Oxford History of Western Music Paperback – Jun 26 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The daunting task of connecting the most abstract of art forms to society, economics, politics and philosophy is admirably accomplished in this monumental six-volume narrative history. The work is a single interpretive synthesis by musicologist and critic Taruskin, author of Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions (1996), covering the Western classical tradition from medieval Gregorian chant to the contemporary avant-garde, with two regrettably scant chapters on 20th-century jazz and pop. He traces evolving performance and compositional conventions from the earliest written records, focusing on the elaboration of the Western system of tonality, its solidification in the Bach-to-Beethoven canon and its subsequent broadening into dissonance and tonal indeterminacy. He also follows the shifting social and ideological functions that elevated composers from lowly court servants to the alienated geniuses of romantic and modernist myth and transformed music from an adjunct of church ritual to a marketplace commodity, a vehicle for nationalist aspirations and a secular religion of art-for-art's-sake. Taruskin analyzes thousands of musical scores by all the major and many minor composers-the musically inclined should peruse the books at the piano-and his close readings of the esthetic and psychological effects of compositions come as close as one can to putting music's ineffable qualities into words. His account of the larger historical framework is erudite but accessible and stylish, conversant with everything from Aristotelian philosophy to psychoanalysis but wary of reading anachronistic interpretations into the past. The result is a judicious but richly stimulating history, valuable both to scholars and to ordinary readers who want to listen with new ears to the music they love. Photos.
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"Most of the news in classical music takes place on stage or on disc. But at the moment, one of the biggest stories (in more ways than one) is taking place on the printed page." --The New York Times
"Erudite, engaging, and suffused throughout with a mixture of brilliance and delirium...staggering, brilliant, opinionated."--Washington Post
"Readers will profit from his sharp analysis and unabashed opinions... Taruskin has succeeded in writing a stimulating overview of Western society, setting a standard that will not be surpassed for a very long time..." --Library Journal
"Taruskin's chef-d'oeuvre, however, is a feast of contrarian ideas, with enough spice to sting the palate of anyone with a stake in telling the old stories in the old way. It aims for nothing less than the revaluation of practically everything you thought you knew about classical music....Taruskin's magnum opus is a must-read, and in its way, a real page-turner of detective non-fiction. It's a cinch to become the most discussed music title of the year, if not of the decade."-- The Globe & Mail
"The book is nothing short of spectacular" - New Music Box
"There's plenty to keep you amused and enlightened - it's very good reading." - American Record Guide
"Rather than assemble an overview, Taruskin has written a critical, subjective history in which he examines the influence of key figures, works, and musical ideas against the backdrop of world affairs and cultural history."-Berkeleyan
"Musicians, students, historians, and other readers wishing a detailed narrative about the career, patronage, musical influences, reception, and creative production of western composers, as well as the development of musical styles will find this a fascinating and satisfying resource." --Reference and Research Library Book News
"An amazing achievement. For a single musicologist, even one of the stature of Taruskin, to have produced a detailed, accurate, informative and well-illustrated history is nothing short of amazing."--Classical Net Review
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Nino Pirrotta, an outstanding historian of Italian music, once proposed the title of this chapter as a joke, but it contains an important insight and provides an excellent frame for discussing some issues of major consequence.1 Read the first page Browse Sample Pages
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But inaccuracies, especially at the core of so damning a response to a new book, must not remain unchallenged.
Let's start with Anonymous IV's insinuation that Taruskin lacks expertise in music before 1800. (According to Anonymous IV, Taruskin's "superficial" and "sketchy" first two volumes summarize "the extent of what the author knows about music before 1800"; he is "obviously... on home turf" only in the 19th and 20th centuries.)
Perhaps Anonymous IV cannot imagine a musicologist being on home turf in more than one period. But Taruskin is just such a rare being: a formidable scholar of 19th- and 20th-century Russian music, he is equally celebrated in the realm of early music. His influential book, Text and Act (1995), contains numerous essays on pre-19th-century music. And even the brief author's biography on the back cover of that book informs us that Taruskin has published "numerous editions of Renaissance music, including a complete edition with commentary of the sacred music of [the 15th-century composer] Antoine Busnoys," and that while teaching at Columbia University, Taruskin had a distinguished performing career in early music. (Among other activities, he conducted the Cappella Nova, a New York-based choir specializing in medieval and Renaissance music; as a viola da gambist he recorded and toured with the Aulos ensemble.)
