footnote one finds that the critic in question is none other than Richard Taruskin. Mind you, he does say that the review was "possibly overwrought". Heh!

There is really only one hobbyhorse that I have my doubts about. Taruskin has long been known for making the counterintuitive point that the revival of early music and its austere mode of performance ("no vibrato!") was in fact just one manifestation of modernism. We like early music and we like it performed that way because it fits our taste. Not to detract from the truth of that,  but I think he takes it too far when he says that the rigid, metronomic tempos typical of some manifestations of the early music movement (and of music by, among others, Stravinsky and other moderns) is specifically a modernist quirk. I think that most music in most times and places has been composed and played in a range of rhythmic modes. Some of these are fluid and with a lot of rubato, while others are motoric and have a real groove. I think this was as true in 1500 as it was in 1700 as it was in 1900. Sure, there are historic trends, but music with rhythmic precision and drive was not a discovery of the modernists.


Rickard said...

I've also read The Oxford History of Western Music. It was extremely interesting (it's like reading a very exciting book (because it is very exciting) or watching a really good movie or TV series) and I've learnt very much from it (for instance I knew basically nothing about medieval and reneissance music). I haven't read any other music history texts but I believe it has to be one of the best and most interesting.

Bryan Townsend said...

Taruskin is a brilliant and exciting writer and has a great story to tell. He is in the front rank of current musicologists so really knows his stuff. This may be the last time that someone writes a comprehensive history of music.

It might be worth looking at the previous generation for comparison, the books I grew up with, which were the Norton books on the history of music: Music in the Renaissance by Gustave Reese, Music in the Baroque by Manfred Bukofzer and so on.