Richard Taruskin explores the dark side of music
Lingua Franca, July/August 2001
Last October, Berkeley musicologist Richard Taruskin addressed an international music symposium at the University of Glasgow. He spoke in the familiar academic idiom, complete with allusions to Tertullian, Jorge Luis Borges, and scholarship in three different languages. But for all its genteel erudition, this was hardly a civil lecture. “I see my task as that of defending scholarship against its enemies,” Taruskin portentously intoned, “before an audience I must assume to be at least partly hostile.” Specifically, he leveled accusations at the American Musicological Society, claiming it had “compromised its status as a scholarly organization.
And then the gloves came off. In a ninety-minute harangue that the Glasgow Herald found “hugely entertaining,” Taruskin mercilessly ridiculed opponents who had associated his views with everything from pro-Sovietism to anti-Semitism. Taruskin, who is Jewish, threatened to refute the latter charge by “drop[ping] my pants in silent protest.” (Discretion prevailed.) Anticommunism, he said with a street fighter’s bravado, “is one pissing contest I believe I could win.” Opponents were “idiotic commentators” who were prepared to believe the most illogical nonsense, like “the possibility that the hall we are sitting in has been surrounded by blue meanies with ray guns who are about to incinerate us all.”
It was the kind of performance that has earned Taruskin his reputation as one of the most polemically formidable and publicly influential musicologists in the world today. He was the only academic included in the BBC Music Magazine’s recent list of the sixty most powerful figures in today’s music world. Through his regular contributions to The New York Times and The New Republic, he has attracted a readership far beyond the reach of most professors. Not all of these readers are fans. On Internet message boards he is frequently disparaged, sometimes in threads with titles such as “Tired of Mr. T” or “Let’s Bash Taruskin.”
In addition to his public influence, Taruskin has created a corpus of scholarship of breathtaking scope and crushing weight. While working on a comprehensive study of the early music of Igor Stravinsky (in two volumes and eighteen hundred pages), Taruskin also managed to transcribe, collate, edit, and annotate an edition of works by the fifteenth-century French composer Antoine Busnoys. He has published several books of his vigorous, sparklingly written essays. And he has contributed 160 articles on Russian composers and their works — close to a quarter million words — to a single reference work, the New Grove Dictionary of Opera.
Few of his writings have been uncontroversial. In his first brush with notoriety in the 1980s, he challenged the philosophy of the early music movement, which championed an ideal of “historically correct” performance. Such performances, Taruskin wrote in the Times, had “very little” to do with history, and everything to do with the “dehumanizing” aesthetic of modernism. The performances’ “authenticity,” he elaborated, derives from their being “for better or worse a true mirror of late twentieth-century taste.”
After the battle spilled over into letters columns, Taruskin became more emphatic in his argument, broadening his examination of the unspoken assumptions of modernism and critiquing what he considered the baleful influence it exerted on composers. He ridiculed the triumphalist rhetoric and cerebral compositions of “academic serialist” composers, associating them with “vulgar” Darwinists, East German spies, and the widow of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha. Even composers Taruskin admired were not spared his rebukes. His Stravinsky opus was constructed around the argument that the Russian composer was a liar — about his own music. And in his most recent book, Defining Russia Musically, he suggests that echoes of fascism give Stravinsky’s early ballets an “ominously compelling political allure.”
Now Taruskin has decided to take on his biggest, and potentially most controversial, challenge yet: completely rewriting the history of western music. In March, he finished the first draft of a seventy-five-chapter manuscript, sending it off to his editors at Oxford University Press. The book promises to be a Grand Statement, a sweepingly ambitious attempt to tell the story of music within a larger history of the western world — economic, social, political, and moral. It’s an approach that concerns his critics. “Richard is an extreme example of the dangers of getting too deeply into the issue of context,” says Columbia University musicologist Allen Forte. Dangers? Pieter van den Toorn, a musicologist at UC Santa Barbara, elaborates: “How long will music be able to survive as something we enjoy precisely because it doesn’t have these immediate concrete attachments?”
