Plays well, yet ends on a bum note

The Oxford History of Western Music - The Oxford History of Western Music - The Oxford History of Western Music - The Oxford History of Western Music - The Oxford History of Western Music - The Oxford History of Western Music
May 20, 2005

Hugh Wood and Christopher Wood marvel at the energy and scholarship

Long ago, the faculty of music at Cambridge University used to set two large history papers for second-year students. Both consisted of 30 to 40 questions, so the choice was far-ranging. The first paper began with the origins of polyphony and ended with the death of Beethoven; the second carried on up to the present day. Inevitably, they fell to the axe of change. During our funereal discussions, a colleague coined a phrase, which he trumpeted first to plead for them, then to mark their passing: he regretted the loss of "the broad sweep of music history". Many of us felt the same.

Well, here is the good news: the "broad sweep" is back. These six magnificent volumes yield just over 3,700 pages of good reading. This is to exclude the footnotes and art credits in each volume, and to discount the slimmer volume six, with its chronological tables, a bibliography, a checklist of myriad music examples, a formidable list of editorial staff and finally a master index. The scale of the enterprise fills one with awe: someone who has just seen the skyscrapers of Chicago for the first time cannot fail to find their dimensions as well as their beauty heart-stopping. An equally dizzying experience is to be had with a continuous narrative from the days of Charlemagne, Alcuin and Pope Gregory I down to the Bush dynasty, John Adams and Tan Dun.

The sole authorship is in itself a cause for admiration. We are used to the single-volume history known simply by the name of its author - Paul Henry Lang, Donald J. Grout - or the similarly personalised dictionary, Grove.

But in fact Sir George Grove found that the help of a research team was necessary. His own personality faded edition by edition and has long disappeared. Here is the complete opposite: whatever the size of his research team, the personality of Richard Taruskin, professor of musicology at the University of California, Berkeley, is present on every page. In a wretched age of editors and collaborators ("You mean it takes two men to write a book?" as Cole Porter should have said) and compilers of uncompanionable "companions" with the thin grey dust of featureless anonymity lying over the page, it is invigorating to encounter, loud and clear, a unique authorial voice.

And what a voice. Taruskin has long been known in the US, and is getting known here, for a brand of aggressive and energetic scholarship that has transformed any previous image of dowdy backroom goings-on - with their "contemplative lifestyle and their antiquarian scholarly interests" (Taruskin's words) - that used to characterise musicologists. His areas of expertise are wide and alarmingly various: his public stance on topics and personalities he feels strongly about must surely have gained him more admirers than friends.

What these volumes reveal is a man of exceptionally wide reading, something of a polymath, involved with history, philosophy and other arts besides music. He has a devouring wish to get at the truth, a desire to overturn received ideas when he considers them false and a strongly didactic strain in his character, albeit one of a most democratic kind. Many questions, not all rhetorical, are spread about the pages of this work: he is impatiently eager to work out the answer - if there is one. The offhand informality of the style should not disguise for a moment the extreme sharpness of the mind. He is intensely readable. And he makes jokes.

Throughout, Taruskin returns to certain big general ideas. Here is one from page 1 of volume one: the priority and (to a certain extent) the primacy of oral tradition. This is why, he explains, we begin in the middle: with the oral tradition only beginning to be replaced by a purely literate one.

Dating the former is impossible and irrelevant. The topic will run through these volumes, casting new light on the status of notation and indeed on the early development of music as an "art". Fast-forward to volume five, chapter 69, and you will find him still preoccupied with the importance of oral tradition - but in the world of Harry Partch and Meredith Monk. This sort of inspired century jumping in such a holistic quest is what one learns to expect from an imaginative historian.

