Reflections on Richard Taruskin and Performance – statement given at Performance Studies Conference, 2 July 2022

During the 2022 conference of the Performance Studies Network, which took place at the University of Surrey from 30 June to 3 July, the news was received of the sad death of musicologist Richard Taruskin (2 April 1945 – 1 July 2022). His writings on performance, especially those collected in the volume Text and Act, have been hugely influential. With this in mind, I had the idea of assembling an impromptu roundtable of scholars present at the conference with an interest in him and his work. This roundtable, which I chaired, took place on the afternoon of Saturday 2 July, featuring Claire Fedoruk, Anthony Gritten, Julian Hellaby, George Kennaway, Lina Navickaite-Martinelli, John Rink and Eva Moreda Rodriguez. It ranged in scope from personal memories and anecdotes, through details of first encounters with his work, to wider scholarly critiques, but also generated a remarkable amount of consensus. The organisers of the conference hope at some point soon to assemble version of the various statements given on the conference website. For now, I am posting here my introductory overview of Taruskin’s life and work, and then my own statement for the roundtable, both with just minor edits and corrections.

Personally, despite many major differences with Taruskin on a range of things, his work was deeply important for me and also for teaching purposes. I only met him once, at the Ultima Festival in Oslo in 2015, where I was performing and he was delivering a lecture. This meeting was very cordial; we also corresponded a little by e-mail, not least in the last months of his life. This correspondence could be both cordial and uncordial! But I would always continue to read every new article or book from him.

The following is my overview of Richard Taruskin’s life and work:

Richard Taruskin was born in New York on 2 April 1945. He grew up in a moderately musical household; his mother taught violin and his father played the piano at an amateur level. He studied cello growing up and went to study at Columbia University in 1965 where he continued from Bachelor’s to Doctoral level, receiving a PhD in historical musicology in 1976, working with musicologist Paul Henry Lang. That he was part of a ‘sixties generation’, a student during that period, is something often overlooked, but I think is significant in terms of various iconoclastic aspects of his subsequent thought and work. He taught at Columbia until 1987, when he was appointed Professor of Music at University of California, Berkeley, where he remained for the rest of his life, eventually becoming Emeritus Professor.

In the earlier stage of his career Taruskin was also active first as a choral conductor, overseeing the Columbia University Collegium Musicum, and making recordings with them and Cappella Nova, such as those of Ockeghem and Byrd. He was also a viola da gamba player and toured as a soloist with Aulos Ensemble through to the late 1980s. As such, he was deeply involved in the early music world, of which he would become one of the leading critics.

Taruskin’s first book was Opera and Drama in Russia: As Preached and Practied in the 1860s (1981), establishing a scholarly basis for this body of work which was then relatively obscure to Anglophone musicians and scholars. His work on Russian music in general, which spanned several centuries of work, would be extended in his collection Musorgsky: Eight Essays and an Epilogue (1992), his mammoth two-volume study of Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions (1996), the important volume of essays Defining Russia Musically: Historical and Hermeneutical Essays (1997), and two later collections of journalistic and academic essays, On Russian Music (2009) and Russian Music at Home and Abroad (2016). He was a prominent protagonist in scholarly debates on such issues as the nature of Chaikovsky’s death, or the veracity of Solomon Volkov’s memoir of Shostakovich, Testimony.

Taruskin was also a journalist and ‘public musicologist’, writing regularly in particularly for The New York Times. Both in this capacity and also as a contributor to scholarly fora, Taruskin wrote regularly on performance and issues relating in particular to historically-informed performance (or ‘authentic performance’ or ‘period performance’, to use two terms now rather out of fashion but still common at the time Taruskin was writing). He was sharply critical of some of the work in this realm, in both musical and methodological terms, with a special focus on the work done by British performers and ensembles, not least Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. One of his key essays on this subject, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’, was collected in an 1988 symposium edited by Nicholas Kenyon, Authenticity and Early Music, and then in 1995 Taruskin collected all his major writings on the subject in a collection entitled Text and Act. Amongst his key arguments were those relating to the fragmentary, ambiguous, contradictory and inconclusive nature of documentary evidence into historical performance, and perhaps most significantly he created a range of dualisms, such as between ‘vitalist’ and ‘geometric’ performance, concluding from this that many supposedly ‘historical’ approaches actually represented modernist aesthetics, especially those associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit and the neo-classical Stravinsky.

Taruskin continued to be a prominent public intellectual throughout his career, generating much attention through wider op-eds and pronouncements on music in public fora, such as his support for the cancellation of a performance of John Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer in 2001, following the attacks of 9/11.

