The five-volume Oxford History of Western Music by Richard Taruskin is an amazing achievement. For a single musicologist, even one of the stature of Taruskin, to have produced a detailed, accurate, informative and well-illustrated history is nothing short of amazing. It's over nine inches wide on the shelf and runs to a total of nearly 4,000 pages. The five volumes divide the roughly thirteen hundred years of western music as follows: from eighth to the sixteenth centuries; the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the nineteenth centuries; the early twentieth century roughly to Shostakovich; finally, the late twentieth century including the many technical developments which accompany actual music making and composition. Each volume is between 800 and 900 pages long, contains its own index, bibliography and chapter-by-chapter notes and references. There are brief introductions to each volume such that each could be considered self-contained, if, say, the music of only one period interested you. There is something to be gained, nevertheless, by having all five volumes on hand, even if you don't necessarily work your way through them in their entirety. At a typical retail price of about US$125, such a use of them is neither impossible, nor too costly. This is a reissue of the hardback printing: each volume is also, in fact, available separately, if desired.
But the very reason why it makes sense to work from the whole is also the great strength of the undertaking. Taruskin answers many questions which begin with the word, "Why?" The Oxford History of Western Music aims less to catalog and detail the lives of composers, all falling neatly into sequence, their achievements being considered in isolation one from another, and from historical changes through which they were living. Rather – as is Taruskin's way – the cultural, sociological, intellectual, political and contemporaneous artistic changes and stabilities are described in such a way that we are led to see how music developed as and when it did. Taruskin is sufficiently well-versed in the historiographical debates and current theories of knowledge for even a casual reader to understand – as a result of reading this series – why the kind of music which was written at any one time actually was as it was; why it followed, altered or remained essentially the same; and why it became inevitable that subsequent developments took place as (and when) they did. This is no small achievement. It's immensely useful to have such issues as "the end of the Renaissance" and the "demise of tonality" examined as part of an already-established set of ground rules, not some sort of contentious argument. Although, perhaps paradoxically, greater experience of the longest span of musical history possible makes these kind of conclusions and judgements possible, only someone with an immense knowledge of and sympathy for the field is really qualified to see parallels, contrasts and to see history repeating itself.
Each of the five volumes has a couple of dozen chapters – each between a few to a few tens of pages in length. These are further subdivided into usually fewer than ten subsections each dealing with a single topic such as "The cyclic Mass" and "Ars subtilior". Some of these subsections are strangely entitled, though… "Fun in church?", "The Milanese go lower still". Such wording narrowly avoids sounding inappropriately "trendy" yet does run the risk of not really meaning anything, even in the context of the rest of the surrounding material – "Representing it"? Mercifully Taruskin's text, the substance of his chapters, does for the most part avoid the mistake of popularizing his material. The reason for these at times elliptical choices of description goes back, again, to the greatest strength of the undertaking – a concern to bind and sequence, to explain and illustrate the forces at work in any one period or time span which resulted from the style of music from the previous era and led to those of that of the next.
So inevitably there is much editorializing: Taruskin is rarely absent from the assessments he makes not only of the music as experienced at any one point in time. But of how and why we experience it in contrast to what came before, and what may have been happening at about the same time in other parts of – chiefly – Europe. This is the distinction between a survey (where each period, genre and even each composer is evaluated in their own right) and a history (where trends are emphasized). The danger of such an approach is that one author's deterministic biases swamp an understanding of how things really changed. Historicism. Teleology. Inevitability. Taruskin avoids this nicely thanks to his insistence on accurate, meticulously researched and presented facts. He does this particularly well in the way he also avoids "aestheticism", the assertion that each (type of) work is somehow representative of a "pure" model or class of genre and should be judged according to how purely typical it is as a result. No; Taruskin, while not taking an entirely empirical approach, is more concerned with what actually got written, and why. And with how this reflected, or contrasted with, the prevailing (and the emergent, suppressed and potential) cultural developments.
There was some criticism of earlier editions of the Oxford History of Western Music centering around the allocation of pages to periods. True, the bulk (60%) of Taruskin's coverage relates to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This is not because Taruskin lacks the expertise to cover earlier periods; he has published successfully – if at times somewhat controversially – in that field. But, presumably, because more primary source material exists from the Classical period and after. Though one might raise an eyebrow at passing from plainchant to the Renaissance, and through all the Baroque to include the Classical period in one volume in each case. One also doubts that as much as almost a whole chapter (chapter 7, "Music in the Late Twentieth Century") can sustainably be devoted to "pop" and allow the genre to swamp his coverage of the 1960s. Yet again, though, Taruskin's emphasis is on the cultural and political changes that were abroad in that decade. His coverage stops at the turn of the millennium.
One knows enough about Taruskin's style and approach to music and its politics to feel that his sometimes wild assertions about composers (like Wagner and Stravinsky) are intended to stimulate – much in the style of Hans Keller – rather than provoke; certainly never to pontificate. And that he is aware that to have assembled such a potentially unmanageable mass of material and fought his way through it with such wit, concentration and discernment is an achievement that yields him the right to make sure everyone is "still listening"! To put it another way: if you disagree with anything in this work, at least it's well set out and your alternatives must be equally concrete and substantial to be worth posing.
Such cavils aside, this is a project which deserves our approbation and gratitude. There is no other like it. Nor, it seems, is there likely to be anything so comprehensive and persuasive in explaining and illustrating the progress which music has made – and above all why it has made it. Even without that dimension, the author's style is so easy, fluent and open that the way he covers his subject matter is highly approachable, memorable and entertaining. He wears his knowledge lightly yet still manages to interest the reader on every page; in every paragraph, for the pace rarely sags. One feels at all points that what one is reading is an ideal distillation of narrative and interpretation.
Each of the five volumes is helped by the judicious inclusion of relevant illustrations, figures, tables, musical examples, quotes and notes; although the photographs – reproduced matt on unsized pages – do not look well. This, too, is a minor point: for all its high standards of production and presentation, the Oxford History of Western Music is a series of books to be used, not gawped at. At the risk of repetition, though, gawping is a forgivable reaction: this has been a project of huge proportions. That it has been carried off as well as it has is to the credit of everyone involved. Even specialists are likely to find much to feed on in the chapters dealing with their chosen fields because of the broad scope that Taruskin takes in reviewing musical development. Contextualization is prime. For that reason alone, and there are many more, this is a set of books that can be thoroughly recommended.
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Sealey.