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In Brief: The History of Music

Sunday, November 28, 2004; Page BW15

Richard Taruskin's vast new book -- though erudite, engaging and suffused throughout with a mixture of brilliance and delirium -- does not quite live up to its title. Instead of The Oxford History of Western Music ($500), which implies a certain Olympian objectivity, these five volumes (complete with a book-length addendum with chronology, bibliography and master index) might better have been called "Richard Taruskin's Greatest Hits," for it is the Berkeley-based musicologist, rather than his subjects, who holds center stage. What we have, then, is a highly personal (and often delightfully prickly) take on musical history from an original and eccentric mind -- a mind to which anybody interested in the art of music should be exposed. But I would no more treat the results as mainstream authority than I would a chronicle written by a team of mavericks such as, say, Glenn Gould, John Cage and Spike Jones.

The results are just too strange, in a way that history should not be strange. Take, for example, the case of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, who is mentioned a grand total of five times in Taruskin's 4,560 pages, and then only in passing, first as an influence on the American composer Roy Harris and later as a (seemingly baleful) model for the British composer Peter Maxwell Davies. Sibelius! This is a little like writing a history of the motion picture and mentioning Ingmar Bergman only for his effect on Woody Allen.

Composer Igor Stravinsky (File Photo)

On the other extreme, we find Taruskin's obsession (the word is not too strong) with Igor Stravinsky, whose name runs like a mantra through the last two volumes. It's not that Stravinsky can do no wrong, exactly; rather, Taruskin seems to think that whatever Stravinsky does, right or wrong, is automatically of great significance to the world, down to his political opinions, his (overstated) influence on Carl Orff and his ghostwritten review of Elliott Carter's Double Concerto. The work of Arnold Schoenberg, a man who was once considered Stravinsky's antipodes, is analyzed at length, with respect and welcome technical clarity, but the huge figure of Richard Strauss receives the same exasperatingly short shrift that always seems to be his due in academic circles, with scarcely a word for anything he wrote in his last three decades.

Taruskin is a Russophile, and his chapters on the works of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich are exemplary. (Elgar and Delius are not mentioned at all, and Vaughan-Williams is touched upon only in the preface -- so much for the British Empire!) Taruskin pays full tribute to Aaron Copland and something more than full tribute to Charles Ives. He is relatively well up on contemporary music -- Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and the best (as well as some of the worst) of their disciples get due recognition -- although some readers will be shocked to find three pages devoted to Laurie Anderson and not a sentence to Stephen Sondheim.

All in all, I find the first volume, "The Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century," the most successful. Perhaps because so little documentation has survived, Taruskin gleans facts and impressions from visual art, architecture and history books, and pieces together a consistently engrossing narrative that may be the best general introduction to what is still terra incognita for many listeners: He makes one hunger to hear this music now. But there are joys throughout the set. I can't imagine it becoming any sort of standard history -- too many tics and blind spots for that -- but it should both inform and inspire arguments for years to come.

-- Tim Page, music critic for The Washington Post

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