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.

Very few other minor composers raise the big questions, in Taruskin’s account. We hear from Louis Spohr, for example, as a contemporary witness to Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth symphonies, and to Paganini, but of Spohr’s own music there is not a whisper. Taruskin is not trying to substitute one canon for another, and the only area in which he criticizes the canon’s exclusiveness concerns the omission of women. He mentions recent efforts at “mainstreaming” women composers, and throws his own weight behind Barbara Strozzi, Fanny Mendelssohn and Amy Beach. But the more powerful conclusion he draws is that evident defects in the canon are best answered by a skeptical attitude to all received opinion. If most of the revered masters and masterpieces remain in place here, they do so because their qualities are being freshly judged.

Some, nevertheless, are dented. Taruskin insists–this is one of his central axioms–that the making of music is a social act, done by people for people. And though he asserts that our understanding of music is historically mediated, there may be strains–or rather stains–in the substance of a composition that cannot be ignored or erased. This is why he has little patience for opera seria, the dominant operatic form throughout most of the eighteenth century, which he describes as “an art invested with, and affirming, a social and political system–a system with which no one educated according to the principles of the Enlightenment (which is to say, just about anyone reading this book) could possibly sympathize today.” If, three chapters later, an aria from one of Handel’s operas in this genre is praised as “a triumph of dramatically structured music,” Taruskin, remembering his earlier strictures, claims that Handel “was never a truly typical seria composer.” Real opera seria is irremediable, and we should not be surprised to find it lost behind an impenetrable wall, for “the return of the castrato voice would be about as likely or as feasible as the return of public hangings.”

But wait. Handel’s operas require castrati, as much as do the operas of the “truly typical” suppliers Taruskin discusses in his earlier chapter. Moreover, works by these composers are now being revived to great acclaim. And one may say that the castrati have indeed returned, in the guise of star countertenors and mezzo-soprano cross-dressers who command the virtuosity, the allure and even the sexual mystique of their predecessors. Experiencing them in action, whether in the theater or on record, one has to doubt that their repertory truly affirms the divine right of kings and wonder if it is concerned instead with highly contemporary questions of self-invention and self-projection, of loyalty and deceit, of erotic power play, of love and its guarded frontiers.

Nevertheless, it may be easy to discount the politics of opera seria only because the memory of unquestioned absolute monarchy is so faint. The case is very different with nationalism (especially German nationalism), racism (especially anti-Semitism) and totalitarianism (especially in the Soviet Union and, again, Germany). Sometimes the blot may be an afterthought of history, the advantage of hindsight. Listening, say, to the tenor aria in the Bach cantata Wo Gott der Herr, we may “have greater reason than Bach’s contemporaries ever had to wince at the sound of a high-pitched German voice stridently shouting reason down.” But there are taints, too, that come from closer to the music’s source.

To take another, more celebrated, example from Bach, how should we treat the moment in the St. John Passion where the Jews demand Christ’s crucifixion? Is it enough to know that, according to Taruskin, Bach may never have met a Jew, and that he was merely following the Gospel story? Alternatively, as Taruskin puts it, “does Bach’s music redeem the text?” (which perhaps it could do only by making us ignore the words being sung). As Taruskin also asks, Should we change the text? And who gets to decide?

And what happens when such problems are raised not by a brief passage in an enormous work but by a composer’s whole ethos? We are used, perhaps overused, to the question being raised with respect to Wagner, whose anti-Semitism was an integral part of his worldview and, arguably, of his music theory (the notorious essay “Judaism in Music” being a case in point). But Taruskin also obliges us to think further about Brahms. Tracking Brahms’s path toward his First Symphony in a closely considered passage–a characteristically Brahmsian passage in its density of consequence and range of reference–Taruskin draws into account the nationalist imperative behind the composer’s absorption of German music from Bach to Wagner, an imperative that erupted in the little-known Triumphlied, which Brahms “reverently dedicated” to the new German Kaiser, Wilhelm I. Clearly, Taruskin wants to share his admiration for “the first major composer who grew up within, and learned to cope with, our modern conception of ‘classical music,'” but he wants to convey a certain circumspection.

Perhaps this is the book’s chief lesson, that our listening can never be wholly innocent or engulfing, that we cannot fully participate in what Taruskin calls the “music trance,” a phenomenon he traces to the early nineteenth century. We no longer have the luxury of letting our guard drop. As Taruskin observes, the catastrophes experienced by the West in the twentieth century–World War I; the totalitarian dictatorships of the century’s second quarter, which exacted their cost in further war and genocide; and the development of nuclear weapons–made it impossible to compose without irony. Irony, too, is our lot as listeners.

