The Man Who Heard It All
The present tense begins to slip away, oddly, as Taruskin reaches modern times. Many compositions are discussed as events in the past, for the perfectly sound reason that they have become so by this point in history. As Taruskin notes, the standard operatic repertory--the repertory the audience knows and demands--closes with Puccini's Turandot (1926), after which the movies took over opera's specialties of big characters and big voices, revealed intimacy and exotic location. Where concert music is concerned, the repertory's endpoint is perhaps the last of Shostakovich's quartets (1974)--though leaving aside the unique and complex case of that composer's reception (clearheadedly considered here), the limit might have to be placed in the mid-1940s, at works by Bartók, Britten and Copland.
In a peculiarly modern paradox, many compositions of the recent past that are recognized as historically important and duly feature in a music history--the piano pieces John Cage created by chance procedures in the 1950s, Krzysztof Penderecki's sonic dramas of the 1960s (notably Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima), David Del Tredici's Alice fantasies of the 1970s, collages by John Zorn from the 1980s--are more distant than troubadour songs, because they have lacked the slow integration into common experience needed to make them what, as Taruskin would seem to understand it, music is: the sound of something not given once and for all but forever transforming itself as it bounces among many different hearings.
This must be why Taruskin vouchsafes his close attention to so few compositions of the last fifty years: La Monte Young's String Trio (1958), Elliott Carter's Second Quartet (1959) and Double Concerto (1961), Babbitt's Philomel and Terry Riley's In C (both 1964), Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles (1966), Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76), Arvo Pärt's Tabula rasa and Fred Lerdahl's First String Quartet (both 1977), Alfred Schnittke's Concerto for Piano and Strings (1979), John Adams's opera Nixon in China (1987) and nothing since. Moreover, with the exception of the works by Pärt and Schnittke, these are all pieces by US citizens. Taruskin recalls that Brendel called the last chapter of his history "Decline"; here the sense in the final volume is of dissipation, and the note of optimism on the last page--"Our story ends, as it must, in the middle of things"--might have rung truer if notice had been given to composers like Harrison Birtwistle, Helmut Lachenmann, Salvatore Sciarrino, Kaija Saariaho, Hanspeter Kyburz and George Benjamin.
It is here, at the close, that the historian's passionate dispassion and sublime omniscience must be limited by the fact that he is speaking of his own time, and from his own location. It is here, too, that he finds his immense patience tried (by the Dutch minimalist Louis Andriessen)--though much earlier, and more surprisingly, given that he is the subject of a two-volume study by Taruskin, some testiness is directed at Stravinsky, disdained at least four times as an "aristocrat." But the fraying ends and nerves may even be welcome in revealing Taruskin as, after all, human. The scale of what he has done--what he has read, heard and analyzed, let alone what he has written--is almost not.
Decidedly prone to human error, though, are his publisher's efforts. Taruskin gracefully thanks a "small army of proofreaders, copyeditors, and factcheckers," but their care, alas, did not match his own. Inconsistencies have begun by page 6 of the first volume, and earlier still, on page 4, comes the first demonstrable mistake of fact: The Holy Roman Empire did not last, even in name, until World War I, because it was dissolved by Napoleon in 1806. Faults in the music examples surface throughout the text, down to Nixon in China, where two systems are out of order, and there are misnumberings of footnotes to the bitter end. The index is risible.
Never mind. Taruskin's book, singular in every possible way, will take its place on the short list of compendiums, going back to the ninth century, that have reviewed the musical world from a position of supreme authority. Like them it will change things. Like them it will last.