His major later work was undoubtedly the mammoth sole-authored six-volume The Oxford History of Western Music, first published in 2005, when Taruskin was 60. A hugely comprehensive but also highly contentious work, which overhauled all sorts of previous practices for history writing, Taruskin claimed a new dispassion and objectivity for his enterprise, in contrast to earlier writers. I am sure various people will have a variety of views on this type of claim.

For the rest of his life and career, Taruskin’s work was mostly occupied with some new essays and assembling new collections of others, in the volumes The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, (2008), and Cursed Question: On Music and its Social Practices (2020). Amongst these were a notorious review-article of Cambridge Histories of Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Music, ‘Speed Bumps’ (2005) which led to a quite exasperated response by Nicholas Cook. Another important article was ‘The Musical Mystique’ (2007), a review-article of books by Julian Johnson, Joshua Fineberg and Lawrence Kramer all considering the place of classical music today, with quite ferocious critiques of some of these. He was also of course a highly regular conference attendee and guaranteed to enliven proceedings.

The following is the statement I delivered at the roundtable.

I have found myself led towards engagement with Taruskin’s work of various types throughout my own career as performer and musicologist. His work on performance is obviously relevant to me as a scholar of historically-informed performance and performance studies, but also as one whose research has much to do with twentieth-century Germany, in light of Taruskin’s views on that region and its music. Also, when working on issues to do with the historiography of music, I could not fail to engage with Taruskin’s thoughts on that, and the ways in which they inform the Oxford History, not least in terms of new music and its place both in repertoire and music history and pedagogy. But I can say that his models and approaches for nineteenth- and twentieth century music history have had a profound impact on how I write and teach about it. Without them, I would not have had the same inspiration towards teaching a core music history module which tried to move away from technocratic and teleological approaches, focused above all on advances in compositional technique, towards broader approaches which do not overly privilege this line of development and attempt to give equal consideration to musical developments in terms of their social and political context, though in a less didactic fashion than Taruskin. Also, as one who teaches much about nineteenth-century music, not least opera, Taruskin’s writings on that area are regular set readings for my students.

But I want to focus on Taruskin’s thoughts on performance, the bulk of which are contained within Text and Act. He did occasionally return to the subject in some later essays, amongst the most interesting of which I would suggest is ‘Of Kings and Divas’ (1993), collected in The Danger of Music, a review-article of a range of recordings of French baroque music. But to the best of my knowledge Taruskin never wrote or spoke at length about later developments in the fields of performance studies, including the relationship between analysis and performance, ethnomusicological approaches, practice-research and Artistic Research, or the various work emerging from the research clusters in the UK CHARM and CMPCP, especially relating to the study of early recordings. Certainly Taruskin did write on early recordings earlier in his career, but not when the study of them had become a much more extensively developed field of scholarship. The heart of his work on performance has to do with historically-informed performance, the culture of early music, and the ways in which these came to encroach upon the performance of a good deal of mainstream repertoire.

One thing which is striking upon returning to Taruskin on performance, with knowledge of his later writings, is his at least partial advocacy of Adorno’s view (though Adorno was writing in a different time and context), and how strongly his critique of HIP is explicitly related to its anti-German tendencies. He only appears to have engaged with Adorno’s views as found in the essay ‘Bach Defended Against His Devotees’ (1951), not the Theory of Musical Reproduction, which was not available in either German or English at the time of most of Taruskin’s writings on performance.

I do not believe it would be unfair to say that Taruskin held frequently negative views about many things British. His writings on the historically-informed performance movement frequently dealt with the work of the likes of Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington, Trevor Pinnock, John Eliot Gardiner and their associated ensembles. He did also, for sure, consider some Austrian, German, Belgian and Dutch early music protagonists, most notably in a piece on the Harnoncourt-Leonhardt series of Bach Cantatas (‘Facing Up, Finally, to Bach’s Dark Vision’ (1991), reproduced in Text and Act), but these were generally treated as the periphery with the British scene as the centre. Taruskin also had little to say about the later growth of HIP elsewhere, especially France (except for in the essay I mentioned before) and Italy.

Yet I believe that the Austrian, Belgian and Dutch early music performance scenes were a central component of the wider international scene for as long as the British, even if some of the associated writings were less familiar to British and American scholars, as few were translated for a long time.

Taruskin’s views on German matters in this context were less wide-reaching; I am not aware of his considering in depth the problematic status of medieval music in Germany after 1945 following its appropriation by parts of the youth movement in the Third Reich. While various movements there which were already active in the 1920s, in regional centres such as Munich, Cologne and Freiburg, continued after 1945 to a limited extent, the growth of many a new Studio für alte Musik went alongside a similar Studio für neue Musik, as a means of resituating a realm of musical activity in a context which, rightly or wrongly, was for a period associated with opposition to fascism. But it is also surely no coincidence that one of the most important German groups for medieval music to be founded in the early post-war era, the Studio der frühen Musik in Munich, was led not by a German but an American, Thomas Binkley.

