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.
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.
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.
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.