Few music textbooks address issues as large and morally fraught as anti-Semitism, the birth of nationalism, the Holocaust, and the Cold War. None, almost certainly, contain as many words as Taruskin’s latest work. It will be “longer than War and Peace,” Taruskin promises, smiling wearily, “but War and Peace doesn’t have as many musical examples.”
If you didn’t know Richard Taruskin’s reputation as a pit bull, you’d swear he was a pussycat. At fifty-six, he sports a helmet of thick salt-and-pepper hair with matching moustache and beard. He favors drab, loose-fitting, occasionally coffee-stained clothing — the unofficial uniform of the rumpled professor.
One Berkeley morning, I sit in on an undergraduate music-history class Taruskin is teaching. Wearing a blazer with a hole in the right elbow, Taruskin prowls around the classroom. He lectures without notes, sharing anecdotes, questioning students, and commenting critically on the music he plays for them. Taruskin is dealing with one of his favorite subjects — the “meaning” of music. “Why is it so difficult for music to be realistic?” he asks his students. The answer he is looking for — that music, unlike most other arts, has no “stable vocabulary” — is slowly extracted through a process of Socratic questioning. The exchange is lively. Musicologists who have been pummeled into silence by Taruskin’s bruising attacks might be surprised to see undergraduates fearlessly challenging him in class. “There’s no fixed pitch in nature,” Taruskin asserts, provoking a chorus of protests and counter-examples. He finally has to concede that birdsong comes pretty close. He smiles indulgently, perhaps noting inwardly that he’ll have to sharpen that apercu before it shows up in print.
Taruskin loves music’s semantic indeterminacy, its capacity for meaning different things to different people. This indeterminacy suggests that listeners will always have as much to say about music’s “meaning” as any composer or performer. The greatest villains in Taruskin’s books are those who seek to restrict interpretation, stifle the imagination, or coerce listeners into a single way of hearing.
He plays an aria from an opera by Tikhon Khrennikov, the notorious Soviet hack who served as secretary of the Union of Composers for forty-three years. Taruskin marches in time to the music, while a Russian bass, singing the role of a kulak exploiter, worries about Soviet forces coming from Moscow to seize his property. “This is how propaganda works,” says Taruskin, still marching along with the music’s insistent military pulse. “Through repetition.”
Many composers outside the Soviet Union recoiled against the crude propagandistic appeal of such music. Taruskin plays an excerpt from Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, which at one point parodies the famous “invasion theme” from Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. Taruskin thumbs his nose and scrunches up his face as a chorus of mocking brass interrupt the theme. “War schmarr! Garbage is garbage,’ Bartok seems to be saying,” he tells the class. “But it illustrates the essential quandary of the twentieth century,” he adds more seriously. “Should an artist’s allegiance be to Art, or to people … or to both?”
The question has haunted Taruskin from his earliest days as a musician. Born in New York in 1945, Taruskin was raised in a musical family — his mother taught piano and his father was an amateur violinist. When Richard started on the cello, the family would play trios together. Liberalism runs deep in his family’s history, a detail Taruskin talks about with pride. When he was eleven, he sported an Adlai Stevenson button months after the 1956 election campaign went down to defeat. “Aren’t you a little late, son?” asked a puzzled shop owner, when he spotted the button on Richard’s jacket. “No,” he replied defiantly, “I’m three and a half years early!” Taruskin’s mother proudly reported the story in a letter to the defeated candidate, and Stevenson wrote back, in a letter that is framed and still hanging in Taruskin’s home:
Your mother has written to me that you have not yet conceded! I must say that I admire your tenacity.
I hope that you will always keep your interest in politics.
Taruskin would not disappoint, though music was an unusual route to pursuing this interest. After graduating from New York’s High School of Music and Art, he entered Columbia University, majoring in Russian with a concentration in music. In 1965, he entered graduate school at Columbia, studying under Paul Henry Lang, a leading musicologist and author of the classic Music in Western Civilization.
One day, when his advisor was handing out research topics, Taruskin was told to investigate the evolution of the modern cello from the viola da gamba — a 6-stringed instrument used primarily in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. “It turned out there was no such transition,” says Taruskin with a laugh. “And I ended up making the opposite transition!” He asked a classmate — a professional gamba player — for some assistance. She demonstrated it and allowed him to play it for himself. Taruskin was hooked. He bought a cheap one to practice on and never looked back.
