Over a year has now passed since the publication of Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music. Not surprisingly, given its heft (6 volumes, over 4,000 pages), there hasn’t yet been a serious review of it — who would willingly take on such a job? Some, I’m sure, have simply thrown up their hands.
True, the Washington Post’s Tim Page devoted a few hundred words to the task. But the absurdity of such a review was revealed by its headline: "In Brief: The History of Music." And so we get conclusions such as these:
But I would no more treat the results as mainstream authority than I would a chronicle written by a team of mavericks such as, say, Glenn Gould, John Cage and Spike Jones.
The results are just too strange, in a way that history should not be strange.
Probably the most ambitious reviewing effort was Roger Scruton’s in the Times Literary Supplement last July. He confined himself to two volumes, but his review was a publicist’s dream:
Every now and then a quiet discipline in the humanities receives a shattering and world-changing shock, when one of its stars leaves its allotted orbit and crashes brain-first into the centre of the subject. The effect is like an asteroid hitting the earth: old life is extinguished, new life promoted, and the landscape for ever transformed. Such was the impact in our time of Leavis on academic English, of Wittgenstein on academic Philosophy, and of Aries on academic History. Such, too, will be the impact — so I predict — of Richard Taruskin on academic Musicology. Having made his name with scholarly publications on all aspects of musical history and performance, including a profound two-volume book on Stravinsky and some 160 articles on Russian composers in the New Grove Dictionary of Music, Taruskin has now completed the greatest musicological task of all: a comprehensive summary of the Western classical tradition. The result is one of the great cultural monuments of our day, the product of a mind as humane and morally focused as it is technically assured.
But the monumental task of reviewing Taruskin’s entire work has finally been accomplished by Charles Rosen, in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books. Part I is online now, and it’s a prickly piece of work. I’m looking forward to what is (I hope) the inevitable clash of minds and egos in the Review‘s letter pages.
My 2001 Lingua Franca profile of Taruskin and his book can be found here.