Customer Reviews: Oxford History of Western Music: 5-vol. set
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on April 12, 2010
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. Thus challenged, but persuaded by his arguments and the force of his example (his analysis of the careers and music of the contemporaries Wagner and Verdi is fabulous), I then read with pleasure volume 2 (with an excellent analysis of the relationship of Bach's world view to his music), then 4 (with an illuminating analysis of the harmonic practice of Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartok), then 5 (I think Taruskin agrees with me that John Adams' music is boring, but for once is too polite to say so), and finally the first volume. As I was not familiar with any of the works in the first volume, this one was a struggle, but much worth it, as I've now added quite a few wonderful pieces to my CD collection.

I bought these volumes after reading Taruskin's essays in the "Danger of Music". In that book, the author is argumentative, prone to score points on this opponents rather than enlighten his readers, and occasionally even gossipy. In this history, by contrast, he is resolutely judicious, fair, and illuminating in the best academic tradition. He'd likely maintain that he's just being a critic in the former work, but I like his professorial historian persona better. In his history, Taruskin brings the music of the past to life in its context, but he remains conscious of his 21st century vantage point. He treats composers like the humans they are, no matter how exceptional their music gifts. With his ironic self-awareness, the author is purposefully not Romantic in his outlook. He's even funny now and again. If you are willing to break away from the traditional Germanic view of `pure' music that I grew up with--mostly through reading the backs of record covers--you will learn much from this work and even listen with fresh ears. The book is well written, with only a few runaway sentences requiring a second reading. I noticed a mere handful of typographical errors.
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on September 12, 2009
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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on October 7, 2011
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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on May 10, 2016
Music history courses have been a standard part of college-level music instruction in the West for several generations. With good teachers it really is fascinating to learn how a great tradition of cultivated music emerged from Gregorian chant and evolved through “the classics” into the cauldron of the 20th century. Indeed many of my fondest memories from my own university days in the 1980s are of encountering various old and obscure musics for the first time. I have less fond memories, though, of the kind of music history textbooks we had back then. Dry in style, reticent in tone, filled with names and dates, they treated their subject matter in a kind of vacuum, focusing mainly on formal and stylistic details with little examination of how the prevailing social, political and ecological milieu of an era might have conditioned the type of music launched into it. And then there’s the question of scope: our textbooks fixated on what the mass media call “classical music”, with scant coverage of folk music, non-Western music and the commercial music which in our own day has become preponderate worldwide. Most of the interesting learning experiences came in the lecture rooms, listening labs and discussion groups. There was little reason to actually sit down and read a standard music history textbook for pleasure…until now.

Though Taruskin, too, focuses almost exclusively on Western art music (henceforth “WAM”) in his multi-volume tome, I’m happy to report that he vastly improves on his predecessors in the other aforementioned respects. If you love this music and have the wherewithal to undertake a pretty intensive 3000+ page journey—or if you suffered through a dull music history curriculum at school and want to reengage with that subject on your own terms (and without pressure of time or grades)—then I encourage you to dive into this remarkable and fascinating work. It’s an entertaining read, often speculative, sometimes maddening, but invariably a far cry from those dull academic tracts that festoon their chapters with bland summary points and review questions, delivering all the excitement of a Soviet election.

Throughout these five volumes, Taruskin’s narrative is driven by a handful of key arguments summarized in an Introduction that’s reprinted at the start of each book:

1. That WAM is, and always has been, an elitist tradition
2. That major changes in this tradition seldom happen arbitrarily, but reflect the contingencies of the broader society, specifically that part of society whence come the aforementioned elites. Plenty of authors explore this theme, but Taruskin is more insightful than most. You’ll read about how the political alliance between Frankish and Papal authorities led to the first notations of Gregorian chant, and how the bloody English reformation impacted both Catholic and Protestant music-making in Britain. Taruskin cautions against “confusing causes or purposes with enabling conditions”, and his view of the chain of musical causality is that “certain conditions make a development, say the art of the Meistersinger, possible” rather than inevitable. This is good advice, but in the process Taruskin ends up understating the ability of music and other cultivated arts to anticipate social changes—and not just react to them—in ways that allow innovators in politics, science, engineering, etc. to think this or that new thought. He also has a propensity to cross from scholarship to conjecture on this topic, as with his frequent indictment of musicians for supporting nefarious political interests (Taruskin’s zeal is particularly sharp when these involve anti-Semitism or German nationalism). But despite these missteps, Taruskin’s willingness to take risks in engaging this topic is much of what makes the Oxford History of Western Music such an compelling read
3. Most salient of all is Taruskin’s insistence that WAM is, above all else, a literate tradition, distinguished from other musics by its dissemination chiefly through notation—in other words through the writing of music. Reflecting on the invention of the staff around 1028, Taruskin declares that “the notion of a ‘piece’ of music could only arise when music began to be thought of in terms of an actual piece of paper or parchment”. And Taruskin attributes the allegedly tenuous social standing of contemporary art music in our times to the transition to postliteracy that he feels is now underway. This transition, driven largely by modern technology, is postulated to mark the terminal stage of WAM itself

