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Product Details

  • Paperback: 3856 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (July 27, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195386302
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195386301
  • Product Dimensions: 15.1 x 10.4 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 17.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #172,901 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • Due to this item's unusual size or weight, it requires special handling and will ship separately from other items in your order. Read More

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The history of "history"--our changing perspectives on the act of narrating and trying to "recapture" the past--encompasses the most profound seismic shifts in modern consciousness. Once seemingly commonsensical, the science-aspiring ambition of historiography to recount the past "as it actually was" (to borrow Leopold von Ranke's famously misunderstood phase) now betrays anachronistic naivete, if not a dangerous arrogance masquerading as objectivity. And the business of cultural history provides a particularly fascinating--and contentious--index to the larger issues at stake. The very urgency of the debate over "how" to tell the story (and indeed what the story is) continues to intensify in proportion to the uncertainty of our times.

Considering its official title (bearing an impressive imprimatur from Oxford University Press, the vanguard of scholarly reference works), Richard Taruskin's grand opus might appear at first glance to eschew the more-heated arenas of debate involving cultural history. Quite the contrary: Taruskin throws down the gauntlet at once and passionately joins in the fray. In the process, he strips the story of music's development in the West (i.e., Europe and America) of its deceptively innocuous trappings and received ideas, thrusting it into the spotlight of contemporary critical inquiry. The result, virtually a priori, is a highly controversial reexamination of a narrative that will cause even the most open-minded music lover to do a number of double-takes. What's extraordinary about Taruskin's achievement is how immensely engrossing, insightful, provocative, fresh, and downright brilliant the "history of Western music" becomes in his weaving of it.

But why yet another sweeping history when the New Grove Dictionary of Music has been recently overhauled (in an edition to which Taruskin prolifically contributed), and when long-standing classic texts such as Paul Henry Lang's Music in Western Civilization continue to be reissued? The heart of the matter lies in the very ambition behind this new history. First, some of the fun factoids: at nearly 4,000 pages (along with an additional resource volume containing master index, chronologies, and bibliography), The Oxford History of Western Music weighs nearly 20 pounds and took a decade to write. In other words, this isn't history-by-committee. Its perspective from the point of view of one massively learned individual is at once the work's chief strength and its Achilles heel. Taruskin's powerful voice echoes the kind of "old-fashioned" synthesis, with its attempt at an "overarching trajectory," of such pioneering cultural historians as Jacob Burckhardt or perhaps even the epic sweep of Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—-an antidote to the curse of ivory-tower specialization. But, more crucially, Taruskin arms that voice with the toolkit of contemporary historiography to pursue a critical rethinking of how Western music turned out as it did, and where it is today. His singular viewpoint anchors Taruskin's attempt to show that "the literate tradition of Western music is coherent at least insofar as it has a completed shape."

It's important to realize, as Taruskin early acknowledges, that his work is meant not as a stock-taking "survey" but as a history. That is, it involves an unfolding both of that larger coherence and of many smaller narratives that are its tributaries: not of the artwork (or composer) alone, but those of its production, its social and political context, and its (often-changing) reception as integral components of musical "meaning." Taruskin's aim is to filter out the distorting perspectives of "historicism" (the myth of purposeful, goal-oriented evolution through history) and aestheticism (which considers the artwork as a "pure," timeless entity). Along the way, this means smashing rows upon rows of icons and legends (not surprisingly, the bulk of these stemming from the 19th-century Germanic tradition, but also comprising a good deal of 20th-century received ideas about Stravinsky, Soviet composers such as Shostakovich, and various postwar "elitisms").

Inevitably, Taruskin doesn't prove immune to resorting to some legends of his own. In an extraordinary overview of Wagner, for example, he persuasively debunks the routine citation of Tristan und Isolde as pointing toward the coming "collapse of tonality," demonstrating how such thinking is the epitome of "the historicist tendency to write history backward with an eye toward giving the present a justification." Yet he's also capable of reducing the Wagner of the Ring to an obsession with a "cult of strength" in what is an otherwise deeply insightful discussion of "the Wagner problem." In terms of the larger stakes of this history, Taruskin's strongly argued debating points (and debunkings) at times veer in more eccentric directions, especially when it comes to such pivotal figures as Stravinsky, who gets a particularly intense thrashing. And regardless of Taruskin's theoretical stances, the reader must be alert to alarming occasional lapses of "mere" fact (how, one wonders, could an editorial team of over 40 not notice the claim that Carmina burana is scored for eight soloists in their fact checks, or fail to ensure that the endnotes match actual citations in the text?) Other tics, such as the author's fondness for scare quotes, may leap out depending on one's particular allergies.

