A Critic Hears False Notes in Music History

One of the liveliest and most remarkable books about music was published this year. In “The Oxford History of Western Music,” iconoclastic University of California, Berkeley, professor Richard Taruskin offers a 4,000-page, six-volume survey of everything there is to know about Western classical music. For one person to encompass the vast range of subject matter in such depth is virtually unprecedented — even considering the help the author received from scores of experts, and what he has drawn on from the latest revelations of armies of researchers. Normally a team of scholars would be assigned to create such a huge undertaking. Oxford University Press has won a huge gamble by placing its faith in the singular Taruskin.

Taking advantage of the latest research and including massive amounts of fascinating source material to provide as much historical and social context as he can, Taruskin challenges received ideas, marshaling evidence so that readers can follow his revisionism and discover the “real” story along with him. His subject is not just music but also the worlds out of which the different kinds of music arose — in short, the “why” of music. But perhaps even more startling about this gargantuan tome is Taruskin’s core conception that the entire field of music history from its very beginnings and up to the present time has been warped by antisemitism, whether deliberately or unwittingly.

In the truculently titled preface — “The History of What?” — Taruskin forswears the sort of history in which everything “is described in the passive voice… or passive vehicle of ‘emergence.’” Out to shatter shibboleths and to right wrongs, he even names offenders. As a prime example of what he’s criticizing, Taruskin writes that “the most influential music history text of the mid-twentieth century (and still in print), Paul Henry Lang’s ‘Music in Western Civilization,’ paraphrases [the antisemitic writing of] Wagner almost word for word…. Then comes a fusillade of dated antibourgeois rhetoric, presented (one hopes) in naive ignorance of its former status as anti-Semitic code.”

Shortly after this outburst, Taruskin proceeds to “crack” this particular antisemitic code with a scholarly pirouette as audacious as it is judicious — leading the reader to a visceral comprehension of the questions at stake here — nothing less than the rescue of historical truth from suppression, censorship and plain-old lazy scholarship.

Throughout all the volumes, he persuasively works to replace what he sees as antisemitism’s bastard offspring — perfectibility, or the “Great Man” theory: that is, viewing the past through a distorting backward lens, seeing it not as it was but rather anachronistically as a precursor to what later becomes useful to a “Great Man.” This started after Beethoven’s time but became toxic with Wagner’s generation. Hand-in-glove with perfectibility in the arts is the idea that in the real world Jews can only be “perfected” if they become Christian. Even though the doctrine of perfectibility was demonstrably shattered in the last century — on the one hand, Jews were “perfected” out of existence in the Shoah; on the other, ancient music has proved worthy of attention not as curiosities or precursors but as full-blown, still-vital achievements in their own right — musical scholars have continued to go to mind-boggling contortions to prop up the false principle. To be sure, Taruskin covers many Great Men (and Women) — but always here embedded in their own time and place — not slighted as understudies for later figures.

Sensitivity to Jewish issues is gratifyingly apparent throughout. But far from trying to Judaize music history — which would be impossible anyway, as music history is so closely interwoven with Christianity and its development — Taruskin seems intent on setting things right by his lights. While often upending received ideas of Christianity, he grounds his argument in illuminating and equally revisionist appreciations of Christian theology, philosophy and practices and in their relations with social and governing institutions, often with direct quotation from primary sources. In fact, at the outset he declares himself against the prevailing belief that Gregorian chant was derived from synagogue chant; instead, he hypothesizes that it was an independent creation that took place geographically far from the church in Rome — but that it was derived from Jewish texts. Dubious as I am about this particular revisionism, I’m fascinated by his probing conception of this possible early division between Christianity and Judaism, combining social, literary and musical reasoning.

Indeed, one of the most refreshing things in this history is Taruskin’s consistent invitation for readers to disagree with his interpretations. The almost magical result is that no matter which way you decide, you’re engaged with the subject at hand and learning.

It is a challenge to review Taruskin’s achievement because of the vast, all-encompassing scope of its six volumes. Inevitably some readers will quibble about coverage of this or that composer or the over- or underemphasis of particular topics. For me, the biggest disappointment in this history is Taruskin’s rather pedestrian grasp of the technical aspects of compositions. But this matters not at all next to such vivid guidance through the mountain ranges and oceans of music history. Every single chapter is filled with all manner of lively incidents and surprising details — all engagingly recounted. Guaranteed to generate productive arguments among music lovers, scholars and students for some time to come, this cantankerous and magisterial history should be in every serious music library. It will give real pleasures and revelations to any music lover, amateur or professional.

Raphael Mostel is a composer based in New York. His latest composition,” Night and Dawn,” was commissioned for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Brass Ensemble in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands. The world premiere was just performed in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall on May 3 by a special onetime collaboration of the RCO and Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass.

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A Critic Hears False Notes in Music History

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