The Man Who Heard It All
This is an astounding achievement. The Oxford History of Western Music fills five stout volumes (discounting a sixth given over to the index, bibliography and other such matters), and yet Richard Taruskin can justifiably speak of it as a single book. To be sure, it travels far and wide in pursuing a millennium's ramshackle production of songs and dances, keyboard suites and operas, sacred chants and church cantatas, symphonies and chamber works, electronic compositions and virtuoso showpieces, a good number of them quoted in music type so that competent keyboard players can eavesdrop on this multicolored parade as it goes along. Meanwhile, however, the surrounding text keeps its steady voice of thoughtful inquiry, painstaking analysis, consistent generosity and courteous address to the reader. Nothing like this book has been attempted since the nineteenth century, and as the author ruefully remarks, nothing like it may be written again.
Taruskin makes clear his reason for this proud pessimism. The coherence of Western "classical" music--the jumble of types only partly enumerated above--lies in notation (though due acknowledgment is given here to what never was notated and so has been lost). Just as we can observe the emergence of clearly legible notation in the eleventh century, so we seem in Taruskin's view to be witnessing its demise, as some of the composers he treats in his last chapter, from Charles Dodge to Laurie Anderson, go off into territories where notation is no longer of any use, and as the possibility arises with the spread of digital equipment that we may all compose, perform and even disseminate our own music without thought of staves, clefs and quarter notes.
In a sense, this book expresses the magnificence and melancholy of its age. Scholarship--some of it Taruskin's own, on composers as widely separated in time as Stravinsky and the fifteenth-century master Antoine Busnoys--has brought into view, and often into performance, a vast amount of music that was only dimly known half a century ago. But that expansion of knowledge and experience has been accompanied, unavoidably, by doubts about the universal validity of the central repertory, or canon, that built up around the works of perhaps just a dozen composers from Bach to Mahler, nearly all of them not only dead white males but dead white German-speaking males.
Taruskin shares those doubts, and he voices them in ways that demand serious consideration. His posture is, however, complex and subtle, which is to say humane. The canon is a historical phenomenon, and its history is duly traced. But it is also still with us. The music performed in our concert halls and opera houses, recorded by our ever more hard-pressed record companies and taught in our (some would say) equally embattled music courses is still overwhelmingly that of the DWGMs. Accordingly, this is the music--along with that of DWIMs, DWFMs, DWEMS and eventually DWRMs--that provides Taruskin with his principal subject matter.
As Taruskin recognizes, it is notation that makes the history of Western music the story not only of what was but of what is. This story is, of course, more than a sequence of musical scores, for as he makes clear, a notated work changes through time as our listening is tempered by shifts in interpretation and by an accumulation of responses. Yet these changes could occur only because these works were passed down, and until recording came along notation provided the only means of preservation. Turning, then, to look at specific pieces of notated music without ignoring how the image is altered by so many social and historical lenses, Taruskin offers illuminating readings. He shows in precise detail, for instance, how Palestrina in his mass Missa Papae Marcelli can "create opulence out of sheer grammatical necessity"; how the slow movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 39 represents the repression of "a disagreeable passing thought"; how a key scene in Donizetti's opera Lucia di Lammermoor realizes "the magnificent irony whereby Lucia's madness, an unmitigated catastrophe to its [onstage] observers, is a balm and solace to her"; and how Scriabin (whose importance to post-tonal harmony is cogently affirmed here) extended harmony to create "what might be called a musical hyperspace." Each of these conclusions is supported by several pages of close listening, and the examples could be multiplied many times over.
Taruskin's book is an invitation to a deeper awareness of many compositions and many ways of hearing. Yet despite its remarkable length, it makes no claims to comprehensiveness. Taruskin is punctilious, and again justifiably proud, in emphasizing that his book is a work of history, not a survey of the repertory. He disarms criticism on grounds of omission by cheerfully admitting he has ignored such side-branch composers as Vaughan Williams, who maintained the British symphonic tradition into the mid-twentieth century, and the American maverick Conlon Nancarrow, who, living in self-imposed exile in Mexico City, confined himself almost exclusively to elaborate rhythmic machinations for player piano. Of course, history is under no compulsion to be all-inclusive; because, as Taruskin writes, history seeks not so much to chronicle the past as to "explain why and how things happened as they did," it tends to be drawn to what is innovative and generative (though one might have thought Nancarrow would qualify on exactly those criteria). But one can almost hear Taruskin chafing at this. He wants to honor all. He staunchly refutes the notion that the artists of any given time can be neatly divided into progressives and conservatives, and even in the forward-streaming twentieth century he salutes such a small-time traditionalist as the Russian composer Nikolai Medtner.
He allows himself to do so, though, only because he can demonstrate "details of surprising interest" in a Medtner piano piece of 1912, and because he can make a few measures open up large questions, questions it is the historian's duty not to answer but to clarify. Of Medtner's work, he asks, "Does the music accomplish less, or mean something different, because it comes later?"--i.e., thirty years after Brahms, when the harmonic point at issue would have been regarded as novel. Characteristically unanswered, it is a question that inevitably echoes as time slowly passes through these pages.