Taruskin did certainly engage with some aspects of a historically-informed performance and early music movement prior to around the 1960s, but in a fragmentary manner. In this he was no different to plenty of other scholars, but the appearance of Harry Haskell’s The Early Music Revival: A History in 1988 demonstrated the breadth and depth of a movement which can be traced back well into the nineteenth-century. Since Haskell, there has been a wide range of important wider scholarship – such as Katharine Ellis’s work on early music in France in the nineteenth century, Celia Applegate’s study of Mendelssohn and the Bach Revival, James Garratt on the German Palestrina Revival, William Weber’s study of concert programming, or various studies of individual musicians who contributed to revivals of earlier repertoire and performing styles. All of this could contribute to a new comprehensive history to succeed Haskell’s, which would I believe place the questions which Taruskin raises in a more nuanced context.

At the heart of Taruskin’s arguments are the conviction that historicist approaches are part of a modernist project, which he sets in opposition to earlier tendencies. But I believe this argument is founded upon too homogeneous a view of earlier traditions. Taruskin was without question aware of the extent to which Germanic constructions of musical subjectivity had more limited application in other regions in the nineteenth century, but was not prepared to go the extra mile and consider that some of what he constructs as ‘modern’ or ‘neo-classical’ might have deeper historical roots. That Chaikovsky’s neo-classicism might in some ways resemble Stravinsky’s is something I would not have imagined Taruskin denying, but he could have done more to draw the implications of this for a historical model.

Taruskin’s work on performance has certainly had its critics, or those who have presented alternative views. John Butt, in his book Playing with History (2003), offers a quite witty response to Taruskin’s self-presentation as a champion of consumers’ rights as against the ideals of historically-informed performers. Butt conflates this position with an advocacy of market forces, which is not strictly accurate. But nonetheless, he notes that in purely consumer terms, Taruskin’s arguments do not necessarily hold up – as he puts it ‘someone must have bought all those records’ (of Christopher Hogwood). Other important responses to the gauntlets laid down by Taruskin include those of Peter Walls, in his History, Imagination and the Performance of Music (2003), or Bruce Haynes, in his The End of Early Music (2007), which shares some of Taruskin’s view of ‘modernist’ performance. This is presented in an over-homogenised manner, in my opinion, by Haynes, as also by Nicholas Cook and Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, but this view has been challenged by some of the work of Dorottya Fabian. Haynes however creates a tripartite formulation of ‘romantic’, ‘modern’ and ‘period’ styles, the contrast between the second and third of which is at odds with Taruskin’s model. Nick Wilson, in his The Art of Re-Enchantment: Making Early Music in the Modern Age (2013), presents a quite different picture of the early music subculture than that at least implied by Taruskin. More recently Stefan Knapik, in a chapter in The Routledge Research Companion to Modernism in Music (2018) dealing with violin playing has shown how problematic are Taruskin’s dualisms, on the basis of wider reading of treatises.

I would say that Taruskin’s model is both British-centered and also centered upon a particular state of play which existed in the 1970s and 1980s, which is not unnatural as some of his first writings date from this time. We certainly know a good deal more now about ‘modernist’ performance from the early twentieth century, but Taruskin was definitely onto something by making the link with Stravinsky, Hindemith and other early twentieth-century figures, including José Ortega y Gassett or Ezra Pound, not primarily associated with music (referencing Pound’s interest in Arnold Dolmetsch and the particular culture around him and his work). That these and others such as Alfredo Casella, Gian Francesco Malipiero or Carl Orff were very significant in terms of the revival of some Renaissance and Baroque music is clearly documented. Hindemith, amazingly listed by ethnomusicologist Henry Kingsbury as an example of a composer who did not also perform, was not only a leading viola player involved in premieres of works from Webern to Walton, but also a prime moving force in the development of early music at Yale University after his relocation to the United States.