I concur about WAM being essentially an elitist tradition, though as an unabashed elitist and meritocrat, I consider that a feature not a bug. I find Taruskin’s idea of “writing” as the chief differentiator of WAM to be captivating but somewhat overplayed (WAM is also distinguished from vernacular traditions by the way that it evolves and intersects with the rest of society). As for his prediction about WAM’s imminent demise, I reject this bit of musical dispensationalism and believe that WAM will continue to live and evolve. But I do feel that the next revolution in the art form, perhaps one that’s already perceptible, will be more of an epistemological one (indeed the first such revolution since WAM’s origins) than an ontological one of the kind that set off the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern and Postmodern periods from their predecessors (c.f. Physics and Philosophy about the ontology/epistemology dichotomy, which Heisenberg applied to the physical sciences but which can also apply to the cultivated Western arts). Viewed from this perspective, Taruskin’s notion of postliterate music culture, minus the doom-mongering, is a useful concept. Regardless of how you feel about Taruskin’s “three theses” though, they form a coherent framework that propels and contextualizes his writing in a way that keeps it dynamic and interesting over 69 ambitious chapters.

Several more modest themes recur as well:

• Female composers, and their historical struggles and marginalization, are highlighted in each volume. Special attention is given to Hildegard von Bingen, the underappreciated Barbara Strozzi, and the more familiar Fanny Mendelssohn and Amy Beach. But Ruth Crawford, clearly the most important female composer of the modernist period, is slighted in favor of Lili Boulanger (tragically short-lived and probably of less historical impact than her sister Nadia). And more recent figures of such prominence as Thea Musgrave and Pauline Oliveros go unmentioned
• Certain stylistic traits, such as tonality, diatonicism, cadences and dynamic curves, are shown to be present in WAM from its very beginnings, becoming ensconced by the Late Middle Ages and remaining unchallenged until the 20th century
• As noted above, the sordid history of European anti-Semitism provides ample grist for Taruskin. Wagner and Nazi Germany present obvious topics, as do Mendelssohn, Mahler and Schoenberg, and all are covered within the broader theme of the interrelationship between music history and social history. Less expected, and sometimes head-scratching, are Taruskin’s digressions about anti-Semitism in the Victimae Paschali Laudes sequence, in Neidhardt’s songs and in Bach’s sacred music

You will not always agree with Taruskin. In real life he’s notorious as both a prolific superbrain and an acerbic polemicist, kind of an academic counterpart to superstar athletes who are also inveterate trash-talkers. Opinions that Taruskin has taken as a critic often imbue his narrative as a historian, and it’s probably best to approach this series as an engaged history rather than as an objective survey. Also, be warned that some musicians or compositions that you admire may be ignored or marginalized. Taruskin admits that in order to focus on “why and how things happened as they did…a lot of famous music, and even some famous composers, go unmentioned in these pages”. Among the latter are Pierre de la Rue, Gibbons, Charpentier and Clementi. Among the former are Obrecht’s Missa Maria Zart and Wagner’s Parsifal. Sibelius gets the briefest of citations, and British neo-romantics like Vaughan Williams are missing entirely despite their prominence in Anglocentric CD catalogs. Fans of Theodor Adorno will not appreciate the way that Taruskin trashes him and his influence. And although Taruskin often excels at drawing chains of enablement between sociopolitical factors and musical changes, he’s less adept at finding isomorphisms between musical developments and innovations in other contemporaneous intellectual pursuits. There’s no connection drawn between Renaissance polyphony and vanishing-point perspective, for example, nor between atonality and abstract painting, nor between indeterminacy in postmodern music and “limit of knowledge” concepts that emerged contemporaneously in physics and mathematics. Taruskin has a bizarre perspective on musical modernism, claiming among other things that the “real 20th century begins” not with Debussy, Pierrot Lunaire or The Rite, but with 1920s neo-classicism. And as far as his take on post-WW2 music goes…well that will warrant its own critique later.

