Richard Taruskin, a commanding musicologist and public mental whose polemical scholarship and criticism upended typical classical music historical past, died early Friday in Oakland, Calif. He was 77.
His loss of life, at a hospital, was brought on by esophageal most cancers, his spouse, Cathy Roebuck Taruskin, mentioned.
An emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a specialist in Russian music, Mr. Taruskin was the writer of quite a few groundbreaking musicological research, together with the sweeping six-volume Oxford History of Western Music. He was additionally a contributor to The New York Times, the place his trenchant, witty, and erudite writings represented a bygone period through which clashes over the which means of classical music held mainstream import.
“He was the most important living writer on classical music, either in academia or in journalism,” mentioned Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, in a current interview. “He knew everything, his ideas were potent, and he wrote with dashing style.”
At a time when the classical canon was thought of sacrosanct, Mr. Taruskin superior the philosophy that it was a product of political forces. His bête noire was the widespread notion that Beethoven symphonies and Bach cantatas might be divorced from their historic contexts. He savagely critiqued this concept of “music itself,” which, he wrote, represented “a decontaminated space within which music can be composed, performed and listened to in a cultural and historical vacuum, that is, in perfect sterility.”
His phrases have been something however sterile: Mr. Taruskin courted controversy in practically every little thing he wrote. In the late Nineteen Eighties, he helped ignite the so-called “Shostakovich Wars” by critiquing the veracity of “Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov” (1979), which portrayed the composer as a secret dissident. (Mr. Volkov is a journalist, historian and musicologist.) Drawing on a cautious debunking by the scholar Laurel Fay, Mr. Taruskin known as the e book’s optimistic reception “the greatest critical scandal I have ever witnessed.”
In a contentious 2001 Times essay, Mr. Taruskin defended the Boston Symphony’s cancellation of a efficiency of excerpts from John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer” after Sept. 11 that 12 months, arguing that the opera romanticized terrorism and included antisemitic caricatures. Even in advocating for what some criticized as censorship, he underscored a central part of his worldview: that music was not impartial, and that the live performance corridor couldn’t be separated from society.
“Art is not blameless,” he wrote. “Art can inflict harm.” (His writings, too, might inflict hurt; Adams retorted that the column was “an ugly personal attack, and an appeal to the worst kind of neoconservatism.”)
Mr. Taruskin’s most consequential flamethrowing was his marketing campaign towards the motion for “historically authentic” performances of early music. In a collection of essays anthologized in his 1995 e book “Text and Act,” he argued that using interval devices and methods was an outgrowth of latest tastes. He didn’t need conductors like Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Roger Norrington to cease performing; he simply wished them to drop the pretense of “authenticity.” And many did.
“Being the true voice of one’s time is (as Shaw might have said) roughly 40,000 times as vital and important as being the assumed voice of history,” he wrote in The Times in 1990. “To be the expressive medium of one’s own age is — obviously, no? — a far worthier aim than historical verisimilitude. What is verisimilitude, after all, but correctness? And correctness is the paltriest of virtues. It is something to demand of students, not artists.”
Mr. Taruskin had a no-holds-barred method to mental fight, as soon as evaluating a fellow scholar’s advocacy for a Renaissance thinker to Henry Kissinger’s protection of repression at Tiananmen Square. He confronted accusations of setting up simplistic straw males, and missing empathy for his historic topics. Following a 1991 broadside by Mr. Taruskin contending that Sergei Prokofiev had composed Stalinist propaganda, one biographer complained of his “sneering antipathy.” Mr. Taruskin’s response? “I am sorry I did not flatter Prokofiev enough to please his admirers on his birthday, but he is dead. My concern is with the living.”
But his feuds have been typically productive: They modified the dialog within the academy and the live performance corridor alike. Such hefty arguments, Mr. Taruskin believed, would possibly assist rescue classical music from its more and more marginal standing in American society.
“I have always considered it important for musicologists to put their expertise at the service of ‘average consumers’ and alert them to the possibility that they are being hoodwinked, not only by commercial interests but by complaisant academics, biased critics, and pretentious performers,” he wrote in 1994.
Mr. Ross mentioned: “Whether you judged him right or wrong, he made you feel that the art form truly mattered on the wider cultural stage.” Mr. Taruskin’s polemics, he added, “ultimately served a constructive goal of taking classical music out of fantasyland and into the real world.”
Richard Filler Taruskin was born on April 2, 1945, in New York City, in Queens, to Benjamin and Beatrice (Filler) Taruskin. The family of his youth was liberal, Jewish, feistily mental and musical: His father was a lawyer and novice violinist, and his mom was a former piano instructor. He took up the cello at age 11 and, whereas attending the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan (now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & the Arts), voraciously consumed books on music historical past at the New York Public Library.
