You Could Look It Up


Having completed, in his own write, the 3,825 pages (1.25 million words, 21 pounds) of the Oxford History of Western Music, Richard Taruskin now merits entry to the niche of honor beside such figures as Bill Wambsganss (first unassisted triple play in a World Series game, 1920) and Charles Lindbergh (you-know-what, 1927). There have been Oxford music histories before; the last was completed as recently as 1990 by a consortium that drew copiously from the panoply of musical scholarship. Their multitude was explained in the introduction: "To attempt a detailed survey of the whole history of music is no longer within the power of a single writer."

Fearless and unstoppable, Taruskin (professor of musicology, UC Berkeley since 1987, Columbia before that) is hardly your garden-variety single writer. Words pour forth; a two-volume study on Stravinsky requires 1,757 pages to get us up to 1921, leaving 50 years still to go. He also wields a critic’s sword, terrible and swift, and it serves to stir hot cauldrons; a renowned New York Times article from December 9, 2001, takes the side of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, against general outcry, for having canceled music from John Adams’ Klinghoffer out of fear of post-9/11 sensitivity. Not stopping there, he goes on to rake old coals, condoning the long-standing, if unstated, anti-Wagner boycott by Israeli audiences. "Why should we want to hear this music now?" he asks, a curious question in a critical context.

Anyhow, the first thing to know about Taruskin’s huge new solo flight is that he has not left his critical hat behind. He affects an ingratiating tone, downright chummy and certainly rare among authors of multivolume histories. More than once you get the feeling that he’s walking alongside, his arm firmly on your shoulder, carefully steering you past some composer he’s decided isn’t worth your while — England’s sturdy old Sir Ralph Vaughan Williams, say, who is vouchsafed nary a word in the text, save for a note in the intro ordaining his banishment — and into the arms of some nonentity whose importance he’s decided to fabricate: four pages for the absurdly insignificant Nikolai Medtner, say. He spares us footnotes, relying instead upon endnotes keyed to words within the text. (In one instance, at least, the keying goes haywire, and his own quoted comment on the Klinghoffer matter is linked to an exactly opposing view by San Francisco critic Bob Commanday. What ever happened to careful editing?)

A question needs asking: Is not the bundle of critical predilections on which Taruskin has climbed to fame in recent years an impediment per se to an encyclopedic history such as the Oxford banner proclaims? Questions of selection infect this work; they are more than mere judgmental quirks. Where, for example, is there mention of the enormous richness that has come into Western — yes, Western — music from the awareness of Far Eastern music? A decisive date, 1889, goes ignored — when the young Debussy hears raga and gamelan in Paris, absorbs their sounds into his own music and passes his enthusiasms on to European generations. Where is Lou Harrison, and the awareness of the vast cultural panorama of the Pacific Rim that he has spread to young Americans on both coasts? What about Toru Takemitsu? Or the brilliant young talent that slipped out of China’s clutches to give the West some of its best new music? (Tan Dun earns a mention not much longer than his name, and an erroneous reference; it is the Matthew Passion, not Luke, that he has set to music.) Where, amid page after page of homage to the Beatles and Laurie Anderson and Dylan and other manifestations of ’60s culture, is notice taken of Stephen Sondheim? And what of today’s Finns, who do their nation proud?


Of the 10 volumes in the previous Oxford History, seven were filled before Beethoven (i.e., 1800) was reached. In his five volumes (plus a slender volume for references and index), Taruskin covers that ground in two. A third volume encompasses the entire 19th century, while the 20th century, padded out with its ain’t-I-the-cool-one excursions into cultural hinterlands that would have frazzled the chin whiskers of musicologists in my day, demands two volumes on its own. Priorities, in other words, aren’t what they used to be. Supplementing and illustrating the previous edition were albums of recorded excerpts, two LPs per text volume (at extra cost, of course). In their place, the new volumes offer rather a lot of printed excerpts, usually considerably simplified and in modern notation. The intent, I suppose, is that the books can be read at the piano, and up to a historic point — the point of finger-friendly Mozart piano sonatas, say — the device works fairly well. What can be gleaned from a printout of the last few measures of orchestral blooie-blooie from the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, however, is open to discussion.

Music demands a central literature to ally the inscrutabilities of the art itself to the society it serves. Paul Henry Lang’s Music in Western Civilization, now 60 years old, a single volume but, at 1,107 pages, a fat one, is part of Taruskin’s ancestry, along with the previous Oxford histories. They have served their purpose well; the graduate student, the musicologist, the serious enthusiast leaves them shelf space, or makes sure to live near a library that stocks a copy. It isn’t likely that anyone, anytime soon, will challenge or replace this huge effort of Taruskin’s; it stands as the Oxford Music History for the next few decades. As such, it is a staggering accomplishment. Its faults are exactly what was foreshadowed in the preface to the previous series — the inevitable critical bias of any single observer, especially one as famously bristling with passions as Taruskin is known to be.

Those passions rumble through the project, and the eruptions are wonderful: a brilliant discussion of the constructive principles within one of Josquin des Prez’s early Renaissance motets; a fine-tuned side-by-side evaluation (in a chapter called "Class of 1685") of the great choral works of Handel and Bach; a chilling 20-page account of the musical drama in Berg’s Wozzeck; a deep penetration into the astonishing, newly invented harmonic usage that Schubert lavished on his "Unfinished" Symphony. At one point in the Schubert chapter, the author misidentifies 1828 — the composer’s last year — as the time of the "Great" C-major Symphony; several pages later he sets it back, correctly, to 1825. (Poor Schubert, how he suffers at the hands of the encyclopedists: first Robert Winter’s error-studded article in Grove’s Dictionary, and now this!)

Oh, and did I mention . . . the asking price for The Oxford History of Western Music at this moment is $500, which works out to $23.80 a pound. After January 31, the price jumps to $699.99. Be warned.