Brahms may give us pause, as well, in another way. Turning to the composer’s First String Quartet, Taruskin shows how the effect of the opening movement “turns on tinycraft, on minute motivic relations.” This elicits his admiration and expository skills, finely on display over ten pages. But it also provokes some cautionary questions. If, as he posits, the rewards of Brahms’s chamber music include “the self-satisfaction of belonging to a self-defined elite,” do these works, by their difficulty, “foster social division”? And if such anxieties are awakened by an accessible Romantic composer such as Brahms, they are even more at stake when Taruskin moves on to Modernists like Schoenberg and Milton Babbitt. (Schoenberg, born in 1874, dreamed that workers would one day hum his twelve-tone compositions; Babbitt, born in 1916 and shorn of utopian illusions, infamously raised the question “Who Cares If You Listen?” the title of his 1958 article in High Fidelity.)

It is, however, a pretty ragtag elite that turns out for a Babbitt performance in New York–students, professional musicians, an assortment of people who share only a passion for the composer, friends of the performers, the odd writer or visual artist, perhaps two critics and some zealous supporters of whatever hall is being used. Unlike a true elite, this audience does not gain any privileges within society–which is not to say that privileges (of education, of leisure) may not be required for most of them to be there. Moreover, difficult music is far from a leading cause of “social division” in the contemporary West. Indeed, talk of “elite genres,” a term Taruskin uses very early, may distract attention from the real sources of inequality.

Such factors are surely implicated when, as Taruskin observes, sales of “classical” recordings represent only 3 percent of the market, to which one might add that the sector of the population regularly attending “classical” concerts is smaller still. As a symptom of social division, not a cause, this must alert us to severe failures in our culture. And how many, one may wonder, will read through the nearly 4,000 pages of this book? Here is more irony, more sadness in the grandeur, for the fate of this majestic river of prose, full of so many fascinating eddies but with its main currents going along strong, is most likely to be sampled piecemeal by students in need of a quick drink for the purposes of an assignment. At least they will find the water clear and sustaining.

The diminishing size of the audience very much impinges on Taruskin’s argument with respect to music since Brahms, and even a little before. As he sees it, composers entering the fully developed world of “classical” music–a world run not by popes, emperors, dukes and bishops but by commerce–have been subject to two kinds of validation: social, coming from the audience, and historical, coming from how those composers believe music ought to evolve. Implicit in this latter view is “historicism,” the doctrine that there is an engine of change driving history in a particular direction.

That is how it must have seemed to Franz Brendel, whom Taruskin credits as the pioneer of musical historicism. Brendel, writing his own history of music in the middle of the nineteenth century, could look back on several decades of growth in harmonic and orchestral complexity, of advance in keyboard technique and construction, and of expansion among institutions promoting amateur music-making. Progress still seemed inescapable to Schoenberg in 1908, as he took what he regarded as the logical and necessary leap into “atonality” (a term Taruskin rightly mistrusts, since no music can totally lack special motifs, intervals or notes). Forty years later, the same dynamism was again felt by Pierre Boulez. And even now, if we can no longer believe music is heading in a single direction, we might want a new piece to be moving somewhere. This is because historicism is not a dogma but a consequence of living in a musical world where classics are venerated–a world in which the new has to justify itself by being in some measure the same as the old (achieving a comparable level of distinction) and in some measure different. If, therefore, all composers today are historicists, all who want to be heard depend also on the support of some kind of society, which might include universities, foundations, performers, publishers and radio stations.

It is evident throughout the book that Taruskin views music as social discourse, though his society is chiefly one of listeners: of patrons, critics, historians and musicologists, and of contemporary audiences, responding, say, to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in ways that have been determined not only by Beethoven (though, indeed, by him more than anyone else) but also by analysts who have elucidated the work’s unity and even to some degree by earlier composers, such as Mozart, to whom Beethoven listened. There is a glancing nod, as well, to “the ‘interpretations’ of master performers,” but none are so much as named, and the contributions of performing musicians–or of instrument makers, music publishers, teachers, architects, agents, managers, record producers, broadcasters–are scarcely considered. In his introduction Taruskin quotes Anthony Trollope’s fond memory of a servant who came each morning with coffee so that the writer could be at work at 5:30, and remarks, “Quite a few coffee porters, so to speak, will figure in the pages that follow.” But they do not. This is a history of composers and even more so of compositions. It is a great expounding–much of it in the present tense–of what we can hear.

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.