Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (1995)
On Russian Music (2009)
The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (2009)
Richard Taruskin must be one of the most prolific writers on music in the last 20 years. His single-handed, 6-volume "Oxford History of Western Music," running to 4,200+ pages, should by itself put him in the Guinness Book of Records, but he's also brought out a 2-volume study of Stravinsky of nearly 1,800 pages which only goes up to 1922, several other books on Russian composers and music, and more. He's published innumerable articles for professional and lay readers, and his pick of the latter is collected in the three books named above - along with newly written replies and ripostes to the furious letters to the editor that greeted some of his contentious and indeed tendentious pieces.
For Taruskin the critic is a battler. He loves to take on received opinion and cut the ground out from under it. And he doesn't mince words - in these books you'll find some prominent musicologists and historians called liars, children, or even worse. He'd be a perfect fit in the Corner Pub. As he says in the introduction to "On Russian Music," the passionate style is risky, and Taruskin's passion burns from many of these pages. Yet I haven't caught him in any misstatements (OK, lies); unlike, say, Norman Lebrecht, Taruskin has more than indignation going for him. His pieces may provoke high feelings, from those whose oxes he gores, but they also provoke thought. And the thought is about major issues in the musical life of our times.
"Text and Act" focuses on the Historically Informed Performance movement that became powerful in the 1980s - but that isn't what it was called back then; its proponents spoke of authentic performance practice, as if the only right way was to replicate as far as possible how early music sounded when it was new. The title of one essay, "The Modern Sound of Early Music," suggests one of Taruskin's points of attack: "It becomes ever more apparent that 'historical' performers who aim 'to get to the truth' (as Malcolm Bilson has put it) by using period instruments and reviving lost playing techniques actually pick and choose from history's wares. And they do so in a manner that says more about the values of the late 20th century than about those of any earlier era." But that very fact makes the HIP kind of performance authentic in a different sense: as a true expression of our own values.
The battle over the bona fides of historical performance practice was decided some time ago, with Taruskin possibly the most influential voice on the winning side. In "On Russian Music," the hot topics are the authenticity (that word again) of Solomon Volkov's "Testimony," said by him to be Shostakovich's personal memoirs but by Taruskin to be a fraud, and Prokofiev's relationship with the Stalinist authorities, which Taruskin thinks were rather too cozy. In the "Testimony" affair, the main target besides Volkov himself is the abusive way his supporters attacked the opposition: "It is not because he was wrong that I reserve my strongest contempt for Allan B. Ho's lies and deceptions, but because he acted dishonestly." In re Prokofiev, he was provoked by a New York performance of "A Toast to Stalin," whose music, whatever its quality, set a text of supine, lying flattery of a murderous, evil leader. Taruskin was roused to take on the conventional modern view that classical music as such is "autonomous," meaning free of real-life social and moral relevance in its own time and ours.
As for "The Danger of Music," the book's title essay continues, "...and the Need for Control." The Boston Symphony exercised self-control by cancelling performances of choruses from "The Death of Klinghoffer" which, by a truly awful coincidence, had been scheduled for November 2001. Many protested this, naturally including the composer, as if the choruses' sympathetic treatment of Palestinian terrorists and their murderous act were irrelevant to what happened in America two months earlier, and the piece should be listened to purely as music. That's an arguable attitude, but Taruskin sees it as a symptom of why and how classical music and art generally has been marginalized in American life. Another symptom, he argues, is the attitude expressed in Schoenberg's dictum, and embodied in much of Schoenberg's and other modernist composers' music: "If it is art, it is not for everybody; if it is for everybody, it is not art." These are aspects of what Taruskin calls utopianism, Utopia being the Greek word for "nowhere," and he explains his anti-utopian stance:
My comments hardly suggest the richness of these books' 1,150 pages on a very wide range of subjects concerning music and performance, nor is every one of these 97 essays devoted to these central themes. Ranging from the very short to the very long, from the easily understood to the complex and sometimes technical (though without musical examples), and from the impartial to the radically partisan, they cover a lot of ground. For those concerned with the decline in classical music's prestige and audience in the present day, here are explanations and diagnoses and a few suggested remedies, none of them guaranteed, of course. Some may stimulate, some will surely provoke, all are worth reading.Richard Taruskin wrote:The ideas against which these essays inveigh include the demand that performers sacrifice communication with their audience to sterile criteria of correctness..., the notion that esthetic considerations outweigh or outrank ethical ones..., and the doctrine that composers owe their greatest debt not to the society in which they live but to the history of their art... To put it in utopian terms, in the name of autonomy and authenticity classical music has indeed become, to a degree once literally unthinkable, the music of noplace, composed for nobody and performed for nobody.