Despite its imperfections, Taruskin's work is undeniably a stunning and stimulating achievement. It's impossible to describe adequately the sheer artfulness of his method, whereby he can distill a multiple series of investigations into a few wonderfully insightful sentences. Ever the master contrapuntalist, Taruskin weaves his various levels of discourse into a meaningful whole. There is true virtuosity in his ability to toggle from social history to in-the-trenches musicological analysis, zeroing in with his uncanny intuition to the most rewardingly illustrative points. His method of the exemplifying metonym--using just a few examples to wring out maximum insight, like the linear perspective of Renaissance artists--becomes a tour de force in his examination of figures such as Du Fay, D. Scarlatti, J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Schoenberg, or Britten. Taruskin's scope moreover is as radically reorienting as the Big Bang theory when it comes to the relative proportions he accords the narrative of Western music. Beginning with the advent of "literate" musical culture in Carolingian times, he devotes a great deal of attention to what was long thrown together as the "pre-Bach" era. Even more radically, around 40% of the total text is devoted to music of the 20th century (two of the five volumes of the history proper). Within this span, amid all its mind-boggling diversity, a number of centripetal themes emerge: the interdependence of "absolute" and "program" music, the interplay of oral and folk with literate musical cultures, the power of myth, and the possibility for musical "meaning." Taruskin's journey is endlessly fascinating, and his work makes an enormous contribution to the field. For all the controversy it's destined to generate, it will become impossible to ignore. Perhaps its surest mark of success is the sense of urgent importance and connectedness with which this history invests the cultural matter of music. Wherever you dip in, Taruskin invites an open conversation that leaves plenty of new, revealing perceptions in its wake, but probably more questions that when you started. Indeed, there's a sense that Taruskin would consider his work to have failed if the reader were only to nod in assent to all he has to say. --Thomas May --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The daunting task of connecting the most abstract of art forms to society, economics, politics and philosophy is admirably accomplished in this monumental six-volume narrative history. The work is a single interpretive synthesis by musicologist and critic Taruskin, author of Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions (1996), covering the Western classical tradition from medieval Gregorian chant to the contemporary avant-garde, with two regrettably scant chapters on 20th-century jazz and pop. He traces evolving performance and compositional conventions from the earliest written records, focusing on the elaboration of the Western system of tonality, its solidification in the Bach-to-Beethoven canon and its subsequent broadening into dissonance and tonal indeterminacy. He also follows the shifting social and ideological functions that elevated composers from lowly court servants to the alienated geniuses of romantic and modernist myth and transformed music from an adjunct of church ritual to a marketplace commodity, a vehicle for nationalist aspirations and a secular religion of art-for-art's-sake. Taruskin analyzes thousands of musical scores by all the major and many minor composers-the musically inclined should peruse the books at the piano-and his close readings of the esthetic and psychological effects of compositions come as close as one can to putting music's ineffable qualities into words. His account of the larger historical framework is erudite but accessible and stylish, conversant with everything from Aristotelian philosophy to psychoanalysis but wary of reading anachronistic interpretations into the past. The result is a judicious but richly stimulating history, valuable both to scholars and to ordinary readers who want to listen with new ears to the music they love. Photos.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
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One problem is that the Index is in typography that is too small for easy reading.
Paul Knobel
In that book, the author is argumentative, prone to score points on this opponents rather than enlighten his readers, and occasionally even gossipy.
a malariologist
If you love music and love thinking about music, you should have this on your shelf.
Greg Vitercik

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

154 of 169 people found the following review helpful By Ursus Major on January 19, 2005
Format: Hardcover
"Anonymous IV" has a right, of course, to dislike Richard Taruskin's magnificent Oxford History of Western Music, and to express that opinion - however unfathomable it may seem -- on amazon.com.

But inaccuracies, especially at the core of so damning a response to a new book, must not remain unchallenged.

Let's start with Anonymous IV's insinuation that Taruskin lacks expertise in music before 1800. (According to Anonymous IV, Taruskin's "superficial" and "sketchy" first two volumes summarize "the extent of what the author knows about music before 1800"; he is "obviously... on home turf" only in the 19th and 20th centuries.)

