The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume 2: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

By Howard, Patricia | Musical Times, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview
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The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume 2: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries


Howard, Patricia, Musical Times


Volume 2: the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries 758pp. ISBN 0 19 522271 7.

RICHARD TARUSKIN'S monumental survey illustrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of the single-author history. Consistency in the organisation and selection of material and in methodological approach is an advantage, but it comes at a price: individual topics may lack a degree of specialist knowledge, enthusiasm or even sympathy, and certain genres or composers may be excluded altogether if they do not fit into the author's personal perception of their historical significance. Volume 2 of Taruskin's Oxford history has formidable competition. It has more in common with Daniel Heartz's eminently readable Haydn, Mozart and the Viennese school (Norton, 1994) and Music in European capitals (Norton, 2003) than with the multi-authored New Oxford history of music, designed for reference, and spreading its coverage of the iythand 18th centuries over four volumes (Opera and church music, Concert music, The age of Enlightenmentand The age of Beethoven, OUP, vols.5-8, 1973-86). The 'branding' could mislead. The Norton histories offer a collection of personal perspectives; the Oxford History' imprimatur has traditionally implied a symposium of expert contributions that attempts to minimise individual bias. Taruskin's History makes no pretence at being anything other than a personal account.

Forced to be highly selective in his content - his five volumes cover similar ground to ten volumes of the New Oxford history - Taruskin lays himself wide open to criticism for his chosen subject matter. Some case studies may seem too obvious - Vivaldi's Seasons for goodness sake, and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which are approached as if his readers may be meeting them for the first time. Some, perhaps, will be. At whom is the Oxford history aimed? The mainstream topics, the breezy jokiness and the total accessibility of his style suggest a targeted readership of sixth-formers and first-year undergraduates. Taruskin's study is a genuine narrative the story of western music, with a plot driven by the actions of individual characters who enable, create, disseminate or listen to music. The clear setting out of a historical narrative, even if it risks offering a simplified version, is a priority at this stage of education. Much of the content betrays its origins in the lecture room (complete with studiously spontaneous bons mots), and it is none the worse for that. