Monday, July 11, 2022

Richard Taruskin

The musicologist Richard Taruskin died on July 1, 2022 at 77. He was surely the most important and influential musicologist of his generation, and very likely of several generations. He became prominent after I'd quit grad school, so I did not have to grapple with his work or his personality during my studies. I read some of his NY Times articles, and I might be going back to read a few more, or reread some of the more famous ones.

He had a combative personality; on Twitter, many folks attested to his greatness as a scholar and teacher, and others mentioned incidents where he bullied people in public. Here's a thread that is absolutely about Taruskin the bully. Some of his opinions were eye-rolling; his Times articles included attacks on composers he didn't like, including Carter, Boulez, and Martino.

But he said a lot that needed to be said: that Stravinsky was profoundly Russian, despite his efforts to claim that he really wasn't; that music can't be understood out of its historical context; that the "Western canon" was designed to be German.

Among Taruskin's big works was the enormous Oxford History of Western Music. I can't imagine anyone else having the breadth of knowledge to write such a thing (I imagine that research assistants were involved, but I don't have a copy so I cannot check the credits*), or, ahem, the hubris to try. I understand from the obituaries and various comments on Twitter that there are no Black composers mentioned in this six-volume, 4200 page monster. I wonder how many female composers are mentioned. You have to wonder about that, and also wonder where the fuck his editors were.

Back in the day, a couple of grad students decided to live-blog reading the Oxford History. Read The Taruskin Challenge for all sorts of fun!

Last June, Will Robin, author of the NY Times obit for Taruskin, interviewed the musicologist for his podcast, Sound Expertise. I listened to it a few weeks later, and during the interview, Taruskin said something so jaw-dropping that I replayed that bit multiple times and then read the transcript to make sure that he'd really said what I heard him say. First, there was this, which is reasonable:

Musicology was very much of an [unclear] thing when I was a student, you have no idea, you young people, you have no idea how narrowly the field was defined in the 1960s when I was introduced to it. That's why I take a somewhat jaded view of all the clamor for inclusion nowadays. I'm all for the inclusion of racial minorities and women, who are a majority after all. 

And then, a few minutes later, there's this:

If you have a desirable political end in mind, you will skew your scholarship to produce a good result. That's a hard one to resist. And therefore, I feel it's really important to resist. And that's why I made a few somewhat skeptical remarks about all of the pressure for inclusion. That is our shibboleth now in musicology -- well, in the humanities, and I therefore find it important to bring up the question of what is sacrificed or what is lost when you gain -- whatever it is. 

To spell it out: first, he equates greater inclusion with "desirable political ends." And it never occurs him to ask what might have been lost during literally centuries of exclusion of women, Black people, and other minorities from musicologies. This is intellectually dishonest and a real failure on Taruskin's part.

I've also got to note that he had advantages that most people don't: he went to Columbia for his undergrad, masters, and doctoral studies, then got his first professional appointment there. This kind of career trajectory is incredibly rare today. Among other things, I was advised not to stay at my undergrad institution for graduate school; new Ph.D.s rarely get hired at their doctoral institution these days. I am pretty sure that in the Sound Expertise interview, Taruskin mentions that his mentor Paul Henry Lang got him access to publishing in The Musical Quarterly, and, again, that's a rare advantage.

Here are the formal obits and other articles that I've seen; I'd also suggest reading mentions of him on Twitter here and here. (They're two different searches and bring up different tweets.)

The three obits address his career and personality from somewhat different angles and all are worth reading. 

* Regarding RAs, a Twitter friend tells me they believe that Taruskin did not use RAs.

UPDATED: July 11, 2022

1 comment:

David Bratman said...

Taruskin was scheduled twice to speak at the Stanford "Reactions to the Record" symposia, but both times he had to cancel because of illness. He was, however, in the audience at the first symposium in 2007, from which he made one choice remark.

Presenter (describing a piece of 18th century music inspired by the song of the nightingale): "How many of you have ever actually heard a nightingale?"
Taruskin: "Does The Pines of Rome count?"