A comprehensive and brilliant critique of Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music

Since its appearance in 2005, there have been more than a few words written about Richard Taruskin’s mammoth six-volume Oxford History of Western Music, likely to be a key text in music history for a long time. But not many of the reviews or other articles have looked in detail and critically at a good deal of Taruskin’s underlying assumptions, ideologies, exalted claims made for the work, hidden agendas, and so on. A few that have would include Gary Tomlinson, ‘Monumental Musicology’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association , Vol. 132, Part 2 (2007), pp . 349-374, and also, interestingly, Susan McClary, ‘The World According to Taruskin’, Music and Letters, Vol. 87, No. 3 (2006), pp. 408-415; there is also a blog created by grad students Mark Samples and Zach Wallmark dealing with their reading through the whole work here.

A new article which does indeed do these things has been placed on the online Search magazine, by composer and cellist Franklin Cox. It can be read here – http://www.searchnewmusic.org/cox_review.pdf 

I would really welcome all comments and thoughts emerging from this article, as part of a wider discussion of music history and historiography.


11 Comments on “A comprehensive and brilliant critique of Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music”

  1. ianpace says:

    Some other important pieces of writing on Taruskin’s OHWM include of course the review by Charles Rosen, ‘From the Troubadours to Frank Sinatra’, the first part of which can be read here – http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2006/feb/23/from-the-troubadours-to-frank-sinatra/?pagination=false (the whole essay is published in Rosen’s new collection of writings Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature (Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 2012), pp. 210-240 (here with the title ‘Western Music: The View from California’). Harald Muenz kindly pointed me in the direction of John Beckwith, , ‘The Oxford History of Western Music: A Canadian Reflection, in: CAML Revue/Review de l’ACBM, Vol. 33, No.3 (Nov. 2005) – which is available online here – http://www.yorku.ca/caml/en/review/33-3/taruskin.htm – though I have to say that this review doesn’t really think to question much about Taruskin at all.

  2. Ed McKeon says:

    Thanks for the links, Ian. I like Cox’s way of giving Taruskin his own medicine. Taruskin is famously snobbish about ‘amateur’ musicology, so it may help him to see the moat in his own eye. And I particularly appreciate the way Taruskin is shown to be his own straw man, given that is one of his favourite techniques for critiquing others.

    On his underlying ideology, it’s all laid out in The Danger of Music – another dangerous book. His sympathy with Lerdahl and Jackendoff is in keeping with his general acceptance of the premise that music’s job is to tickle our emotions and give us pleasure, as promulgated by cognitive studies of music (with their underlying neo-Darwinian assumptions).

  3. Luk Vaes says:

    I agree that it is good to counter the agression and arrogance that rings through T’s writings. And Cox did a admiringly thorough job. At the same time, the idea of writing a different type of history from the one that only takes into account the work and the composer is compelling. Perhaps T’s self-proclaimed attempt will spark off a string of better ones? Personally, I’d welcome most eargerly a history of performance (as impossible as that seems for most of the historical chronology). I’m sure that T would see that as amateurish, though.

  4. ianpace says:

    @Luk: I’m actually very much with Taruskin on the notion that a music history which is not solely centered around works and composers is a worthwhile endeavour. Mind you, when all is said and done, Taruskin hardly breaks that much with such a model, and spends very little time, at least in the later volumes, on music which is much less work- or composer-centered (most obviously lots of popular genres). But if one were just to stick to the Western art music tradition of the 19th century, say (just choosing that because it’s one of the areas I know best), I believe it is as important to know about Sigismond Thalberg, Anton Rubinstein, Hans von Bülow, Clara Schumann, Theodor Leschetizky, Manuel Garcia, Julius Stockhausen, Pauline Viardot, Pierre Baillot, François Habeneck, Ferdinand David, Joseph Joachim, Henryk Wieniawski, Bernhard Romberg, David Popper, Hermann Levi, Jules Pasdeloup, Hans Richter, and Felix Weingartner (just to mention a few), and about the emergence of major orchestras in London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, New York, Munich, not to mention major choral traditions in England and Germany, the development of professional touring string quartets, or the growth of the conservatory and the professionalisation of music-making, the changes effected by new copyright laws upon the status of the musical ‘work’, and various else, as it is to know about Schubert, Weber, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz, Glinka, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, Wagner, Brahms, Bruckner and Chaikovsky.

    (this may sound a bit like a plug, as I have a chapter in it, but as you are looking for a history of performance, have you seen the new Cambridge History of Musical Performance, edited by Colin Lawson and Robin Stowell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), yet? That at least attempts to be precisely that! I hope some the findings in this and other books will be more integrated into other wider musical histories in the future)

  5. steinwey says:

    I didn’t know the CHMP was out already – thanks for reminding me of it.
    As I haven’t had the chance yet to browse T’s history – does he treat improvised music at all? (I’m refering to open form works written in the classical compositional tradition as much as to Jazz, free improv etc.)

  6. ianpace says:

    There isn’t a great deal on improvisation, no. He has the usual mandatory section dealing with indeterminate scores from the New York School, and a brief mention of Bussotti, then short bits on the Scratch Orchestra and Fluxus elsewhere, but they are mostly presented just as an outgrowth of the ‘avant-garde’ or as part of a trajectory towards minimalism. There is also a bit on Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson, essentially trying to make the case that the area where performance art and music overlap is an especially feminine one. And a section on John Zorn. But practically nothing on either American free jazz (no mention of Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor) or European/American free improvisation. Furthermore, the material on jazz and popular musics in general is pretty perfunctory and tokenistic.

  7. xyzzzz__ says:

    Really liking it so far, learning something new on almost every page. Given its faults its remarkable that there wasn’t a series of writers who could cover one period all working under one senior editor that could make sure the principles of the history were not followed throughout.

    Will part two be linked to from here?

  8. […] critique of Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music (see my earlier post on Part 1 here). There is much of great interest in this 79-page essay, but I would especially draw attention to […]

  9. […] A comprehensive and brilliant critique of Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music (28/10/12) […]

  10. WenatcheeTheHatchet says:

    very late to this discussion but I only managed to read the Cox critique in the last few months.

    I finished Taruskin’s Oxford History in the last couple of years and agree that volume 1 is pretty good, volume 2 is okay but from volume 3 onward I start having issues with the narrative, too.

    As a guitarist I could say the most memorable line from the Oxford history was Taruskin declaring that the guitar is basically not part of the literate musical tradition. Never mind the centuries of scores for the six-string guitar in the West and the seven-string guitar in the Russian tradition, Taruskin’s Oxford History has it that the instrument has simply never meaningfully been part of the literate musical tradition. So even though Fernando Sor wrote that he had successfully transcribed the closing double fugue from Haydn’s Creation oratorio … the guitar nevertheless hasn’t been part of the Western literate musical tradition? Right.

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