At Columbia University, Mr. Taruskin studied music together with Russian, partly to reconnect with a department of family in Moscow. He stayed for his Ph.D., with the music historian Paul Henry Lang as his mentor, as he researched early music and Nineteenth-century Russian opera. He additionally started enjoying the viola da gamba within the New York freelance scene and, whereas subsequently educating at Columbia, led the choral group Cappella Nova, which gave acclaimed performances of Renaissance repertoire. He joined the Berkeley college in 1986.
In the Seventies, musicology was nonetheless largely targeted on reviving obscure motets and analyzing Central European masterworks. Mr. Taruskin participated within the “New Musicology” motion, a technology of students that shook up the self-discipline by drawing on postmodern approaches, feminist and queer principle, and cultural research.
“Richard had a very keen sense of the political stakes of music history,” mentioned the scholar Susan McClary, a pioneer of New Musicology, in an interview. “He also was an extraordinary musician. And so he was not going to sacrifice the music itself for context; these always went together for him.”
While researching Russian composers for his doctorate — at a time when students largely dismissed them as peripheral figures — Mr. Taruskin realized how Nineteenth-century politics had insidiously formed the classical canon. It was no coincidence, he forcefully argued, that Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven have been so well-regarded: Their recognition and acclaim represented the aftereffects of a long-unacknowledged, and deeply rooted, German nationalist ideology. His monographs on Russian opera and Musorgsky redefined the research of music in Eastern Europe, chipping away at longstanding myths.
In 1984, Mr. Taruskin started writing for the short-lived Opus Magazine at the invitation of its editor, James R. Oestreich. After Mr. Oestreich moved to The New York Times, Mr. Taruskin contributed long-form essays to the paper’s Arts & Leisure part that poked at composers who have been typically handled as demigods; the part’s mailbag quickly full of irate readers. (He had no qualms about sending letters of his personal, mailing curt postcards to distinguished music critics to lambast their errors or logical fallacies.) His writings for The Times and The New Republic have been later collected within the books “On Russian Music” and “The Danger of Music.”
Teaching a Stravinsky seminar at Columbia impressed the two-volume “Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions,” a seminal 1996 research that upended the cosmopolitan picture that the composer and his acolytes had lengthy cultivated. Mr. Taruskin drew consideration to conventional Slavic melodies that Stravinsky had embedded inside “The Rite of Spring,” and the way the composer himself had intentionally obscured the people roots of his revolutionary ballet.
The Oxford History of Western Music, revealed in 2005, grew out of Mr. Taruskin’s undergraduate lectures at Berkeley and his dissatisfaction with textbooks that introduced a parade of unassailable masterpieces. In greater than 4,000 pages, he wove intricate analyses alongside wealthy contextualization, revealing musical historical past as a fraught terrain of argumentation, politics, and energy.
Critiques of the “Ox” abounded — that it betrayed its writer’s private grudges, that it unfairly handled modernists like Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez. But it stays a central, seemingly unsurpassable textual content. “This is the last time anyone’s going to tell this story,” Dr. McClary mentioned. “And it was told in a way that was just as good as it ever possibly could have been.” (Her own criticism of the Ox is probably essentially the most enduring: Mr. Taruskin’s survey nearly fully ignores Black musical traditions.)
Garbed in a purple blazer, Mr. Taruskin was a larger-than-life determine at conferences of the American Musicological Society, the place his shows have been blockbuster occasions. In current years he shunned giving papers in favor of attending talks by his many former pupils.
He married Cathy Roebuck, a pc programmer at Berkeley, in 1984 and lived in El Cerrito, Calif. In addition to his spouse, he’s survived by his son, Paul Roebuck Taruskin; his daughter, Tessa Roebuck Taruskin; his sister, Miriam Lawrence; his brother, Raymond; and two grandchildren.
Among Mr. Taruskin’s quite a few awards was Japan’s prestigious Kyoto Prize, which he acquired in 2017. His most up-to-date e book was the 2020 compilation “Cursed Questions: On Music and Its Social Practices.” When he died, he was working to finish a e book of essays that might function an mental biography.
Despite his highhanded persona, Mr. Taruskin had a mushy aspect identified to colleagues and college students. For years he sparred with the music theorist Pieter van den Toorn over the which means of Stravinsky’s music — Mr. Taruskin arguing that it couldn’t be separated from the politics of the twentieth century, Mr. van den Toorn seeing such issues as extrinsic to the scores.
(*77*), Mr. Taruskin devoted considered one of his books to Mr. van den Toorn. The inscription: “Public adversary, private pal.”