Sunday, May 3, 2015

Richard Taruskin

A couple of years ago I put up a post praising one of the greatest musicologists in history: Sir Donald Francis Tovey (1875 - 1940). Musicology is quite a new profession, dating only from sometime in the late 18th century when the study of history became of great interest. There were a few predecessors like Charles Burney (1726 - 1814) who wrote a multi-volume history of music and, after extensive travels in Europe, an illuminating survey of the state of music on the continent. These are among the first of their kind in any language. Here is a portrait of Mr. Burney:

The other great musicologist of this first generation was the German Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1749 - 1818) who, of course, criticized the work of Charles Burney. Here is an image (engraving or woodcut?) of Forkel:

Since then there have been hoards, hosts, armies of musicologists. Musicology is all study of music except performance and composition and it includes history, theory and whatever it is that those "new" musicologists are doing--queering the nuance or something. But I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him. I mean, to praise Richard Taruskin.

Prof. Taruskin, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, is a musicologist like none other. As author of the Oxford History of Western Music, it is probably safe to say that he knows more about more music than anyone alive--or who has ever lived, for that matter. But that five-volume work of detailed scholarship, published in 2000, was about recounting music history and had to preserve a certain neutrality. If you really want to get a sense of the sheer critical power he wields, you need to read his essays on the ideologies, politics and out-and-out lies that are promulgated about music. We find these perspectives in his collections of essays such as Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance, where we find his magisterial puncturing of some of the pretensions of the early music movement or The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays where he explains why the informal ban on performing the music of Wagner in Israel is perfectly reasonable and how ideology in academic composition departments makes so many composers "useless". Here is a photo of Prof. Taruskin:

A good many people read Prof. Taruskin and find him boorish or neoconservative, and that was my reaction the first time I read him. But with more exposure (I have now read all of the Oxford History, two collections of essays and most of his monumental book on Stravinsky) I have come to realize that he simply describes things as he sees them and he sees them very clearly indeed. He is not an arrogant man, as many have claimed. While he knows a very great deal, I don't think he pretends to know absolutely everything! I was standing beside him at a musicology convention a number of years ago at a lecture being given by a Russian musicologist on modes in Russian music (one of Taruskin's specialties). The Russian musicologist (whose name I forget) was describing a particular mode that was used by Tchaikovsky and Prof. Taruskin asked for an example. Without hesitation the Russian said that you could find several examples in volume six of the complete works of Tchaikovsky and he mentioned some choral music and perhaps even a page number. You rarely see someone like Taruskin coming across some new information about music, but this was such an occasion and he simply nodded in acknowledgement. I think people sometimes find him arrogant because he does not hold back an instant to deflate a pomposity or errant ideology or simple lie about music and its history. And, heaven knows, there are lots of them!

So I have come to the conclusion that in the person of Richard Taruskin we have, not just the leading musicologist of our time and the greatest public intellectual writing about music, but one of the greatest scholars of music to have ever lived, the equal of Charles Burney or Donald Francis Tovey. I don't agree with everything he says--I think he exaggerates the influence of neo-classical tastes on the early music movement--but, given sufficient evidence, I am prepared to admit that he may be right even about that. But who is right and who is wrong is, in the final analysis less important than the methods and means used to reach a conclusion. Richard Taruskin exemplifies the highest standards of scholarship, analysis and fearless research into music. For this, I doubt we can honor him enough. You might want to pick up one of his books and have a read...

Prof. Taruskin started out as a performer and in the 70s and 80s played viola da gamba with the Aulos Ensemble. I used to own an LP of Josquin des Prez on which he was a performer, but sadly that is long since lost. Here is a performance on viol and lute of one of the pieces on that album, In te, domini, speravi:


Anonymous said...

Richard Taruskin's fantastic!
I really like this little passage, which explains nicely, one side of what Taruskin is about:

Taruskin's contention (his broader point in that book, Text and Act, as a whole) is that an overly objective fidelity to the score (and to formulaic performance practice in general) in the guise of being "historically informed performance practice" is the problem in modern taste.

Take, for example, the anecdote he cites from a piano lesson in which he was playing a piece by Prokofiev. He went back to Prokofiev's own recording and from it learned the unwritten performance practices that the composer expected to have applied to the music (and did apply, himself, to his own music), thereby altering some of the rhythm and articulation. But his teacher insisted that it must be played exactly as written in the score, and that Prokofiev himself as a player was wrong!

Taruskin's whole book is a collection of essays and annotations explaining that same point: that there is a difference between fidelity to a score (basically, worship of a piece of paper) and fidelity to musical process: that music is not captured completely, or even to a large percentage, in a piece of paper. Text and Act. Two different things.


Bryan Townsend said...

Richard Taruskin is probably the most knowledgable musicologist alive today. He often presents challenging views, but he supports them with evidence. But the composer as performer has no special cachet, and can be as wrong as anyone else! Or, perhaps, his concept of the work changed, so he performed it differently later on. The thing is that either might be true.

Evan Plommer said...

Who could possibly brand Taruskin as 'boorish'?

Bryan Townsend said...

He has had a surprising number of critics who have made some surprising claims.