As I mentioned earlier, despite the appellation “Oxford History of Western Music”, Taruskin himself admits that “Western music here means what it has always meant in general academic histories: it means what is usually called art music or classical music”. Folk and commercial traditions are relegated to the margins. Despite this, Taruskin seems a reluctant elitist. He draws on Marxist and revisionist thinkers like Hobsbawn and Walser (and to an extent on art sociologists like Becker) to characterize WAM as an “invented tradition”, a variation on the “Emperor’s new clothes” argument that Taruskin deploys against targets that he regards as overrated (these include Elliott Carter and even Josquin and Beethoven). Though I deplore this dip in the caustic waters of conspiracy mongering, I concede that Taruskin’s take isn’t too far removed from the better argued and less cynical contentions of Polanyi and others on how sharing of conviction through institutions of culture (including recital halls and conservatories) and communal rituals (such as concerts and academic conferences) can foster a kind of group loyalty among artists and intellectuals. I’ll also concede Taruskin’s assertion that through the agents of modern media and technology, the “dominance of the academic curriculum [in music] is in an irreversible process of decline”. Nevertheless Taruskin, whether in his scholarly books or in his less considered remarks as a critic, is no orthodox Marxist, but promulgates an odd (and not always coherent) mix of cultural populism, analytical Marxism, anti-authoritarianism, capitalist apologetics, musical conservatism and, perhaps, Cold War era xenophobia.

The first two volumes of the series are the most solid and interesting. Taruskin’s training is mainly in early music, and his chapters on medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music are filled with affectionate analysis of paradigmatic compositions. Indeed the presence of so many pages of printed music and analysis of actual pieces is in welcome contrast to typical music history books (e.g., Lang’s Music in Western Civilization, 1000+ pages without a single printed musical example). Taruskin’s third volume, on Romantic music, is, while still insightful, not as consistently good as its predecessors, trying a bit too hard at times to find something…anything…new to say about the 19th century’s familiar warhorses. The two volumes on 20th century music, while offering many unique perspectives on particular works and composers, grow increasingly disfigured by Taruskin’s prejudices against complex and atonal music to the point that by the time the fifth volume gets going, it’s more of a polemical essay on postmodern music than a legitimate history text. I’ll have more to say on these topics as I review the individual volumes, but despite these criticisms I still find this the most enjoyable and thought-provoking of any work I’ve read that purports to canvass the history of WAM. Whatever else he is, Taruskin is a conversant and stimulating writer who is not afraid to go out on a rhetorical limb.

Now for a couple of practical points:

• These are fairly technical books ostensibly intended for use by music students at the collegiate or graduate level. They’re well-suited for independent reading too, but to keep up you’ll need to be familiar with music-making in general and WAM in particular. Knowing how to read music is essential, as is familiarity with Western musical terminology and instruments. This doesn’t mean that you have to be a professional—if you’ve played in a high school orchestra, for example, then I think you’ll be adequately prepared even if you’ve had no further training or experience. It also helps if you have some basic knowledge of European history from about 800 onwards, and you should also be familiar with Christianity and Roman Catholic ritual practice
• Regarding the physical quality of the books, my paperback copies have held up well over a few years of use, but some reviewers have reported deteriorating bindings, so caveat emptor there (unfortunately the hardcover edition is beyond my means). The photographic reproductions in my copies are of disappointing quality: black and white only, and paintings in particular tend to look like cheap photocopies
• Actually listening to the quoted compositions is something of a challenge for independent readers. Many of Taruskin’s musical examples come from well-known pieces that you can often hear for free on YouTube. But other cited works are hard to find, especially if you don’t have access to a formidable music library, and a handful are even completely lacking in downloadable recordings (at least as of this writing). The publisher has CDs and MP3 files for sale that accompany the “College Edition”, a single-volume paraphrase of Taruskin’s series put together by Christopher Gibbs. But the music quoted in the College Edition doesn’t always match what’s in Taruskin’s full edition. In a university setting, of course, you’ll go to the library and put on headphones, or perform or listen to the quoted excerpts in class. But the rest of us will have to spend a lot of time at the keyboard, or else a lot of time (and money) locating recordings of hundreds of compositions. If you have a collector’s love for this kind of endeavor, it can actually be quite fun, but for others it could be a burden and a chore