Throughout graduate school and beyond, Taruskin maintained a double existence as a scholar and a performer. He was appointed assistant professor of music at Columbia straight out of graduate school in 1973. At the same time, he conducted Cappella Nova, a chorus specializing in early music, while also tirelessly researching the late-medieval and Renaissance manuscripts the choir employed. He performed similar scholarly tasks for the Aulos Ensemble, a group of early music instrumentalists with whom Taruskin played the gamba. He was rewarded for his hard work; In 1978, Capella Nova won the first Noah Greenberg award for early music performance, which paid for the group’s first recording. But this life was also exhausting. “As the strain increased,” he confesses in an e-mail, “I used to amuse myself (console myself?) with thinking that I was the only musicologist who was accepted as a peer by performers, and the only performer who was accepted [as a peer] among musicologists.” It wasn’t enough.
By 1986, now with the added responsibility of a family, Taruskin was offered a position in Berkeley’s prestigious music department. He accepted, moving there the following year. His performing days were over, but he had found a home.
El Cerrito is a short drive up the freeway from Berkeley. Taruskin’s home, a ramshackle cottage, is hidden from the street by an unruly jumble of overhanging trees. Taruskin works in a shed-like structure next to the house, its floor covered with stacked books, manuscript pages, grass, and leaves.
After an afternoon of coffee and conversation in his kitchen, I ask whether I can hear some of Taruskin’s old recordings. He retrieves a few vinyl LPs from a nearby room crammed with shelves of records reaching up to the ceiling. “I haven’t listened to these records in years,” he says, and the cobwebs around the shelves seem to bear him out. “I’m doing this now with some trepidation.”
We begin with a recording of Taruskin playing the viola da gamba in a sonata by Johann Matthias Leffloth (1705-1731). Taruskin hands me the score to follow along. In the slow movement, Leffloth has sketched the faintest outline of a melody for the gamba, and Taruskin dutifully follows the laconic instructions. But when the time comes for the movement to be repeated, the music is transformed. Taruskin begins improvising around the bare structure of the melody; the viola da gamba throbs with passion at some points, whispers plaintively at others. Taruskin is like a jazz musician reinterpreting one of the old standards. We move on to a mass by Johannes Ockeghem, one of the greatest composers of the fifteenth century. The choir sings robustly, and to my ear, melodramatically. At crucial cadences, it slows down gradually, performing what is known as a ritardando. Taruskin smiles when he hears it. “Yeah, those ritards got me into trouble,” he says.
To put it bluntly, Taruskin’s ritardandi were out of style. As interest in early music performance grew throughout the 1980s, a revolution in the aesthetic of performance was also taking place. Taruskin’s “communicative” performance philosophy was being replaced by much sterner stuff. “Historical performance was taking over a lot of what had traditionally been mainstream territory,” explains John Butt, a lecturer on music at King’s College, Cambridge. Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music issued countless recordings in the 1980s, stressing quick and inflexible tempi (with not a ritardando to be found), literal adherence to the written score, and a cool, unadorned and “depersonalized” style.
But it wasn’t just the ritardandi that got Taruskin into trouble: it was what he had to say about them — loudly. In a series of essays in the New York Times and elsewhere, Taruskin scrutinized the increasingly ambitious, even moralistic, claims being made on behalf of “historical performance.” And in so doing, he ignited one of the most heated musical controversies of the past half-century.
“I was always very skeptical” about historical performance claims, says Taruskin. “What was the basis of this idea that we should be so sexless and so inexpressive? Was there evidence in the early music sources for this? I could never find any.” Taruskin’s taste and background had helped prod him in this direction. Some of his mentors had performed in the pioneering early music ensemble New York Pro Musica, under the baton of Noah Greenberg. “They were all very visceral and very communicative types of musicians,” he says.