What is described most harshly as the ‘sewing machine’ style of baroque performance in mid-century grew out of some of the objectivist ideals of these composers and their interactions with the interwar early music scene. Adorno’s notorious essay was a response to this, and entirely in line with his own antipathy towards Stravinsky and Hindemith. But performance styles did change, and in some ways the branch of historically-informed performance which developed from this point was in some ways a reaction against this, seeking more nuanced and stylistically aware approaches through excavation of historical data. Taruskin’s all-purpose ‘modernist’ model takes too little account of these changing tendencies. There was of course also the radical shift in the 1970s away from the more ‘counter-cultural’ approach to early music associated with Binkley’s group in Munich, The Early Music Consort of London, and the Clemencic Consort towards the more austere a cappella approach pioneered by British groups in the 1970s, of which Christopher Page was the most eloquent spokesperson. Taruskin considers Page’s work in one essay, ‘High, Sweet, and Loud’ (1987) (reproduced in Text and Act), but does not really filter this shift into his wider arguments. All of these things point to the fact that the early music movement has been – and continues to be – a diffuse and diverse movement. Occasionally Taruskin acknowledges this, as in his contrasting of the ‘crooked’ work of Reinhard Goebel and Musica Antiqua Köln with some of their more ‘straight’ British counterparts, but does not draw the wider implications that would have been possible from a wider and more generous perspective.

What would have strengthened Taruskin’s arguments is the considerable cross-fertilisation between the early and new music worlds in the Netherlands in the 1960s, with common cause found between the likes of conductor and recorder/flute player Franz Brüggen, and the new generation involving individuals such as Louis Andriessen, Reinbert de Leeuw and Misha Mengelberg. All were united in antipathy to what they perceived as a conservative Dutch musical scene with pronounced Germanic elements, and espousing an objectivist style, in part influenced by American jazz and wider aspects of an idealised view of Americana, not dissimilar to the view of the Neue Sachlichkeit and others associated with Amerikanismus in Germany in the 1920s. In this Dutch context we absolutely see a commonality of purpose between those in early and new music, though married to a particular far left politics which I doubt Taruskin would have shared. To be fair, though, much of the information on this period in musical history was little known other than to Dutch specialists until recent work such as that of Robert Adlington, not available at the time Taruskin was writing. But it could fruitfully feed into reevaluations of Taruskin’s arguments.

Part of the problem is Taruskin’s tendency to employ a monolithic view of ‘modernism’, which he knew as well as anyone constituted a heterogenous body of music and aesthetic thought. But the tendency to employ an all-purpose conception of ‘modernism’ as a rhetorical strategy for dismissing musical work, in the process knowing the populist implications of so doing, was a shame. Few now would surely deny that Stravinsky and Schoenberg represented very different musical tendencies, and charged debates between factions associated with either have informed musical discourse since the mid-1920s. But Taruskin was not above associating one with ‘modernism’ and then using this as a stick to beat the other.

Taruskin’s views on many things German, which could translate into blanket remarks about European culture and thought, could have a waspish and xenophobic tint to them (which he would have been the first to condemn if applied to other regions or peoples), akin to the thought of Brexiteers and American neo-conservatives, especially in his later work. For one so unafraid to speak harshly of others, sometimes in ways I believe were ad hominem, Taruskin would cry foul if others did the same. In one article, he presented four of us, J.P.E. Harper-Scott, Christopher Fox, Franklin Cox and myself (all except Cox British), as his arch-opponents, almost as if part of a conspiracy. But I do believe the critiques of all of these were fundamentally about Taruskin’s work. My view may be more generous than some of the others, especially Harper-Scott, though I concur with some aspects of the latter’s critique, especially of Taruskin’s sometimes quite fanatical anti-German pronouncements, such as in ‘Speed Bumps’.

Taruskin’s knowledge of and interest in new music was, by many accounts of those who spoke to him about it at length, considerably more rich and nuanced than one would necessarily discern from some of his writings. He took, for example, a great interest in the work of Belgian pianist and musicologist Luk Vaes in the work of Mauricio Kagel. I regret that he did not write more from this perspective, though can see how it might have seemed uncharacteristic in the context of the wider views he frequently expressed.

Taruskin had a striking ability to identify the fundamental issues at stake in many scholarly and other musical debates without obfuscation. As a result his writing can be very direct and clearly expressed. Furthermore, he did not shy from viewing music in social, historical and political context, including specifically in relation to its meanings today. He was not one simply to take the views of composers or performers at face value, and recognised musicians’ self-fashioning immediately. All of this, from when I first encountered his work, was a breath of fresh air in the context of what I found, and still find in some ways, a rather stultified musical and academic culture in the UK, in which so much depends upon saying the right things to the right people with power rather than entering into more trenchant debate on the basis of conviction, with passive-aggressive demands to conform to prevailing group-think, and where short-term demands of pleasing others can supersede quests for truth.

