This certainly WOW'd me...

Posted by: AndrewG

This certainly WOW'd me... - 12/20/04 03:11 AM

I don't know about you but I'd love to just thumb through some pages in this monumental effort. It must be out of love for...


From the New York Times:

December 19, 2004
A History of Western Music? Well, It's a Long Story
Illustrated. 4,272[/b] pages. Oxford University Press. $500 [/b]until Dec. 31; then $699.[/b]

MOST of the news in classical music takes place on stage or on disc. But at the moment, one of the biggest stories (in more ways than one) is taking place on the printed page. Actually, 4,272 pages.

The new six-volume "Oxford History of Western Music" was 13 years in the making. Despite its bulk, it may seem to pale in comparison with, say, the 29-volume second edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, of 2001, but that represented the work of more than 2,500 writers. This is the work of one, Richard Taruskin, a music historian at the University of California at Berkeley, who has been an occasional contributor to Arts & Leisure and other publications.

As historian, sometime journalist and blockbuster author, Mr. Taruskin emulates his mentor at Columbia University, Paul Henry Lang, the author of "Music in Western Civilization" (1,107 pages in its 1997 edition) and a music critic of The New York Herald Tribune. On a recent return to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Mr. Taruskin spoke with James R. Oestreich about the making of the new book.

JAMES R. OESTREICH: What did you set out to write in 1991? Well, actually, you were planning this book even before then, suggesting that you might write something to supersede "Music in Western Civilization."

RICHARD TARUSKIN: I couldn't say I was actually planning it. Dreaming about it, perhaps, though I never dreamed I would write six volumes. Maribeth Payne, who was an editor at Schirmer Books and then Oxford University Press, had the idea to do a Berkeley history of music, collectively authored by the whole music faculty, shortly after I moved out there in the late 80's. And I was to be on the team, but I don't think any of us are team players at Berkeley. So the idea went nowhere.

Then, in 1991, Maribeth said: "You know that history we were talking about? Why don't you do it?" And you know, one doesn't turn down such an offer, to have the chance to say your two cents' worth about everything. So I said sure, I'll do it. And it was to be a one-volume textbook.

The objective was not to write another Paul Henry Lang but another Donald Grout, the "History of Western Music," which came out in 1960 and is still the textbook used in most music history classes. There have been many attempts to unseat it, all unsuccessful. So I thought, why not try? I sat down to write in 1994, and I just let myself go. I began to see that it was coming out long, because . . . well, you know me.

Q. The whole contour of your book seems different from most large-scale histories, which kind of rise to a peak with Beethoven, stay on a sort of plateau through the Romantic era, then trail off into the 20th century.

A. Yeah, if you look at the earlier books, they are usually more detailed up to the 18th century and become less detailed through the 19th and 20th. I don't know why that is. Maybe because musicology was originally an antiquarian kind of pursuit. But my book is the opposite. The five volumes of actual text are distributed so that the first one goes through the 16th century, the second takes in the 17th and 18th, the third is given over entirely to the 19th, and the fourth and fifth divide the 20th.

Q. But this shift in emphasis is not meant to imply that other old notion of musical "progress," is it?

A. No, progress is something I argue against. The fact that art doesn't progress the way technology progresses is clear just from the fact that we still listen to early music. We don't feel that the Baroque invalidated the Renaissance or that Beethoven invalidated Mozart or that Schoenberg invalidated Wagner. We don't think of Bach as a primitive version of Mozart. And so we don't really believe in the progress narrative, but we somehow still mouth it. Why? Because it's a way of defending the new against conservative taste.

Q. As usual, you don't shy away from contention. I don't think anyone will call this an objective history. How, as a historian, do you stand on the matter of objectivity?

A. There are contentious aspects to the way I tell the story, but I actually don't believe the term "objective" is without meaning. I try to write nonpartisanly. But if you raise social questions, you're accused of partisanship. I don't actually take a side in many of the debates that I report, but I do report them.

There's the big debate between classical music as a universal repository of excellence or of man's highest aspirations as opposed to the kinds of music that are written for entertainment. Western classical music represents the social and cultural elites. Does that make it elitist? Does that make it undemocratic? Well, there are those who have argued for classical music from an obviously snobbish perspective. But there are also those who argue for it in terms of its ability to express a much wider range of feeling and ideas than other kinds of music.

And that's why the book is long. I try to show both sides and take everything in. But obviously, I failed. You can't take everything in. The book is selective. In that sense, one can't be objective, if by objective you mean omniscient or all-encompassing. But if you mean nonpartisan, one can try.

Q. What kind of surprises did you encounter? Are there any surprising conclusions or discoveries?

A. Well, I did not discover that Beethoven was actually a black woman from Mars. No, not that kind of surprising discovery. What may surprise readers, though I had worked it through before I even began writing, is the way I define my field, because this is a history of the literate tradition of music. I was going to call it "Music in the Western Literate Tradition," but they didn't think that would sell too well.

Music history begins when it does because that's when notation was invented, and that would be in North Central Europe in the eighth or ninth century. We don't really know what century, because nobody thought it was so important that all of a sudden there's a way of writing down music, so nobody told us exactly when it happened. We just found the artifacts.

And now we're in a situation where the literate tradition of music seems to be ending, because of new technological means and because of the convergence between art and pop. There's a lot more real-time and improvisatory music-making going on within the classical domain. I write about the end of the tradition I'm describing, an end that I won't live to see, and neither will anybody who reads this. But it's in the cards.

Q. And in addition to defining the field, literacy serves as the book's central theme, correct?

A. Yes, I feel very strongly that historians are storytellers, and so the book has a very strong narrative thread. My job was always to be in some sense telling the same story through every chapter. So I kept the question of literacy and the way literacy and orality interrelate in the foreground.

The literate tradition has always coexisted with the oral tradition, even today. And all the way through the book I was trying to keep in view the question of how the nonliterate aspects of performance practice and so on, the oral aspects of music-making, always go with it. So if you want to isolate the theme of the book, that's it.

Q. You once said after another epic project, your two-volume book "Stravinsky and the Traditions," that you came out of it disliking Stravinsky, or at least liking Stravinsky less. How do you feel now about Western music?

A. Oh, but it wasn't Stravinsky's music that I liked less. I liked the man less. But who cares what you think about the man? I was interested in the music, and the man only insofar as it helped to explain the music. The more I know about his music, the more interesting it gets. And that goes double, triple - sextuple, I guess - for Western music as a whole.

Q. Are you done? Is there going to be some kind of concise version coming soon?

A. Oh, yes. They have actually hired an abridger to extract the originally contracted book.

Q. So you don't have to do all of that?

A. I have to oversee it, but I don't have to actually perform the surgery. That would be just too painful.

Q. And will there be any other kind of offshoots?

A. None are being planned right now. They have talked about different things, various kinds of trade editions or a gift book sort of thing with much more illustration and far less text. I don't know how feasible it would be. One reason the book is as bulky as it is is that it contains many, many, many music examples, which of course means that its readership has to be musically trained. So it's not a book for everybody. Anybody who looks at it can see that unless you can follow the examples and follow my descriptions of the examples, you will have to skip a lot.

Q. What's next?

A. What's next!

Q. Have you thought about it?

A. Yeah, I have. I think I'll be writing a book on the writing of music history over the next years, looking at the process itself. I'm taking a sabbatical next year, and then I think I'm going to do that.

But first, I'm going to take a nice long nap.
Posted by: kyle

Re: This certainly WOW'd me... - 12/25/04 08:14 PM

Posted by: RKVS1

Re: This certainly WOW'd me... - 12/25/04 11:00 PM