- Monumental Musicology
I. On Taruskin's History in general, Debussy in particular
The champagne launches are over, and the prizes – several of them, and well deserved – have been awarded for Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music. The initial reviews, also, are long since out, reviews mostly of the sort to be expected, coming in short order after so imposing a publication: some overawed, most generally positive, all dipping into the five long volumes to applaud and take issue, a few trying to scan the expanse of what has been achieved, very few with the time or space to dig deeply. What is left for a long review such as this is the effort to assay the kind of history Taruskin has produced, to suggest the place it might find in the musicological landscape, to sketch not only the story it has told but a few of those it has not. How is this history related to previous ones? What opportunities has it seized at the end of a century of modern musicological research? What opportunities has it missed?
I opened these volumes intending to write such a review – comprehensive, digging. But the History itself forcefully resists the task. Not merely because of its enormousness, which leaves even a lengthy review incommensurate with the object it surveys, but also because of two other features that mark Taruskin's text from beginning to end. These are an orthodox adherence to the body of knowledge amassed in that century of musicology, and – related to the orthodoxy as the flip side of a coin – a certain obdurate confidence, evident from the first page, that this narrative eclipses, and in eclipsing excludes, all others.
The first of these features reflects the fact that the History is a work of synthesis. However awesome in its detail and however much more extensive than preceding single-authored efforts, it does not offer any general reconceiving of the tradition as a whole. (What Taruskin brings of his own to this synthesis will become clear below.) There seem to have been difficulties in the choice of title, and what was settled [End Page 349] on, we are told, was 'not chosen but granted' (i, p. xxi). The title first contemplated evidently incorporated the notion of 'literacy' or 'literate tradition' that is mooted often in the early portions of the text (for example, i, p. xxiii). These difficulties reveal a deep truth about the History that it does not seem eager to grant: that its narrative is not handed over by the centuries of activity it surveys, but rather is an effortful, ideologically informed construction resulting from the modern discipline of musicology – especially American musicology. The same might be said of many recent, more specialized histories. But the consequences of hiding disciplinary determinants are especially telling when the subject at hand is so vast as to pretend, implicitly or otherwise, to tell the whole story.
The story presented here is approximately the sum of the efforts of historical musicologists across much of the twentieth century. Anyone whose years in music-historical graduate studies came before about 1990, and many whose years have come since, will know well the landmarks along the path followed: the invention of music writing and creation of a written chant tradition; the spread of written polyphony, featuring Notre Dame organum and its outgrowths; the achievement of a polyphonic ars perfecta, with the Mass cycle at its heart; the rise and spread of opera; the emergence of modern tonality in the seventeenth...