As time went on and I became more familiar with his work, I came to realise that Taruskin was not however someone with whose work I would associate a balanced examination of evidence and a measured conclusion. The very possibility of moderate conclusions also appeared to elude him. Both of these things are very significant flaws in a scholar, I believe, but also characteristic of a polarised scholarly world. Taruskin was highly critical of others for drawing wide conclusions from fragmentary information, but was far from averse from doing the same himself to ram home points. An example would be his arguments about tempo flexibility in Beethoven Symphonies (in ‘Resisting the Ninth’ (1988-89), in Text and Act), which depend heavily on the account by Anton Schindler, with just token recognition of the various information which points to the unreliability of Schindler as a source. I would contrast this with the thorough examination of the conflicting accounts of Beethoven by Schindler and Carl Czerny in George Barth’s book The Pianist as Orator (1992), which also arrives at a conclusion that some of what Schindler claimed may be correct, but Barth does so on far stronger scholarly grounds.

Nonetheless, I believe Taruskin was a very worthy opponent and without doubt a tremendously significant figure in the landscape of musicology, from whom I will greatly miss the possibility of reading new writings.

My contribution to the debate on ‘Classical Music Performance: Meaning and Relevance in Modern Society’

I posted earlier my contribution to one component of the City School of Arts and Social Sciences debate on the legacy of Stuart Hall, which I co-convened. Another event within the same online conference was an excellent debate on ‘Classical Music Performance: Meaning and Relevance in Modern Society’, convened by Natalie Tsaldarakis and chaired by Professor Alexander Lingas (City, University of London), which took place on Monday 22 June 2020. The panellists were Natalie Tsaldarakis (City, University of London), myself (City, University of London, Dr Izabela Wagner (University of Warsaw), Professor Ratko Delorko (pianist), Ben Johnson (tenor). The event was stimulated by a lively debate following a tweet from Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, Emeritus Professor at King’s College, University of London.


The abstract for the debate said the following:

In this year of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary I propose to organise a public debate following the assertion by Dr. Leech-Wilkinson through social media that ‘classical music performance has nothing to say about current concerns’ taken together with his referenced work on the matter (Challenging Performance). Purportedly, the classical performing world as a whole offers approximations of a single idealised performance and rejects deviations, in the process becoming inaccessible to the audience, and finally culturally divorcing itself from current concerns. Thus, this public debate would welcome a balanced discussion about the role, meaning, and relevance of classical music.

Here is the link to the first episode of Leech-Wilkinson’s Challenging Performance, which was one of the subjects for discussion. 

It is important that practising professional musicians not working in academia were able to participate in this debate. As I indicate at the beginning of my contribution, academics frequently disparage musicians and the classical music world, but are rarely open to listening to criticism coming from the opposite direction. Leech-Wilkinson was invited to participate in this debate, but declined. One hopes that in the future he will be prepared to subject his views to more scrutiny from beyond circles of like-minded academics.

I am hoping that the video of the full debate will go online soon, and if so, I will post a link to it. Here is my contribution, of which I delivered a slightly abridged version in June.


It is common to hear musicologists passing judgement upon the work and other activities of classical musicians, sometimes in a deprecatory fashion, much less common to hear the reverse. There are various possible explanations for this; amongst the most plausible, I believe, would be that a good deal of contemporary musicology makes relatively little impact upon classical musicians in general, and so some find it insufficiently important or prominent to warrant comment. This is not a happy state of affairs, and there are many ways it can be demonstrated not always to have been the case. Certainly in the field of historical performance there has long been fruitful exchange between scholars and performers. More widely, those who simply draw upon relatively general literature on music to inform their music-making – I am thinking here of general histories or basic analytical work such as are aimed at those who are not academic musicologists, but have a sound general musical training – frequently imbibe the fruits of more detailed scholarly micro-studies which have informed the best of these more general texts. The writings on music of Charles Rosen, whose academic training was as a literary scholar rather than a musicologist, and who only ever held a few short-term fellowships in music departments, would nonetheless have been impossible without his wider knowledge of musicological scholarship, about which he sometimes wrote in more detail.

But while there is in my opinion still plenty of vital scholarship being produced which has at least the potential to be of value to practising musicians, there has been a counter-current for around three decades, a brand of scholarship which frequently seeks to indict numerous varieties of classical music in particular, charging it with colonialism, misogyny, elitism, or at best irrelevance. It is a bizarre spectacle to see such a number of musicologists – a disproportionate number of whom, as the musicologist Paul Harper-Scott has demonstrated, come from very privileged backgrounds in which a sound training in classical music can be taken for granted – spend a large part of their careers trying to do down this realm.[1]

Now, I would never argue that classical music is wholly autonomous of issues of imperialism, gender, race, social division, by any means, but nor do I accept those arguments that would reduce that music primarily or solely to such factors, with a concomitant disdain for any suggestion of musical ‘autonomy’. This direction, far more prevalent in Anglophone musicology than that from elsewhere, has been steered by self-styled ‘new’ musicologists, some ethnomusicologists, sociologists of music, and others who would view the study of classical music as just one relatively small component of cultural studies, its ‘relevance’ to be gauged primarily on the basis of the size of its audiences, by which measure it would become a minor concern compared to commercial pop.

