The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume 3: The Nineteenth Century

By Whittall, Arnold | Musical Times, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume 3: The Nineteenth Century


Whittall, Arnold, Musical Times


Volume 3: the nineteenth century 83opp. ISBN 0 19 522272 5.

IS TARUSKIN BETTER than the competition? Whether he is or not, he's certainly bigger: 800 pages to travel from Beethoven's vocal music to the symphonies of Chaikovsky (Taruskin's preferred spelling), the pages themselves big enough to contain upwards of 500 words when music examples or illustrations are not present. Set that against the 400 pages of Carl Dahlhaus's Nineteenth-century music or the 450 of Leon Plantinga's Norton volume, to name only relatively recent single-author alternatives. Not only does the issue of size make one of Taruskin's own comparisons, with Grout's single-volume 'A to Z', irrelevant: it also impinges directly on another primary property of history-writing, selectivity.

How historians choose what to write about is determined by what they believe to matter about the period in question. Why undertake such protracted labour if you don't have a point of view to propagate? One reason for favouring symposia over single-author volumes or series is that - in theory a greater degree of objectivity, or a useful mix of subjectivities, will replace the obsessive monomania of the singular, all-governing over-view - always assuming that the symposium editor is unsuccessful in an initial attempt to chose only contributors who will slavishly conform to an editorial agenda. But there would be little point in undertaking a project on the scale of The Oxford history of western music if you were not given the space and time to preach a first-person sermon on what readers should think about what they listen to. In return, the reader-worshipper has the right to expect to be engaged by a narrative which is authoritative in content and stimulating in style. If the materials the preacher deals with are (over-)familiar, we readers will only pay attention if he has something distinctive to say about them: and even if we disagree with his interpretation, we should be able to concede that his point of view is worth stating, worth placing on record.

Taruskin's third volume effortlessly sustains the narrative sweep, the style of pugnaciously personal, pointed technical and contextual commentary, familiar from such earlier writings as the two-volume Stravinsky study and the series of essays on Russian music. One way in which it does this is by underlining the continuity between this volume and its fellows, and writer and publishers have made considerable efforts to encourage readers to swallow the product whole - not just by numbering chapters consecutively across all five text volumes, but by making little attempt to begin each with summarising new starts. That's not to say that readers tackling vol.3 on its own will be all at sea if they've not already read the last few chapters of vol.2, with their crucial comments on the relationship between the Enlightenment and 'the first romantics': but the full extent of Taruskin's achievement can only be gauged when the big picture has been contemplated and absorbed.

VOLUME 3 constructs a romanticism which celebrates the Faustian 'moment of damnation' in which 'ethos (responsible action) is sacrificed to pathos (passive experience, surrender to feeling') (pp.69-71). This contrasts with 'the older, pre-Romantic idea of music as imitation of outer reality (objects, "real things") rather than a representation of inwardness or an expression of the inexpressible' (p.90). One alleged consequence of the new 'Romantic estheticism' is 'the still potent belief that art and politics are mutually indifferent if not mutually hostile terrains' (p.62). Alongside this aesthetic transformation Taruskin imagines a noless elementary cultural upheaval, taking the form of 'that dangerous shift in the balance of artistic power from the consumer to the producer that was [...] fostered by promoters of the New German School' (p. 564). This shift reaches its apogee in the claim that for the two most powerful and influential creative talents of the later 19th century, Wagner and Verdi, 'the conscious objective became fidelity to artistic ideals, abstractly conceived, rather than to their audience's expectations'. …

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