Richard Taruskin, Vigorously Polemical Musicologist, Dies at 77


Richard Taruskin, a commanding musicologist and public mental whose polemical scholarship and criticism upended typical classical music historical past, died early Friday in Oakland, Calif. He was 77.

His loss of life, at a hospital, was attributable to esophageal most cancers, his spouse, Catherine Roebuck Taruskin, stated.

An emeritus professor on the College of California, Berkeley, and a specialist in Russian music, Mr. Taruskin was the writer of a lot of groundbreaking musicological research, together with the sweeping six-volume Oxford Historical past of Western Music. He was additionally a contributor to The New York Occasions, the place his trenchant, witty, and erudite writings represented a bygone period by which clashes over the that means of classical music held mainstream import.

“He was a very powerful dwelling author on classical music, both in academia or in journalism,” stated Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, in a current interview. “He knew every thing, his concepts had been potent, and he wrote with dashing fashion.”

At a time when the classical canon was thought of sacrosanct, Mr. Taruskin superior the philosophy that it was a product of political forces. His bête noire was the widespread notion that Beethoven symphonies and Bach cantatas may very well be divorced from their historic contexts. He savagely critiqued this concept of “music itself,” which, he wrote, represented “a decontaminated area inside which music may be composed, carried out and listened to in a cultural and historic vacuum, that’s, in good sterility.”

Credit score…Oxford College Press

His phrases had been something however sterile: Mr. Taruskin courted controversy in practically every thing he wrote. Within the late Eighties, he helped ignite the so-called “Shostakovich Wars” by critiquing the veracity of “Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as associated to and edited by Solomon Volkov” (1979), which portrayed the composer as a secret dissident. (Mr. Volkov is a journalist, historian and musicologist.) Drawing on a cautious debunking by the scholar Laurel Fay, Mr. Taruskin known as the e-book’s constructive reception “the best important scandal I’ve ever witnessed.”

In a contentious 2001 Occasions essay, Mr. Taruskin defended the Boston Symphony’s cancellation of a efficiency of excerpts from John Adams’s “The Demise of Klinghoffer” after Sept. 11 that 12 months, arguing that the opera romanticized terrorism and included antisemitic caricatures. Even in advocating for what some criticized as censorship, he underscored a central element of his worldview: that music was not impartial, and that the live performance corridor couldn’t be separated from society.

“Artwork isn’t innocent,” he wrote. “Artwork can inflict hurt.” (His writings, too, may inflict hurt; Adams retorted that the column was “an unsightly private assault, and an enchantment to the worst type of neoconservatism.”)

Mr. Taruskin’s most consequential flamethrowing was his marketing campaign towards the motion for “traditionally genuine” performances of early music. In a sequence of essays anthologized in his 1995 e-book “Textual content and Act,” he argued that the usage of interval devices and methods was an outgrowth of up to date tastes. He didn’t need conductors like Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Roger Norrington to cease performing; he simply wished them to drop the pretense of “authenticity.” And plenty of did.

“Being the true voice of 1’s time is (as Shaw may need stated) roughly 40,000 occasions as important and essential as being the assumed voice of historical past,” he wrote in The Occasions in 1990. “To be the expressive medium of 1’s personal age is — clearly, no? — a far worthier purpose than historic verisimilitude. What’s verisimilitude, in any case, however correctness? And correctness is the paltriest of virtues. It’s one thing to demand of scholars, not artists.”

Mr. Taruskin had a no-holds-barred method to mental fight, as soon as evaluating a fellow scholar’s advocacy for a Renaissance thinker to Henry Kissinger’s protection of repression at Tiananmen Sq.. He confronted accusations of establishing simplistic straw males, and missing empathy for his historic topics. Following a 1991 broadside by Mr. Taruskin contending that Sergei Prokofiev had composed Stalinist propaganda, one biographer complained of his “sneering antipathy.” Mr. Taruskin’s response? “I’m sorry I didn’t flatter Prokofiev sufficient to please his admirers on his birthday, however he’s useless. My concern is with the dwelling.”

However his feuds had been typically productive: They modified the dialog within the academy and the live performance corridor alike. Such hefty arguments, Mr. Taruskin believed, would possibly assist rescue classical music from its more and more marginal standing in American society.

“I’ve at all times thought of it essential for musicologists to place their experience on the service of ‘common customers’ and alert them to the chance that they’re being hoodwinked, not solely by business pursuits however by complaisant lecturers, biased critics, and pretentious performers,” he wrote in 1994.

Mr. Ross stated: “Whether or not you judged him proper or flawed, he made you are feeling that the artwork type really mattered on the broader cultural stage.” Mr. Taruskin’s polemics, he added, “in the end served a constructive purpose of taking classical music out of fantasyland and into the true world.”

