- The Oxford History of Western Music
In my university mailbox recently, I received an advertisement for a quiz book titled Classical Music Trivia. After reading Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music, one might wonder whether there is such a thing—not, however, because the scope of the book appears to take in everything. Rather, Taruskin is capable of finding significance everywhere his attention turns.
Experience compels me to observe at the outset that readers will not wish to carry the Oxford History on airline flights. Students will not likely carry it to college classes in their backpacks. At six bulky volumes, it looks like a reference book—yet it does not organize itself like a reference book or read anything like one. Taruskin offers a grand survey of Western music, replete with information, generously laced with opinion (and even sermons), in a style both magisterial and witty.
As much as Taruskin has given us a book of music history, he has also given us a book about music history—that is, about music historiography and the assumptions that underlie the writing of music history. In his discussion of the history of seventeenth-century opera he writes explicitly that "it will teach us about the politics of art and (for our present purposes even more pressing) about the politics of art history" (2:12). Inevitably, this means that we find ourselves reading Taruskin's critiques of the ways in which music historians—and musicians, too—have understood music history. This is what distinguishes the book from a series of textbooks or a mere six-volume reference tool.
In his introduction, subtitled "The History of What?," Taruskin adopts the idea of "social contention . . . as the paramount force driving [his] narrative" (1:xxiv). As any reader who knows his work at all will expect, he approaches issues contentiously himself. He proclaims his resistance to established metanarratives, identifying the two most invidious ones: the history of the emergence of the autonomous art work, and the history of music as a manifestation of artistic progress. He wants to lead the reader through a history in which "agents can only be people " (1:xxvi), never the works themselves and never what is sometimes referred to as zeitgeist.
Regrettably, this did not prevent the jacket blurb from stating, "Sweepingly ambitious [no one will argue with that], The Oxford History of Western Music sets close examinations of representative works within a socially and culturally oriented narrative to illuminate the themes, styles, and currents [no mention of human agents here] that gave shape and direction [coming very close to the image of history conceived as a story of progress] to the literate or 'art' tradition of Western music." Further, "This landmark set considers individual works both with respect to the esthetic and critical paradigms of their own contemporaries [which sounds very like another way of saying zeitgeist].. . ."
Indeed, if, as Taruskin claims, any music historians still propose to view the history of music as the narrative of the forward march of musical style toward some teleologically determinate end point (or alternatively toward some already achieved climax, with a subsequent decline), then we ought [End Page 685] to contend mightily against such a project. Hands down, Taruskin would qualify as the ideally contentious champion for the battle.
The Oxford History resists assigning pieces to the familiar categories that we have all learned to use, often automatically and insufficiently critically, as the names of the major historical periods. Such pigeonholing raises the danger of implicit (if not explicit) valuations of works that misrepresent them as pawns for what Taruskin refers to as "dueling Zeitgeists." In fact, he refers to his own "strenuous and self-advertising efforts to avoid concepts like 'The Middle Ages' and 'The Renaissance' " (1:583), efforts that he pursues with heroic vigor.
Occasionally this manifests itself in some ways that will seem peculiar. Artificially dangling a chapter on the seventeenth century in the end of the first volume, titled "The Earliest...