The hunting down of received ideas and historical myths begins equally promptly. Here are a few. The standard books take for granted the influence of Jewish temple music on early Christian chant: Taruskin suggests this is improbable, if not impossible. He is perhaps not the first to play down Pope Gregory I's responsibility for Gregorian chant (although it is nice to be told that Gregory's fabled inspiration by the Holy Ghost may be the origin of the phrase "a little bird told me"). The Notre Dame School gets it in the neck - "actually a sort of grand historical fiction". Even Perotin and Leonin fade away like a couple of Cheshire Cats. (Taruskin does not mention that Anonymous 4 are nowadays a good-looking all-girl group.) He does not like labels: "baroque" and "impressionist" were both (in any case) originally pejorative; for Taruskin "atonal music" is now joined in the stocks by "tonal music". Nor does he fall for every conspiracy theory going: Tchaikovsky's Pathetique was no suicide note, but sprang from a wish to write a sad piece. This is brilliantly argued.

The fact that Taruskin likes to take mighty swipes at various commonplaces must not allow us to dismiss him as merely a professional iconoclast or debunker. He is driven by a serious theory of history and a deep distrust of "historicism" (explained in chapter 40 of volume three). He quotes Schopenhauer: "Alongside world history there goes, guiltless and unstained by blood, the history of philosophy, science and the arts", to which Taruskin responds: "Whether the history of art is an idyllic parallel history... or whether world history and art history are mutually implicated - has been the urgent subtext of this book from the very first page." The working out of this thesis is assisted by some lively pieces of writing: Europe in the 8th century, a page on the New England Transcendentalists, a discussion of the politics of romanticism, an outline history of Hungary or a study of the American left in the 1930s. If the original big question is never definitively answered, that lies in the nature of the question.

Nevertheless, the chief glory of this work, its most useful component and indeed largely its raison d'être , lies in the part of the text dominated by music examples. Their abundance and never-failing appositeness is enough for them to deserve an autonomous existence as a largely self-explanatory anthology of music. They cover an amazing, sometimes disconcerting range. Take Me Out to the Ball Game rubs shoulders with Carolingian neumated antiphoners: a discussion of whole-tone passages in Schubert (amazingly, in the Octet) provokes a quotation from a work by Giovanni Maria Nanino (1605).

But these examples are FOPs (far-out points) - to borrow an expression Taruskin has invented for the most remote moments in harmonic/tonal analysis. For each major composer there is always at least one piece that he singles out for special attention: usually it is very well known.

Consider this list: Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli , Bach's 80th Cantata Ein' Feste Burg , Haydn's 104th Symphony (the London ), Mozart's 39th Symphony in E flat, Beethoven's 5th Symphony, Schubert's Unfinished , Brahms's First, Wagner's Götterdämmerung , to which could be later added Stravinsky's Octet and Bart"k's Fourth Quartet. It reads like a great books course. It is populist, welcoming and democratic: you are immediately reassured that perhaps the best known is indeed the best, which is why it is so well known. Read on, and you find that Taruskin has new, original and penetrating things to say about every piece. The general reader should be warned that throughout the music is discussed strictly in terms of itself: the treatment is invariably technical and you need to know (and care) about harmony. Without this basic knowledge the pages devoted to Schubert, for instance, would be incomprehensible - with it they are fascinating.

A raspberry here (or should that be a Bronx cheer?) for the ten people named in volume six as music proofreaders. They have not done their job properly: the examples are riddled with errors, most of them obvious, thus the more inexcusable. One of us has been through the Mozart and Schubert examples, and was alarmed by what he found. Other inconsistencies are to do with transposing instruments and the provision of translated vocal text.

As we approach, in volumes four and five, the past 200 years, new problems appear. The whole work started with a remote era about which information is scarce, and every scrap of knowledge is valuable. Over the centuries, the culture has become more and more literate, more of it has been preserved, until we are faced with what a Romanian friend, disconcerted by his first encounter with Western newspapers, once called "a storm of informations". Taruskin reports a statistic produced by Jan LaRue: by the end of the 18th century the number of symphonies written numbered 16,558. There was obviously a new and urgent task for any historian: that of selection. The critical reader, if he is not careful, will increasingly take on the habits of the Kremlin-watcher of yesteryear, alert to the order and relative prominence of the figures on the podium, quick to observe the absence of the slightest minor figure. It is good to report that the leaders of the 19th-century musical world remain in place unaltered in status. There are even bonuses: a good chapter on Rossini, a thorough look at Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor , a bonanza on Russian music and a sympathetic assessment of Puccini.