Taruskin gleefully pointed out the inconsistencies and anachronisms of the self-appointed guardians of historical accuracy: strict adherence to metronome markings that were flouted by the very composers who established them, slavish devotion to a written score that Mozart himself would have scorned. Many historical performance ensembles used “countertenors” — male falsettos — in their performances of Renaissance and Baroque music. But as Taruskin observed, there was “no evidence that falsettists participated in any of these repertories when they were current.”
So why was the music being performed this way? Taruskin argued that the stripped-down, literal-minded, depersonalized sound of much historical performance had little to do with history, and everything to do with modernism. John Butt isn’t entirely convinced, though he thinks Taruskin “did a great service by bringing up this issue.” Butt will reexamine the debate in his forthcoming book, Playing With History (Cambridge). “Richard was absolutely correct that historical performance feeds on and could not have happened without modernism,” he says. “But there were several other things besides. . . . As is so often the case with Richard, he’ll often state something perhaps a bit too boldly and with too much exaggeration, but having done that, he changes our overall consciousness.”
One of Taruskin’s most surprising conclusions was that a single twentieth-century composer provided a crucial foundation for the movement. Historical performance, Taruskin argued, treated all music “as if it were composed — or at least performed — by Stravinsky.”
Stravinsky is at the heart of Taruskin’s vision of modern music. And on a warm April afternoon, Berkeley’s faculty and student population file into Wheeler Auditorium to find out why. Taruskin has been invited to give a Faculty Research Lecture, an annual honor bestowed since 1913 on Berkeley’s most distinguished faculty members. The talk is called “Stravinsky and Us.”
It is a humbling performance. Taruskin throws around terms like “combinatoriality,” “ricercar,” and “pitch-class set theory” with reckless abandon. At one point, he looks up from his prepared text and gives us a crash course in twelve-tone composition, explaining how a prime form of a tone row differs from its inverted form, retrograde form, and retrograde inverted form. After the talk, a couple of gray-haired gentlemen — former Faculty Research Lecturers themselves — exchange pleasantries, consoling each other on how little they were able to follow. “I don’t know why he has to do that,” Taruskin’s colleague, Joseph Kerman, grumbles to me, shaking his head on the way out the door.
In fact, there is a larger purpose behind Taruskin’s peacock-like displays of learning. Taruskin has been waging a furious battle with contemporary music theorists, scholars who have attempted to subject musical scores to increasingly abstract, often mathematical, levels of analysis. But in order to reject their technique, Taruskin has to show that he has mastered it.
Taruskin’s central argument is that such analysis tends to extract the sting of genius from the world’s greatest — and most morally fraught — works of music. Take Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the ballet that famously provoked a near-riot during its Paris premiere in May 1913. Countless books and articles have tried to unearth a deeper organizing principle behind the work’s implacable rhythms and startling dislocations. In Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, Taruskin himself posits a three-note “harmonic cell” as the work’s “Grundgestalt,” a view he has more recently self-critiqued. The hidden goal of such analysis is to insulate music from the social reality in which it is embedded, Taruskin now argues. It has a “normalizing and sanitizing” effect, making the music “safe” for listeners and analysts but draining it of its terrifying power. “One can only wonder why such well-behaved music should have evoked protests at its first performance,” he writes.
Taruskin suggests that we should still be protesting Stravinsky — at least in our hearts. Early ballets such as the Rite “participated in the great stripdownâ€¦ from humanism to biologism,” he argues; its primitivist score “was originally heard (and is still easily heard) as the annihilation of the subject and the denial of psychologyâ€¦. Rarely has an antihumanist message been so irresistibly communicated.” Music theorists try to defuse this threat by reducing the work’s “mystifying simplicity” to a “rational complexity,” but such an approach exacts its price. “The anxious thrill of moral risk,” writes Taruskin of Stravinsky’s 1923 choral ballet, Les noces, “is one of the things that has kept it alive, and one of the marks of its creator’s fearful potency.”
It is odd to hear such convincing musical paraphrases from someone who has insisted that “music eludes conclusive paraphrase.” Isn’t there something “coercive” about such readings? “A lot of reviewers have made that argument,” Taruskin acknowledges. But he adds that his claim is just one among many possible claims, and it is not presented dogmatically. “Making a strong, vigorous, even vehement argument, and having better evidence and better rhetorical skills than your opponent — that’s not coercion,” insists Taruskin. “That’s just being successful.”
