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.