No doubt, Richard Taruskin is America’s most controversial musicologist. He has sparked many furious debates about topics like historically correct early music performances, the political connotations of John Adams opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” or the lack of moral concerns in the 20th century avant-garde. The first half of Taruskin’s collection of essays “The Danger of Music” comprises the polemics he wrote for the New York Times over the last two decades, often followed by postscripts in which he denounces reactions and letters in a sardonic and ridiculing way that sometimes leaves the reader with an impression to deal with one of the worlds biggest knowing-better. His temperament seems to hurt his argument more than it helps, only untill in the second part of the book he unvails his profound and unrivalled knowledge about each and every aspect of the history of western music in several longer essays mostly written for the New Republic (here is one example online). It slowly gets clear that in order to reject the mathematical techniques of serial composers and contemporary music theorists he had to beat those combatants on their own battle field and show them that he mastered their own domains. He makes his strongest points in addressing the moral indifference of artists unwilling to communicate with any audience outside the walls of the music academy. There are some knowledgable essays on Stravinsky and Shostakovitch, russian music in fact is the speciality of Taruskin. I personally liked the most a long portray of John Cage, which casts another light on the leading figure of American avant-garde that was more openly received in Europe than in America. Taruskin ends with the assumption that Cage’s star is bound to fall soon (this article was written in 1963) which, as we know, is quite a wrong prediction. Nonetheless it gets clear that Cage is a good excuse for many contemporary composers to not learn the basics of composition and indulge in experimental adventures.
Finally, Taruskin’s knowledge and intellectual brilliance is a double-edged sword: only a towering competence like him dares to rewrite the history of western music (in his mammoth project “Oxford History of Western Music”, while musicologists in Europe retire in the insulated analysis of single compositional works), but his knowledge had him too often led into uncivilized and arrogant battles with competing musicologists and critics. In a funny way this double standard makes Taruskin resemble some of the composers that he likes to criticize: his writing is many times brilliant and enlightening, but this underlying tone of polemic authoritarianism is just hard to lump and in many cases history just proofed him wrong. Compare it, say, to Alex Ross‘ “The Rest is Noise” and see how he, in his book, “has not even wasted his time calling out frauds and denouncing trends; even when he does do this, as with his modestly unkind comments about composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, he transforms the polemic dialectically into a positive remark on the field of music as a whole. His primary service has been to review and uphold musicians and composers, classical or otherwise, whom he likes, without seeming to propagandize on their behalf (…)” (taken from a recent review of the book by Nikil Saval in the great mag N+1). A very interesting personal view on Taruskins character can be found in this blog entry of Paul Mitchinson as well.