Taruskin devotes the second half of his talk to Stravinsky’s 1952 Cantata, set to words by various English poets. One of the movements, a setting of the fifteenth-century carol, “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day,” shows the aging composer’s growing interest in serial composition techniques. Music theorists, for that reason, have subjected the score to intensive analysis, following the lead of Stravinsky himself. But isn’t it strange, asks Taruskin, how the greatest minds of music theory have never managed to address the actual text of the piece? “The Jews on me they made great suit, / And with me made great variance, / Because they lov’d darkness rather than light.” It is the old libel of Jews as “Christ killers.”
Taruskin finds this a perfect illustration of what his editors at The New Republic once called “The Dark Side of Modern Music.” The point is not that Stravinsky was personally anti-Semitic, although he certainly was. It is that Stravinsky and his modern defenders are indifferent to the text, or even worse, believe that respect for a work’s “artistic integrity” must always supersede moral qualms. In insisting on such “integrity,” we follow the artistic ethic of Stravinsky himself, who preached selfless submission to the composer’s wishes. But “how ethical,” Taruskin asks his audience, “is an ethic that holds artists and art lovers to be entitled by their artistic commitment to moral indifference, and the greater the artist the greater the entitlement?” And has such a commitment to “abstract” musical worth “got nothing to do with the tremendous decline that the prestige of classical music — and of high art in general — has suffered in our time?”
The moral indifference of artists, argues Taruskin, is potently expressed in the unwillingness of some modern composers to communicate with any audience outside the walls of the academy. The iconic text was Milton Babbitt’s 1958 article, “Who Cares if You Listen?” (Babbitt has claimed repeatedly that his editor was responsible for the inflammatory title.) The composer should abandon the “public world,” Babbitt explains, and turn instead “to one of private performance and electronic media,” where the “complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition” might be achieved. Babbitt extended Schoenberg’s serialization of pitch into other facets of musical quality, including rhythm, timbre, and dynamics. Babbitt aimed to create a perfectly integrated musical work, dense with motivic relations.
But there was another, usually unstated, agenda at work as well, Taruskin argues — the Cold War. Difficult music and small audiences became badges of free artists in the West. Babbitt writes that by withdrawing from social engagement, “the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism.” In the Soviet Union, meanwhile, any step towards musical experimentation risked the dreaded charge of “formalism.” Taruskin loathes the polarization. “You were either totally autonomous or you were under the thumb of Zhdanov,” he complains. “So it became hard to move towards a middle ground that recognized an artist’s right to free expression, but valued social solidarity as well.”
Martin Brody, a composer and musicologist at Wellesley College, concedes that Babbitt’s musical theory was profoundly shaped by ideological battles of the 1930s and Cold War politics. But he is reluctant to endorse Taruskin’s blanket condemnation of the purist streak in Western modernism. “I’m not sure that that generalization about the Cold War really makes sense. I do think that the [serialist composers'] rejection of non-theoretical, non-formalist rhetoric got too strong. But it really wasn’t empirically that many people.”
Taruskin is determined to keep it that way. In a blistering attack in the Times a few years ago, Taruskin took aim at the composer Donald Martino, a former pupil of Babbitt’s who is now professor emeritus at Harvard. The expressive gestures in Martino’s music were “primitive and simplistic,” Taruskin sneered. “Composers like Mr. Martino are still miseducating their pupils just as he was miseducated himself, dooming them to uselessness.” Harvard’s faculty were appalled. “To mention the name of Richard Taruskin at Harvard was an absolute party stopper,” says one musicologist, who asked to remain nameless. “People simply froze.” Harvard professor Reinhold Brinkmann wrote to Taruskin, telling him that his attack reminded him of German right-wing attacks on Arnold Schoenberg during the 1920s. “I don’t think that was his intention,” says Brinkmann, “but I remember telling him that he was in dangerous waters, and that what he was doing was wrong.”