Anonymous IV's whining that Taruskin "rushes through more than 1000 years of music history" is no less mystifying. Hello! Taruskin devotes 1,612 pages to the first 1000 years of notated music in the Western world - rather more than the 843 pages in which Grout/Palisca, to which Anonymous IV repeatedly compares Taruskin, covers the entire history of Western music.
But most importantly: if Anonymous IV has indeed read Taruskin's History of Western Music, he/she will have found, in its opening paragraphs, (pp. xxi and xxii), a clear statement of the book's aim. It is not, Taruskin explains, a survey à la Grout. Rather, it is "an attempt at a true history" - that is, an attempt "to explain why and how things happened as they did" - in short, not the usual laundry list that has too often passed for music history. To compare Taruskin to Grout on this count is rather like faulting a cognac for not being a beer.
Taruskin fulfills his stated aim exhilaratingly. His book is a towering achievement of scholarship and intellect; a challenge to complacency; a joy to read.
As to the accusation that Oxford's production of Taruskin's book is shoddy: well, I do not know what Anonymous IV has been doing with his/her copy. I have been reading mine, for some weeks now, and have had no problem whatsoever with its binding.
Since the last volume ends with the notion of ending in the middle of things, I took that as permission to begin reading with the pivotal volume on the 19th century. This turned out to be good decision, as I was familiar with nearly all of the works discussed, and as person who dearly loves Beethoven, Brahms and instrumental music, my personal musical world-view was firmly in the author's critical crosshairs. Thus challenged, but persuaded by his arguments and the force of his example (his analysis of the careers and music of the contemporaries Wagner and Verdi is fabulous), I then read with pleasure volume 2 (with an excellent analysis of the relationship of Bach's world view to his music), then 4 (with an illuminating analysis of the harmonic practice of Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartok), then 5 (I think Taruskin agrees with me that John Adams' music is boring, but for once is too polite to say so), and finally the first volume. As I was not familiar with any of the works in the first volume, this one was a struggle, but much worth it, as I've now added quite a few wonderful pieces to my CD collection.
I bought these volumes after reading Taruskin's essays in the "Danger of Music". In that book, the author is argumentative, prone to score points on this opponents rather than enlighten his readers, and occasionally even gossipy. In this history, by contrast, he is resolutely judicious, fair, and illuminating in the best academic tradition. He'd likely maintain that he's just being a critic in the former work, but I like his professorial historian persona better. In his history, Taruskin brings the music of the past to life in its context, but he remains conscious of his 21st century vantage point. He treats composers like the humans they are, no matter how exceptional their music gifts. With his ironic self-awareness, the author is purposefully not Romantic in his outlook. He's even funny now and again. If you are willing to break away from the traditional Germanic view of `pure' music that I grew up with--mostly through reading the backs of record covers--you will learn much from this work and even listen with fresh ears. The book is well written, with only a few runaway sentences requiring a second reading. I noticed a mere handful of typographical errors.
It's also a delight to read; charmingly written and clearly argued. If you love music and love thinking about music, you should have this on your shelf.
Taruskin is a great scholar of early music (far and away the best I've ever been exposed to) and more than competent on the "classical" era (despite a tendency toward overly pedantic analyses -you know, the kind with lots of B sharps and F flats in it), but he is very weak (and lacking in sympathy) beyond that. He seems far more interested in dismissing / belittling composers who offend his (to me prissy and unimaginative) sensibilities. He's often entertaining when he does this (he has a gift for sarcasm), but as scholarship it's basically garbage, opinion masquerading as history.
Almost any history of the early 20th is as good or better than his. For readers interested in the late 20th (besides those who -like Taruskin himself- merely wish to pretend "modernism" never happened and are reassured by minimalism), Paul Griffiths Modern Music and After is far more informative and sympathetic.
The writing itself is excellent and engaging throughout. I wish he'd stopped after the first two volumes (music he's genuinely excited about). Beginning with the nineteenth century it begins to feel like he's writing out of an obligation to complete the work instead of a real desire to examine the music itself.
The bindings of the paperbacks are pretty bad, which makes the last two volumes a real waste of money.
The text volumes, all but one around 800 pp., have no indexes or bibliographies; those are in vol. 6: sixty-nine separate chapter bibliographies, the entire index in a single alphabet. Did anyone at Oxford give a moment's thought to how these books would be used?
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