It is in this context that we should consider this now somewhat notorious remark of Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, even though he is not really a figure commonly associated with the ‘new musicology’, nor with other of the factions I mentioned, and was for a long period primarily known as a scholar of medieval music. As I said, a key axiom of ‘new musicology’ (or its British near-counterpart, ‘critical musicology’) is a denial of the possibility that music can, let alone should, exhibit any autonomous features, those which cannot simply be explained by social, ideological or other determinants. Yet even if one believes this to be the case, demonstrating such a degree of determination is a difficult process, because of the nature of the medium, and attempts to do so often fall back upon hugely speculative associations. It is not difficult to see how some choral ode to a monarch is linked to aspects of feudalism and associated ceremony, but much harder to explain every note of it can be deduced from such an ideological viewpoint, even less why some such such works, but not others, have proved to have a lasting appeal long after such monarchs are consigned to history. To argue that Josquin’s masses or Bach’s sacred cantatas or Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus could only ever be meaningful or valuable to those committed to the particular religious beliefs associated with such works would be myopic in the extreme, and I maintain the same is true of much other music written for a particular social function or in a specific cultural context.

But such a view persists in sub-sections of musicology, and frequently takes another modified form, an active disapproval of music considered more abstract or autonomous. This view is not new, for sure, and is rooted in the nineteenth-century opposition between a more autonomous musical ‘romanticism’ and species of ‘realist’ music given to external depiction, such as fuelled opposing factions in the so-called ‘War of the Romantics’. The American musicologist Richard Taruskin in particular has been quite unequivocal in his partisanship in this respect,[2] drawing largely upon terminology largely developed in a musicological context by one of his nemeses, Carl Dahlhaus.[3] Another American musicologist, Lawrence Kramer, concludes some extravagant hermeneutical readings on the basis of relatively slight evidence,[4] but in particular is clear that the condition for music to be meaningful requires some external referent, a position which caused even Taruskin to balk somewhat.[5]

In an article which was in part a critique of Kramer, Rosen said that ‘music has meaning but very little reference’, having previously argued that ‘It is not that music is more autonomous [than literature], but more ambiguous, slippery: it will not allow itself to be caught and pinned down like a novel or even like a poem.’[6] The same could be said of sculpture, or of dance, and for none of these art forms is this a weakness. But for Leech-Wilkinson, it would appear that it is, as revealed through his disparaging tweet copied above.

This attracted a fair amount of charged response from musicians such as Peter Donohoe, Paul McCreesh, Lars Vogt, as can be seen in the thread which followed it, and here:


It should be noted that Leech-Wilkinson’s comment was itself a response to another tweet by Donohoe bemoaning the lack of mention of classical music in a BBC news item on the grave financial implications of the virus upon the arts. Leech-Wilkinson’s response was widely regarded as a highly insensitive comment at a time when, due to COVID-19, classical musicians and classical music per se are fighting for their very economic survival. An established musicologist, Emeritus Professor at one of the most prestigious of British institutions, King’s College, University of London, occupies at the very least a position of relative power compared to those dependent for their livelihoods on the field he is berating. However, when this was pointed out, Leech-Wilkinson did issue a partial apology in response to McCreesh.

But what would it mean for classical performance to have ‘something to say about current concerns’, specifically the virus? I fear we will soon come across a whole host of lachrymose works with opportunistic titles or dedications, COVID-19 Requiem, ‘To the memory of those we lost to the virus’, Lockdown Lament, and so on, just as many composers rushed to produce works alluding to 9/11.[7] In many cases the music employed might equally have been produced to order for any other traumatic event  – and will be interpreted as communicating an emotion of sadness, and thereby ‘tell’ listeners that they should remember how sad this is. Any other critical or aesthetic judgement of the piece may then be viewed as demonstrating some lack of proper sensitivity. It is not difficult to imagine at some future date a theatrically-inclined composer instructing all musicians to wear face masks during their piece (independently of any medical need), while the composer will speak in earnest tones in a pre-concert talk in about the importance of preserving memory and the like.

This is not to say that there cannot be value in music which attempts some wider commentary upon traumatic events – a strong counter-example would be Shostakovich’s settings of Yevgeny Yevtushenko in his Thirteenth Symphony – which generally avoids the type of mawkish sentimentality that can be found in many previous essays in the type of composition I have just described. Shostakovich’s work of course involves a text with vivid subject matter, and so hermeneutical readings are somewhat less contentious than has been the case for some of his purely instrumental works.