Taruskin does have a way of framing his denunciations in extreme, often shocking, terms. A typical polemic might take the reader to the very gates of Auschwitz. During the early music controversy, for instance, Taruskin seized upon a metaphor frequently used by historical-performance advocates — that they were like “restorers” of Old Master paintings, scraping away dirt and grime to reveal the original masterpieces in all their glory. But in musical performance, Taruskin countered, the “dirt” is “what people, acting out of an infinite variety of motives over the years, have done with [the music].” People, in other words, are dirt. Taruskin reminded readers that the “dehumanizing” modernist aesthetic had its dark side, “the side that does evoke robots and concentration camps. We will not forget where Ezra Pound ended up, and why.”
Taruskin’s colleagues seem cheerfully resigned to such outbursts, and many believe they have benefited from his attacks. “One is only glad to be in a field in which polemics are happening,” laughs Gary Tomlinson, chair of the music department at the University of Pennsylvania. In his latest book, Taruskin spars with Tomlinson over such issues as hermeneutics, postmodernism, and the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin. After pages of careful argumentation, Taruskin ends up comparing Tomlinson’s scholarship to “Henry Kissinger’s notorious defense of the repression at Tienanmen Square.” Tomlinson admits to reservations about the “slightly sneering and hurtful tone that Richard so often adopts in his polemics,” but he also adds that they have helped the discipline in general. “It’s helped us all define our terms,” he says, “and it shows us at times the differences that are quite striking among some of us; and it shows us at other times the similarities that we hadn’t quite seen.”
Joseph Kerman, Taruskin’s emeritus colleague at Berkeley, is not so sure. Over lunch at a Telegraph Avenue trattoria, Kerman begins with effusive praise for Taruskin. “I think he’s one of the very few strong minds in the field,” he says. “He so obviously towers above any other musicologist in his generation.” But when I ask what effect Taruskin’s polemics have had on his ability to get his case across, Kerman is firm: “I think that it hurts his case, definitely.”
Taruskin dismisses such concerns. “That’s ridiculous,” he snorts, waving his hand in exasperation at the suggestion. “If I didn’t do what I do, you wouldn’t be here interviewing me now. Why am I so conspicuous? Partly because I’m vehement and partly because I’m right.” He rubs his hands together and chuckles.
The box is three feet long and one foot deep. It is filled with thousands of pages of paper, held together in bunches by elastic bands. It weighs a ton already, and it is just half the book, not including the “musical examples.” Taruskin has allowed me to take a look at the manuscript for a few days, so I’ve got my work cut out for me. Where’s the nearest photocopy shop?
The book’s sheer physical weight is itself an expression of Taruskin’s resistance to the idea that music is a “transcendent” art. Most standard narratives of music history pay scant attention to classical music’s cultural and political contexts, preferring to tell the story of an art form developing in serene isolation from the outside world. In rejecting this narrative, Taruskin echoes a number of so-called new musicologists, who examine the myriad ways music has reflected and shaped culture. Most notorious, perhaps, is UCLA’s Susan McClary, whose researches have led her to identify a “homosexual” style in the modulations and harmony of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, and the “throttling, murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release” in the recapitulation of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
But Taruskin’s book also challenges much of his field’s received wisdom — most notably, the familiar “progress narrative,” in which a series of great (mostly German) composers advance the abstract complexity and formal sophistication of music by alternately emulating and rebelling against earlier composers. “Nationalist” (non-German) composers often add a little local color to this traditional narrative. But Taruskin turns this account completely on its head: In his telling, the great German composers were not simply universal geniuses acting on behalf of all mankind. Rather, he emphasizes the importance of German nationalism to their work and its unfortunate effects for “peripheral” composers such as Tchaikovsky and Dvorak. “Without the native costume,” writes Taruskin, “a ‘peripheral’ composer could never achieve even secondary canonical rank, but with it he could never achieve more.”
Taruskin resents the condescension implicit in such narratives. He alludes to the unfortunate fate of Czech composer Leos Janacek (1854-1928). “Janacek barely gets mentioned” in most textbooks, Taruskin says, “and when he does, it’s so often in invidious comparisons, particularly with Bartok.” A 1991 history of modern music by Yale musicologist Robert P. Morgan seems to bear him out. It was “Bartok who came to be viewed as the dominant compositional voice of Eastern Europe during the first half of the century,” writes Morgan, partly because Janacek was “considerably less influenced by the ‘progressive’ elements in twentieth-century music.” Taruskin laughs at the description. “Boy that’s really establishing a quota. Only one significant East European, and that will be Bartok, and the others will therefore be secondary to him.”