At the end of the day, though, it’s worth it. Because this is an exciting and provocative work, as intriguing in its insights as it is stunning in its scope. The sheer audacity of its realization by a single author is itself impressive, and though I often find Taruskin’s polemics infuriating and even incoherent, I never find them boring. As a student I undertook two rigorous journeys of guided discovery through the chronological history of Western art music (one as an undergraduate and one as a graduate student). And now, decades later, canvassing these books, cherishing the many musical examples, spending hours on supplemental listening and reading, I'm reliving those feelings of awe and exhilaration that marked my first immersion in the art. It's like coming back to a first love who hasn't aged at all.
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on June 18, 2012
Mr. Taruskin's work in this book series is awesome. This series is one of the most ambitious musicological undertakings in recent memory. His insights are outstanding, and he has a flair for theoretical analysis that balances between historical context and theory near-seamlessly.

I always find bad reviews more helpful than good ones, so instead of gushing over how good these books are, let me give you some other points that might help you decide if you want to fork over the cash.

- These are not traditional textbooks in the way of Grout or Stolba. There are no diagrams, pictures, timelines, margin notes, et al. What the book does have is text, and lots of it, and many, many musical examples.
- The books seem to be written in the manner of a lecture: there is lots of talking and musical examples, just as you would get if you sat down in one of Taruskin's classes. Also, the chapters are all nearly the same length regardless of subject matter, which is another reason why I think they are similar to the experience of sitting in one of Taruskin's lectures.
- Taruskin's style can be kind of like this: "Sit down and I'll tell you a story." As a result, you won't find a chapter called "Mendelssohn" and another called "Webern". He weaves in and out of these composers as he likes, so besides the general index, you may find it time-consuming to find a specific topic in the set if you are doing research.
- There are no indices in the individual volumes; only the last book has the indices.

On the whole though, an awesome set of books, and the price is definitely worth it.
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on April 21, 2015
Just finished reading the Oxford History of Music, a five volume series covering music in antiquity through the late twentieth century! Authored by Richard Taruskin, it is a monumental achievement and long overdue. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in a very well written and organized history of art music, with some attention paid to folk, pop, avant garde, electronic and computer music. I wish I had had the availability of something like this for my musicological studies back in the late sixties and early seventies. It is a gold mine of information, copiously annotated and includes numerous musical examples, many of which are insightfully analyzed. Thank you Richard Taruskin!
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on November 11, 2010
Although some music scholars may quibble over a few of Richard Taruskin's assertions, particularly in regards to early music, I doubt anyone can criticize his overall approach. Outlined in his introduction, the UC Berkeley professor's goal is not just to present a survey of music repetorie, styles, trends, forms, genres, and the respective historical figures which make up the vast landscape of Western Music from the Middle Ages through the 20th century. Rather, he offers an historical angle pertaining to how and why music in the western world evolved as it did, singling out specific historical events, crucial moments, and sensibility trends which had far-reaching impact on much musical output. Taruskin has created and succeeded in my view in producing a work which can stand up against any work of the same subject, and in many cases surpassing them because of the constant citing of primary source material. Taruskin backs up nearly all of his assertions with primary sources and historical evidence, despite that some may regard a few of his conclusions as slightly off the mark. Very few competing texts explicitly state their sources outside of works published in scholarly journals. Most simply make a lot of declarations, such as when a certain style or form was popular, but not really why. Taruskin has made more accessible the inside stories known by musicologists which are not always presented so thoroughly in typical music history textbooks.

When I was an undergraduate music major, the history of music was presented as a series of different styles, forms and historical fugures which had to be learned and recognized. In the Middle Ages there was monophonic Gregorian Chant, the beginnings of vocal polyphony, the secular latin songs, and people like Guido d'Arzzo, Leonin, Perotin, Philip de Vitry, and Hildegard de Bingen. In the Renaissance, there was the motet and the madrigal associated with composers such as Josquin de Prez and Claudio Monteverdi. In the Baroque era, ensemble concertos and the first operas made their appearances, and the revered figures included Monteverdi in the second-half of his career, Jean-Baptiste Lully, George Handel, and Johann Sebastian Bach. In the Classical Era saw the rise of the solo concerto and the symphony with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, etc, etc. However, missing from most of the text books was a clear indication about what historical events directly influenced musical decisions and why composers may have been compelled to write certain works in certain ways. Most of the material is presented as if the entire evolution of music is essentially a natural progression over time. Taruskin attempts to debunk this notion and show how music is highly influenced by the events, people and sensibilities surrounding its creation, and none of the results were necessarily "inevitable".