Ultimately, however, I do not accept that the primary purpose of music is to do social good, and reject prescriptive talk insisting that it must do so in order to be considered significant, as Leech-Wilkinson’s comment appears to imply. This view is not really so different from that of Victorian moralists such as Leech-Wilkinson’s compatriots John Ruskin or Matthew Arnold, who insisted on a socially edifying role for art.[8] What all appear to fear is the possibility that art may have value through such attributes as opening up new realms of consciousness, sensation, emotion, in ways which cannot be understood simply as an expression of moral philosophy or political dogma.

It is far too early to ascertain any conclusive scholarly data on how and to what extent classical music or other art might have been important to people during the time of COVID-19. All I can point to is that there have been a great many making the most of the small number of streamed videos of concerts, operas and other musical events, and by no means just those in which one might find particular references which can be linked to the current situation.

For the purposes of this debate, I also listened through to Episode 1 of Leech-Wilkinson’s Challenging Performance podcast. This features a mixture of frequent pleas as if from a beleaguered position, evoking some apparently sternly ‘policed’ environment of performance, which a range of comments suggesting an equal wish to ‘police’ this himself. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Leech-Wilkinson, while professing to wish for a more pluralistic culture of performance, is really arguing for one dominated by the aesthetics of the early twentieth-century. There are some quite bizarre claims, for example that only some historically ‘correct’ performances being allowed in conservatoires, which would be belied by conversations with those responsible for teaching historical performance at many conservatoires, frequently marginalised and dismissed by ‘star’ teachers.

Leech-Wilkinson’s examples of the Moonlight Sonata, claiming that both are acceptable in classical music circles, appear to contradict some of his earlier claims. No examples are given of these audience members who apparently hate something because it is ‘incorrect’. Also, when noting that Paderewski plays with the two hands desynchronised, Leech-Wilkinson argues as if this practice were not still employed by a fair range of pianists today, including Tom Beghin in the example he gives! My own observation of a large range of recordings through the course of the century shows that this practice never wholly disappeared, just that some came to use it rather more discreetly than was once more common. But even in Paderewski’s time, there were marked differences of degree as well. I myself regularly employ such a technique, not only between hands but also between parts in the same hand, but so do plenty of others, if not necessarily in such a stark fashion as Paderewski. Whether Paderewski’s style mirrors that of a century earlier, during Beethoven’s lifetime, we can never know for sure, but on the basis of other information which does exist about performance in the early nineteenth-century, it is safe to assume that there were a variety of different practices, as there are today. There is nothing to stop a Presto rendition of the Moonlight Sonata, as we hear on the podcast, if someone thinks it worthwhile – Leech-Wilkinson acts as his own ‘police’ when he declares ‘it works musically’, though I find his criteria narrow, by their rendering tempo as a secondary, even trivial, concern. He is perfectly entitled to his view, but so are some of the other reviewers and commenters on YouTube – it seems as if Leech-Wilkinson wants to ‘police’ them.

Would Paderewski be denied a conservatoire place today? I am not sure that can be answered unequivocally. Were critics and teachers somehow less censorious during Leech-Wilkinson’s golden age? I do not think so, as any survey of critical reception or pedagogical writings from musicians active during that time will show (obvious examples include those of Josef Lhevinne or Heinrich Neuhaus).[9] Furthermore, many would have found themselves pigeonholed on national grounds, explicitly attacked for being Jewish, for being women, with many attributes of their playing directly linked to such things. Very few non-white performers were ever heard in the West, and the opportunities for performers from non-monied backgrounds to achieve performing careers were very considerably fewer. The repertoire performed was very much smaller – works such as Schubert’s late sonatas or many of Liszt’s works or for that matter Bach’s cantatas, save for a small few, were practically unknown. Also – and this is no small point – the number of those prepared to explore earlier instruments, rather than assume that the most modern ones always entailed ‘progress’ in all respects, was very much smaller than today, and those who did occupied a very marginal position in performing culture. We need to remember these aspects of early twentieth-century performing culture, every bit as ‘policed’ as our own if not more so, rather than view it through a rose-tinted rear-view mirror.

If looking for more possibilities than appear to work musically at the moment, Leech-Wilkinson might consider more of the phenomenally creative work going on in early music, for example the medieval ensemble Graindelavoix, the manic virtuosity of some of the Italian baroque groups, or the vast amount of embellishment enacted by Robert Levin in performances of Mozart Concertos, so relentless as to be mannered. I am sure that he is aware of these; the choice to ignore them is one reason I believe his contribution is essentially polemical in nature.