But national chauvinism is only a symptom of a much more serious malady: historicism. “The idea that one is honor-bound to serve the impersonal aims of history,” he writes, “has been one of the most powerful motivating forces, and one of the most exigent criteria of value, in the history of music.” It has served to obscure the various political agendas being advanced under the placid exterior of art. And in the twentieth century, it has helped advance a cult of the avant-garde, under which the desires of the concert-going public have been increasingly ignored.
These arguments help explain Taruskin’s strange chapter on Arnold Schoenberg, whose “emancipation of dissonance” played such a pivotal role in the music of the previous century. Taruskin’s emphasis on the mystical vision behind Schoenberg’s theories is unusual enough, but the chapter ends with a discussion of “Schoenberg’s most central precept.” As the composer wrote in a 1946 essay: “If it is art it is not for everybody: if it is for everybody it is not art.” Taruskin asks: “Can such a proposition be defended in a democracy? If not, is there something wrong with art? Or with democracy?”
It’s unlikely that any book — even one longer than War and Peace — will be able to answer such questions. Just posing them takes chutzpah. But Taruskin believes that the time has never been better for examining the political and moral underpinnings of an art form — “literate” music, as he calls it — whose very basis is being steadily eroded. “I’m writing this book when the end of that tradition can be perceived, for many reasons,” he says. “The end of print culture, for instance. There is so much music now that could never be notated but can nevertheless be synthesized and controlled by the composer. So I’m writing in a sense the complete history of the literate tradition in Western music.”
Is he pessimistic, then, about the fate of music in the new millenium? “Whatever there’s a need for will continue,” he responds. “Just like what maintained this useless thing called academic serialism for so long — the Cold War created a need for it, and it continued. Now there doesn’t seem to be much of a need for it, and maybe it won’t continue, but if there were a need, it would. So I’m not foreseeing the end of anything, I’m foreseeing change.”
If change is going to happen, Taruskin is determined to do his part to encourage it. And if the academy significantly advanced the crisis of classical music, as he believes, why can’t it help to find a solution? By all accounts, Taruskin has been an enormously important mentor to his students — graduates and undergraduates alike. “You know, one of the greatest pleasures of my job is reading and line-editing my students’ dissertations,” he says, and he seems to mean it.
Although he was never one of Taruskin’s students, the Princeton musicologist Simon Morrison says he’s benefited from Taruskin’s critical advice. The Berkeley professor “helped steer me clear of some interpretative culs-de-sac,” Morrison remarks. And he finds that his own students almost invariably respond favorably to Taruskin’s ideas. “Richard desires to communicate broadly; he avoids esoteric prose, and criticizes it in others. In certain respects, it’s a verbal reflection of the musical values he espouses, values having to do with music having public meaning and social function.”
Such values have led Taruskin to be an outspoken advocate of so-called “postmodern” composers, who tend to favor a pastiche of styles within a single composition. He singles out the American composer George Rochberg as his “paradigmatic postmodernist,” but he has also offered enthusiastic assessments of Steve Reich and the thirty-year-old Thomas Ades, as composers willing to be both topical and listener-friendly. No matter how complex Reich’s music gets, wrote Taruskin in the Times, its patterns “can be grasped by the naked ear and parsed by the rational mind, adding intellectual to physical involvement and banishing the sort of discouraged mental passivity so much new music induces.” Rather than reducing listeners “to their cerebral cortex” or their “autonomic nervous system,” Reich treats his listeners “as fully conscious, fully sentient human beings.”
Ultimately, Taruskin is advancing a moral vision of music in which artist and audience come together on equal terms. And if that means he has to deflate a few artistic pretensions, so be it.
“Let me tell you about composers,” he announces to his class. Leaning over and winking conspiratorially, he says in a loud stage whisper: “They’re just … plain … folks.”