Richard Filler Taruskin was born on April 2, 1945, in New York Metropolis, in Queens, to Benjamin and Beatrice (Filler) Taruskin. The family of his youth was liberal, Jewish, feistily mental and musical: His father was a lawyer and newbie violinist, and his mom was a former piano trainer. He took up the cello at age 11 and, whereas attending the Excessive Faculty of Music and Artwork in Manhattan (now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia Excessive Faculty of Music & the Arts), voraciously consumed books on music historical past on the New York Public Library.

At Columbia College, Mr. Taruskin studied music together with Russian, partly to reconnect with a department of relations in Moscow. He stayed for his Ph.D., with the music historian Paul Henry Lang as his mentor, as he researched early music and Nineteenth-century Russian opera. He additionally started enjoying the viola da gamba within the New York freelance scene and, whereas subsequently instructing at Columbia, led the choral group Cappella Nova, which gave acclaimed performances of Renaissance repertoire. He joined the Berkeley school in 1986.

Within the Nineteen Seventies, musicology was nonetheless largely targeted on reviving obscure motets and analyzing Central European masterworks. Mr. Taruskin participated within the “New Musicology” motion, a era of students that shook up the self-discipline by drawing on postmodern approaches, feminist and queer idea, and cultural research.

“Richard had a really eager sense of the political stakes of music historical past,” stated the scholar Susan McClary, a pioneer of New Musicology, in an interview. “He additionally was a rare musician. And so he was not going to sacrifice the music itself for context; these at all times went collectively for him.”

Whereas researching Russian composers for his doctorate — at a time when students largely dismissed them as peripheral figures — Mr. Taruskin realized how Nineteenth-century politics had insidiously formed the classical canon. It was no coincidence, he forcefully argued, that Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven had been so well-regarded: Their recognition and acclaim represented the aftereffects of a long-unacknowledged, and deeply rooted, German nationalist ideology. His monographs on Russian opera and Musorgsky redefined the research of music in Jap Europe, chipping away at longstanding myths.

In 1984, Mr. Taruskin started writing for the short-lived Opus Journal on the invitation of its editor, James R. Oestreich. After Mr. Oestreich moved to The New York Occasions, Mr. Taruskin contributed long-form essays to the paper’s Arts & Leisure part that poked at composers who had been typically handled as demigods; the part’s mailbag quickly crammed with irate readers. (He had no qualms about sending letters of his personal, mailing curt postcards to outstanding music critics to lambast their errors or logical fallacies.) His writings for The Occasions and The New Republic had been later collected within the books “On Russian Music” and “The Hazard of Music.”

Educating a Stravinsky seminar at Columbia impressed the two-volume “Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions,” a seminal 1996 research that upended the cosmopolitan picture that the composer and his acolytes had lengthy cultivated. Mr. Taruskin drew consideration to conventional Slavic melodies that Stravinsky had embedded inside “The Ceremony of Spring,” and the way the composer himself had intentionally obscured the people roots of his revolutionary ballet.

The Oxford Historical past of Western Music, revealed in 2005, grew out of Mr. Taruskin’s undergraduate lectures at Berkeley and his dissatisfaction with textbooks that offered a parade of unassailable masterpieces. In additional than 4,000 pages, he wove intricate analyses alongside wealthy contextualization, revealing musical historical past as a fraught terrain of argumentation, politics, and energy.

Critiques of the “Ox” abounded — that it betrayed its writer’s private grudges, that it unfairly handled modernists like Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez. But it surely stays a central, seemingly unsurpassable textual content. “That is the final time anybody’s going to inform this story,” Dr. McClary stated. “And it was informed in a means that was simply nearly as good because it ever probably may have been.” (Her personal criticism of the Ox is maybe probably the most enduring: Mr. Taruskin’s survey virtually totally ignores Black musical traditions.)

Garbed in a purple blazer, Mr. Taruskin was a larger-than-life determine at conferences of the American Musicological Society, the place his displays had been blockbuster occasions. In recent times he avoided giving papers in favor of attending talks by his many former pupils.

He married Catherine Roebuck, a pc programmer at Berkeley, in 1984 and lived in El Cerrito, Calif. Along with his spouse, he’s survived by his son, Paul Roebuck Taruskin; his daughter, Tessa Roebuck Taruskin; his sister, Miriam Lawrence; his brother, Raymond; and two grandchildren.

Amongst Mr. Taruskin’s quite a few awards was Japan’s prestigious Kyoto Prize, which he obtained in 2017. His most up-to-date e-book was the 2020 compilation “Cursed Questions: On Music and Its Social Practices.” When he died, he was working to finish a e-book of essays that will function an mental biography.

Regardless of his highhanded persona, Mr. Taruskin had a comfortable aspect identified to colleagues and college students. For years he sparred with the music theorist Pieter van den Toorn over the that means of Stravinsky’s music — Mr. Taruskin arguing that it couldn’t be separated from the politics of the twentieth century, Mr. van den Toorn seeing such considerations as extrinsic to the scores.

Nonetheless, Mr. Taruskin devoted considered one of his books to Mr. van den Toorn. The inscription: “Public adversary, non-public pal.”



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