Customer Reviews: Oxford History of Western Music: 5-vol. set
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on January 19, 2005
"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

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! Taruskin devotes 1,612 pages to the first 1000 years of notated music in the Western world - rather more than the 843 pages in which Grout/Palisca, to which Anonymous IV repeatedly compares Taruskin, covers the entire history of Western music.

But most importantly: if Anonymous IV has indeed read Taruskin's History of Western Music, he/she will have found, in its opening paragraphs, (pp. xxi and xxii), a clear statement of the book's aim. It is not, Taruskin explains, a survey à la Grout. Rather, it is "an attempt at a true history" - that is, an attempt "to explain why and how things happened as they did" - in short, not the usual laundry list that has too often passed for music history. To compare Taruskin to Grout on this count is rather like faulting a cognac for not being a beer.

Taruskin fulfills his stated aim exhilaratingly. His book is a towering achievement of scholarship and intellect; a challenge to complacency; a joy to read.

As to the accusation that Oxford's production of Taruskin's book is shoddy: well, I do not know what Anonymous IV has been doing with his/her copy. I have been reading mine, for some weeks now, and have had no problem whatsoever with its binding.
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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 September 18, 2005
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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on November 10, 2009
Music is written in historical and social context, and that's what the Taruskin does. Not only that, but the technical analysis is wonderful. I especially enjoyed volume 4, and the analysis of Tchaik, R Strauss, and Stravinsky. (check out the "omnibus progression" explanation). it's all good though,. The quotes are pithy and to the points Taruskin makes.

I liked the prose VERY much. I find Grout to be very difficult to plow through, and often incoherent in its sequential organization, a very difficult textbook. This new edition is most welcome, a stunning feat of scholarship, musicianship, and prose. it's thrilling, and the college library where i teach is being plundered, one volume at a time. (No, I'm not stealing the books, just monopolizing them)
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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 December 15, 2004
Taruskin challenges many of the deep-seeded assumptions about music history. His work is compelling, smart, and deeply-layered. This five-volume set will prove to a be landmark in the study of western classical music, one which come to be valued as *the* reference.

His distracters are often noisy, for it is their work which is called into question by Taruskin. He is considered a "new musicologist," one who seeks connections between music and culture, and looks to explain music as part of a larger whole of life and history rather than in the insular autonomous space preferred by traditional musicologists. Many of us were trained by these old-school musicologists; coming to grips with scholarship which lies outside that scope requires thoughtful work and reevaluation. It is well worth it, and Taruskin is the man to alleviate those border tensions.
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on September 21, 2006
This 6-volume history is both entertaining and highly idiosyncratic. For a 'survey', that's an unusual combination, but in this case the idiosyncracies are a great advantage. The reader is treated to a comprehensive tour of Western music, from a cultural perspective infused with brilliant social and political insights. For example, the extended discussion of 'Romanticism' and 'The Folk', with all the psycho-social baggage attendant to the latter is a stunning tour-de-force. You won't agree with all of Taruskin's observations: the charm he finds in Mozart's 'Magic Flute' (with its high dose of 'Das Volk') falls flat with me. Mozart wrote several operas head and shoulders above that one, to my ears. But one need not agree with Taruskin to find the journey wondrously edifying.

As history, Taruskin's work is surprisingly readable. I learned more about the history of Europe in the Middle Ages from Volume I than I ever could have from a straight history book.

In the end, the achievement of these books is awe-inspiring. If you love 'Classical Music' (Taruskin is at his best taking that loaded phrase apart) you will find Taruskin's large-scale meditation on the subject both a challenge and a delight.
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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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