Richard Taruskin, music historian, dies aged 77
Stravinsky’s later years were extensively described in Dr. Taruskin’s The Oxford History of Western Music (2005) covers a six volume (including index) 1.25 million word study of classical music from AD 800 to the late 20th century which also includes thousands of other names and numbers contained.
dr Taruskin had many admirers. Alex Ross of the New Yorker, in a recent interview with musicologist William Robin, called him “the most important living author of classical music, whether in scholarship or journalism.”
“If you want to know how brilliant Richard Taruskin’s ‘Oxford History of Western Music’ is, just open the first of five long volumes and read straight from page one,” wrote critic and composer Greg Sandow in The Wall Street Journal. “I found myself on the edge of my seat.”
This first volume, Music From the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, has often been judged the most successful of the series. dr Taruskin weaved facts and impressions from history, fine arts and architecture, telling stories both authoritatively and transportingly, into a consistently engaging narrative that is still perhaps the best total introduction to early music there is.
In fact, Dr. Taruskin made a name for himself through his studies in the Renaissance, with revealing performances of the music of then-unknown composer Johannes Ockeghem in the 1970s. In a review of History for the New Criterion, critic and editor Patrick J. Smith fondly recalled several concerts of Renaissance music in Manhattan by the Cappella Nova choral group conducted by Dr. Taruskin, adding that “his notes on the concerts ran into the dozens of pages to be read at leisure much later.”
As a graduate student at Columbia University, Dr. Taruskin collaborated with Paul Henry Lang, whose own story “Music in Western Civilization” had a profound impact on him with its then-pioneering efforts to place music in a broader socio-cultural context.
dr Taruskin published his first book, Opera and Drama in Russia as Preached and Practiced in the 1860s, in 1981. He also collaborated with musicologist Piero Weiss on Music in the Western World: A History in Documents.
In the mid-1980s, Dr. Taruskin contributor to the New York Times, where he was given unusually free rein and soon became a controversial figure. He reminded some readers of the late drama and film critic John Simon, who was also known for lively, erudite, perceptive — and at times unnervingly brutal — reviews. dr Taruskin attacked composers Carl Orff, Arnold Schoenberg, and Sergei Prokofiev, as well as contemporary American composers such as Milton Babbitt, Donald Martino, and Elliott Carter.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Dr. Taruskin wrote a column in The Times about the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s decision to cancel performances of some choirs from The Death of Klinghoffer, an opera by John Adams with a libretto by Alice Goodman, about the murder of a disabled Jewish-American by Palestinian terrorists .
“Censorship is always deplorable, but the exercise of leniency can be noble,” wrote Dr. Taruskin. “Not being able to distinguish the noble from the regret is morally blunt. After 9/11, we may wish to finally move beyond sentimental complacency about art. Art is not blameless. Art can cause harm. The Taliban know that. It is time we learned it.”
In response, Adams said that in Dr. Taruskin’s work recognizes two types of writing – his formal musicological work and his “pop” pieces for the Times.
“In the latter he specialized in character assassination,” Adams told The Independent in 2002. “That makes a good copy. It’s a bit like watching those cheesy “true crime” shows on TV: there always has to be a body count at the end, whether the target is Prokofiev, Shostakovich scholars, or anyone else he decides to humiliate. “
dr Taruskin was at his strongest in Russian music, and he largely returned to that study after the publication of his story, which he dubbed “the ox.” Indeed, he seemed somewhat lost in 20th-century music without a Russian connection.
For example, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Duke Ellington, Ruth Crawford Seeger or Stephen Sondheim were not mentioned in his story. The name of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, once voted the world’s favorite composer in a radio poll by the New York Philharmonic, and only by the way for the last two decades of the 20’s.
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Richard Filler Taruskin was born on April 2, 1945 in New York. His father was a lawyer and amateur violinist, and his mother taught piano when she was young. dr Taruskin began playing the cello when he was 11 and once jokingly said he knew he would become a cellist so the family could play piano trios. Later, the instrument he played most frequently in public was the viola da gamba, from which the cello is partly derived.
He attended what was then the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan and later claimed to have read every book in the history of music in the New York Public Library. He graduated from Columbia Undergraduate College in 1965 and won a Fulbright-Hays scholarship that allowed him to travel to Moscow in 1971 and 1972.
After receiving a master’s degree in musicology from Columbia in 1968 and a doctorate in musicology in 1975, he taught in the university’s music department until 1987, when he joined the Berkeley faculty. In 1989 he was appointed full professor and retired in 2014.
In addition to his 38-year-old wife of El Cerrito, California, Dr. Taruskin’s two children, Paul Roebuck Taruskin and Tessa Roebuck Taruskin; a sister; a brother; and two grandchildren.
dr Taruskin is said to have softened in his later years, and he befriended many young critics and scholars, the same sort of people he had earlier taunted in public attacks and private postcards. He has received numerous awards and in 2012 a conference was held in his honor at Princeton University.
The conference was called “After the End of Music History” and several lectures were given by Dr. Dedicated to Taruskin’s life and work. That made him very happy.
“As long as Taruskin is the one to beat,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle, “Taruskin is happy.”
Tim Page is Professor Emeritus of Musicology at the University of Southern California and won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for his writings on music in The Washington Post.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/obituaries/2022/07/02/musicologist-richard-taruskin-dies/ Richard Taruskin, music historian, dies aged 77