Many of the other points made in the podcast concerning beliefs and aesthetics constitute more straw man arguments. I could add something about where the boundaries might lie in terms of in some sense playing a score,[10] but there is not really time for that. Leech-Wilkinson may have been open to a whole variety of performances of Machaut’s Mass,[11] but I wonder how he would have felt about one in which each part were played on swanee whistles, with most pitches extremely unstable. Everyone has their limits.

Ultimately, I think the majority of this says more about Leech-Wilkinson’s personal projections than about classical music. Furthermore, I do not believe many musicians need his permission to arrive at performances with which they feel pleased and creatively empowered.



[1] See J.P.E. Harper-Scott, ‘Musicology, the Middlebrow, and the Question of Elitism’, in Rethinking Contemporary Musicology: Perspectives on Interdisciplinarity, Skills and Deskilling, edited Ian Pace and Peter Tregear (London: Routledge, forthcoming).

[2] Richard Taruskin, ‘Speed Bumps’, 19th-Century Music, vol. 29, no. 2 (2005), pp. 185-207.

[3] See in particular Carl Dahlhaus, Realism in Nineteenth-Century Music, translated Mary Whittall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). Dahlhaus was not the first to theorise musical realism, for sure – one can find much earlier writings in English by Norman Cazden, ‘Towards a Theory of Realism in Music’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 10, no. 2 (1951), pp. 135-151, not to mention in the work on socialist realism of Boris Asafiev in the 1930s, specifically his Muzykal’naia Forma Kak Protsess (St Petersburg, 1930) and Intonazia (St Petersburg, 1947). A full translation into English of both of these (viewed as two volumes of a complete work) can be found in James Robert Tull, ‘B.V. Asaf’ev’s Musical Form as a Process: Translation and Commentary (Volumes I-III)’ (PhD thesis, Ohio State University, 1977); commentaries in English on both can be found in Malcolm H. Brown, ‘The Soviet Russian Concepts of “Intonazia” and “Musical Imagery”’, The Musical Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 4 (1974), pp. 557-567; Gordon D. McQuere, ‘Boris Asafiev and Musical Form as a Process’, in Russian Theoertical Thought in Music, edited Gordon D. McQuere (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1983), pp. 217-252; and Ildar Khannanov, ‘Boris Asafiev’s Intonatsia in the Context of Music Theory of the 21st Century’, Rasprave, vol. 44, no. 2 (2018), pp. 485-501. However, Dahlhaus went further than others before him in viewing nineteenth-century music in terms of a dichotomy of romanticism against realism, such as had long been applied to literature and the visual arts.

[4] See various of the essays in Lawrence Kramer, Music as Cultural Practice, 1800-1900 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London: University of California Press, 1990); Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London: University of California Press, 1995) and Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London: University of California Press, 2002).

[5] Taruskin writes ‘If the value of music lies in the words and the pictures that it prompts, then why not cut out the middleman and go straight for the words and the pictures?’; Richard Taruskin, ‘The Musical Mystique: Defending Classical Music against Its Devotees’, in The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London: University of California Press, 2009), p. 349.

[6] Charles Rosen, ‘The New Musicology’, in Critical Entertainments: Music Old and New (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 270. First published as ‘Music à la Mode’, New York Review of Books, vol. 41, no. 12 (23 June 1994), pp. 55-62, review of books by or edited by Lewis Lockwood, Elaine R. Sisman, James Webster, Susan McClary, Richard Leppert, Ruth A. Solie, Steven Paul Scher, Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood and Gary C. Thomas.

[7] Since giving this paper, I found out that the Last Night of the BBC Proms 2020 ‘will also feature the South African soprano Golda Schultz and a newly commissioned work by Swedish composer Andrea Torrodi which responds to the pandemic and will include sounds from the lockdown’. See Mark Brown, ‘BBC Proms: details announced of festival behind closed doors’, The Guardian, 3 July 2020, at .

[8] For a good study of this, see Edward Alexander, Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin, and the Modern Temper (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1973).

[9] Josef Lhevinne, Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing, with a new foreword by Rosina Lhevinne (New York: Dover, 1972); Heinrich Neuhaus, The Art of Piano Playing, translated K.A. Leibovitch (London: Kahn & Averill, 1993).

[10] This is a subject I pursue in my ‘Notation, Time and the Performer’s Relationship to the Score in Contemporary Music’, in Unfolding Time, edited Darla Crispin (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2009), pp. 151-192.

[11] About which he authored a book: Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, Machaut’s Mass: An Introduction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).