Perhaps Anonymous IV cannot imagine a musicologist being on home turf in more than one period. But Taruskin is just such a rare being: a formidable scholar of 19th- and 20th-century Russian music, he is equally celebrated in the realm of early music. His influential book, Text and Act (1995), contains numerous essays on pre-19th-century music. And even the brief author's biography on the back cover of that book informs us that Taruskin has published "numerous editions of Renaissance music, including a complete edition with commentary of the sacred music of [the 15th-century composer] Antoine Busnoys," and that while teaching at Columbia University, Taruskin had a distinguished performing career in early music. (Among other activities, he conducted the Cappella Nova, a New York-based choir specializing in medieval and Renaissance music; as a viola da gambist he recorded and toured with the Aulos ensemble.)

Anonymous IV's whining that Taruskin "rushes through more than 1000 years of music history" is no less mystifying. Hello!
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By a malariologist on April 12, 2010
Format: Paperback
I have been enthralled with Taruskin's work over the past four months. Anyone interested in the history of literate music in western culture will find the book fascinating, with a few conditions: you'll need some experience listening to the music, you need to be able to read music, and you'll need access to a keyboard to understand the author's analysis of harmony (among other things, this work is a history of harmonic practice). Professional musicians and musicologists will understand more of the technical subleties than me--sometimes Taruskin asks us to follow his argument `score in hand'--which unfortunately, as some poet said, I have not got! I have nearly five decades of experience listening to music dating from around 1700 to the present, a limited ability to play the piano, and one course in harmony from 35 years ago. I'm probably at the bottom end of the range of the author's target audience in terms of technical ability, but I still enjoyed the book.

Since the last volume ends with the notion of ending in the middle of things, I took that as permission to begin reading with the pivotal volume on the 19th century. This turned out to be good decision, as I was familiar with nearly all of the works discussed, and as person who dearly loves Beethoven, Brahms and instrumental music, my personal musical world-view was firmly in the author's critical crosshairs.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Greg Vitercik on September 12, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Music history with a distinctive point of view, as is true of everything Taruskin writes. It's a work in the magisterial tradition, exhibiting a humanity and a command of material that goes far beyond anything I've ever encountered.

It's also a delight to read; charmingly written and clearly argued. If you love music and love thinking about music, you should have this on your shelf.
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39 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Miriam K. Whaples on September 18, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Oxford gets two very black eyes for this one. Here are five magnificent textbooks for graduate music-history classes. But they can't be ordered separately: my class of 15 are sharing a single library copy of vol. 4 (and lapping it up).

The text volumes, all but one around 800 pp., have no indexes or bibliographies; those are in vol. 6: sixty-nine separate chapter bibliographies, the entire index in a single alphabet. Did anyone at Oxford give a moment's thought to how these books would be used?
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By demo on October 7, 2011
Format: Paperback
The first two volumes are excellent (5 stars apiece), the middle (19thC) volume is good, but the last two decline from mediocrity (early 20th) to abject crappiness (late twentieth). Starting with the 19th century, Taruskin begins to grind his anti-modern reactionary axe and the work suffers from it, becoming an attempt at validating his own neo-conservative tastes instead of a real history of the music. Too bad. I was truly excited when I began reading this and truly disgusted when I finished.

Taruskin is a great scholar of early music (far and away the best I've ever been exposed to) and more than competent on the "classical" era (despite a tendency toward overly pedantic analyses -you know, the kind with lots of B sharps and F flats in it), but he is very weak (and lacking in sympathy) beyond that. He seems far more interested in dismissing / belittling composers who offend his (to me prissy and unimaginative) sensibilities. He's often entertaining when he does this (he has a gift for sarcasm), but as scholarship it's basically garbage, opinion masquerading as history.

Almost any history of the early 20th is as good or better than his. For readers interested in the late 20th (besides those who -like Taruskin himself- merely wish to pretend "modernism" never happened and are reassured by minimalism), Paul Griffiths Modern Music and After is far more informative and sympathetic.

The writing itself is excellent and engaging throughout. I wish he'd stopped after the first two volumes (music he's genuinely excited about). Beginning with the nineteenth century it begins to feel like he's writing out of an obligation to complete the work instead of a real desire to examine the music itself.

The bindings of the paperbacks are pretty bad, which makes the last two volumes a real waste of money.
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