But what about Grieg? What about Sibelius? (And what about Dallapiccola?) This is an irritating and frustrating game to play. In his introduction, Taruskin makes the disclaimer that he "does not take 'coverage' as his primary task". In short, many secondary figures do not fit into the story he has to tell and he does not believe (rightly) in letting them participate as "representatives". The question then arises: what is the particular story that Taruskin has to tell? To what extent is it open to dispute? Robert Conquest's law kicks in pretty sharply here: the perception that the more we know (or care) about a subject, the less tolerant we are about it. Any present-day composer who retains a sense of the past (diminishing band though we may be) will find that his attitude, pro or contra, to the music of the past 100 years (say, since Salome , La Mer and the Kammersinfonie) enormously sharpened, if not polarised. The people who taught us, however remotely, are, after all, "family", and they matter more, one way or the other.

It would be surprising if, under the relentless gaze of his contemporaries, Taruskin's hitherto almost superhuman breadth of sympathy was not seen somewhat to falter. His analytical passages on 20th-century works - Ives's Concord Sonata , Berg's Wozzeck , Boulez's Structures , Stockhausen's Kreuzspiel , Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles and Rite of Spring - retain their originality and skill. But at the same time he seems increasingly to be swept along by the reaction against modernism, which has so marred the scene of the past 25 years. He is evidently intent on chipping away at modernist figures to cut them down to size. This does not always take very exalted forms, but rather expresses itself in tittle-tattle. Messiaen appears disconcertingly early, as a last-generation "maximalist" (not the most useful of Taruskin's expressions). But his story is cut in half: after a discussion of the Turangalîla-Symphonie (1949), 5 pages later he appears at Darmstadt with Mode de Valeurs ... (1950). Edgard Varèse, on the other hand, is shoved on to the stage rather too late, and then only as an addendum to a potted history of electronic music. His best works from the 1920s, from Amériques onwards, are merely listed, while his comparatively feeble Déserts is given undue prominence.

The analysis of Firebird and revelation of its debt (and, in a preceding essay, Ravel's) to the harmonic adventures of Rimsky-Korsakov is brilliantly done. There is, of course, a lot to reveal about Stravinsky - deception over the folksong material in the Rite to begin with - and Taruskin is keen on revealing it: he hardly needs to drag in Mussolini. The analyses of Schoenberg's classic serial works are efficient but read coldly. Taruskin is not the first person to be defeated by the pre-serial pieces. He offers an analysis of Elliott Carter's First String Quartet, but it is surrounded by a conspicuously bitchy account of Carter's career.

Volume five briskly tours the European avant-garde from Pierre Boulez to Alfred Schnittke. But this is really an American volume. Milton Babbitt and Carter head the list; then John Cage, George Crumb, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and La Monte Young are followed by a host of even more ephemeral names, most of whom are not worth the length of a New Yorker article. In his introduction, Taruskin confesses the absence of two particularly well-known figures. Now the question of "What about Vaughan Williams?" takes on a certain symbolic force. In the later 20th century, The British Are Coming only to the extent of a discussion of Britten's operas, the early works of Peter Maxwell Davies and the Beatles. This indeed is the tokenist cavalry riding to the rescue after three generations of English composers have been effectively airbrushed. A previous volume might well have omitted Horatio Parker (1863-1919) in favour of Edward Elgar (1857-1934).

This, however, is how the world looks from California. It makes for a sad, low coda to a very long, superbly navigated and greatly enriching musical journey. It would be a pity if the insoluble problem of Anglo-American misunderstandings got in the way: we are just different and that's it. We are, after all - as Taruskin says - in the middle of it all. In the future, whatever it brings, these volumes will have an honoured place - to be cherished and to be fought over, as we are doing now. They are a great achievement.

Hugh Wood is a composer who taught at Cambridge University. Christopher Wood writes about music and film.

The Oxford History of Western Music: Volume One: The Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

Author - Richard Taruskin
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 854
Price - £400.00 for the set
ISBN - 0 19 516979 4

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