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Saturday morning quotes 3.14: Taruskin part one

August 17, 2013

We all know the type – a thinking person who probes so deeply beneath the surface that he emerges in an explosion of subterranean dust, instigating a coughing fit that consumes everyone in the same breathing space.  A speaker-entertainer who effectively converts a reasonably thought-provoking question into a presentation intended to provoke controversy.  A pragmatist who takes an alternate view so far that it morphs into an alternate reality.  A method actor who so entirely inhabits the role of devil’s advocate that he crosses over the line and becomes the devil himself.

Richard Taruskin appears to enjoy his reputation as a very opinionated musicologist, but he is a musicologist who is more than willing to dramatically pull back the curtain and reveal that the Great Oz is really a con artist.  His many essays on the theme of “authentic” as applied to modern interpretations of historical music are well worth reading, and one finds much food for thought.

From the introduction to his book, Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995):

The whole trouble with Early Music as a “movement”… is the way it has uncritically accepted the post-Romantic work concept and imposed it anachronistically on pre-Romantic repertories.  What is troubling, of course, is not the anachronism but the uncritical acceptance – and the imposition.  A movement that might, in the name of history, have shown the way back to a truly creative performance practice has only furthered the stifling of creativity in the name of normative controls.  Here Early Music actively colludes with the so-called “mainstream” it externally impugns.

Then there is Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), which some might say is written from a very particular perspective, and is also rather long (4,272 pages).  As for perspective, OUP had to know what they were getting themselves into – one might imagine the result if Dick Cheney were asked to write a history of social justice and the public weal.  Or perhaps if Charles Mingus would have written on racial equality in the music business circa 1950.

Taruskin commented on the value of classical music and his motivation for writing the history in the NYT article, “A History of Western Music? Well, It’s a Long Story” By James R. Oestreich (published: December 19, 2004):

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.

But my favorite quote is in the form of a question posed by Oestreich from the same article, but could be applied to the larger body of work:

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

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