For example, Taruskin asserts that during the 8th century, the beginnings of Gregorian Chant notation may in fact be a partial result of Pope Stephen II traveling across the Alps to what is now present-day France to solicit help from Pepin the Short in his wars against the Lombards back in Rome. Pepin desired to unite the regions of France and Germany under a single king, and his crowning at the hands of the Pope could legitimize this claim. In return, the Pope sought uniformity of Christian liturgical practice which had become quite varied in the far western regions of Europe which, until that time, had been free of Roman oversight. This political unification helps instigate the Carolingian Renaissance in which high culture mostly associated with Middle and Eastern Europe is transmitted to the north-western regions of Europe. A migration of book styles, art creation, and liturgical practice make its way to the west. Our earliest examples of notated church music survive from this period, leading scholars to believe that the first notational system was created sometime in the middle of the 8th century, most likely a product of the this renaissance. From these pieces of historical facts, Taruskin concludes that a music notation system may have served dual purposes: allowing an easier means for in-coming clergy to learn the required vast repertoire of Roman plainsong, a.k.a. Gregorian Chant, and it would also provide a means for sanctioned music repertoire to be imposed on churches previously outside Rome's jurisdiction. He explicits states that no surviving primary sources exist which explain the reason for the initial creation of the system. All of a sudden, these notated pieces seem to come into existence out of nowhere without any corresponding documentation, or at least no such documentation has survived. Church leaders of the 9th century then took their campaign one step further by fabricating a legend that Pope Gregory the Great had written the entire chant repertoire at the behest of the Holy Spirit, thus forever fusing his name to monophonic liturgical plainsong. Taruskin sites several sources, such as a colorful if fairly inventive biography of Gregory the Great by John the Deacon dating from the 9th century which describes Gregory's personal antiphon, a collection of notated church pieces. An antiphon could not have existed during this time because music notation had yet to be invented!

In another era many centuries later, Taruskin describes the rise of Opera Buffa (a.k.a. Opera Comique) to headline performances in the late 18th century, whereas previously it had been relegated to intermissions of Opera Seria in the early 18th century, sort of like a half-time show. The pinnacle of Opera Buffa's coming-of-age are exemplified in the works by the team of Mozart and Da Ponte, such as "the Marriage of Figaro" and "Don Giovanni" in which higher budgets and larger-scale production values became the norm while strict Opera Seria was going out of vogue. Certainly, no musicologist can argue this didn't happen, but the question is why did Opera Buffa gain in popularity in the late 18th century while before it was a kind of musical 2nd class citizen in the early 1700's to the revered Opera Seria? Taruskin shows that with the rise of Enlightenment sensibilities in the 18th century, more of a bourgeoisie public began attending opera, and their tastes veered more toward contemporary settings involving the clashes of the classes rather than the heavier Opera Seria which centered around Ancient Greek and Roman myths. Opera Seria had probably run its course, having been in vogue for nearly two centuries. Just as movie-going audiences appreciated the likes of Star Wars, ET the Extraterrestrial and Raiders of the Lost Ark in the late 20th century, audiences of the late 18th century enjoyed opera which combined elements of both seria and buffa, such as "Don Giovanni".

These are just a few examples which demonstrate Taruskin's efforts to show how historical events and political attitudes inevitably influence the arts. Music as well as other art does not reside in a vacuum divorced from outside influences, which is I think the main point of Taruskin's colossal work. The only shortcoming I have, which a few have expressed, is the large price-tag which Oxford University Press imposed on the first hardcover edition of six volumes, making it much less accessible to larger readership. The newer paperback versions are somewhat less expensive, but cannot be bought individually. If the hardcover set had been closer to $250 rather than $799, I think a lot more people could own and appreciate them. At the higher price, they are limited to university and scholarly institutions. Most college students can't afford this set at its cover price. However, despite these reservations, this is a tremendous work by one of the leading musicologists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The Oxford History of Western Music by Richard Taruskin is worth its asking price, but at the same time I wish the price was not so prohibitive to the average book-buyer and music lover.
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on December 23, 2014
A masterpiece by a great thinker. Columbia should never have let him go!
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on June 4, 2010
I initially purchased only the volume on early music for a history seminar in my graduate program and was thoroughly impressed into the detail that Taruskin provides. He presents music within the context of history itself. I enjoyed the writing style and decided to pick up the rest of the books as one complete set.
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on March 2, 2013
very inclusive. Great for studying all the different eras in music. Much larger and more detailed than the one we used in college.
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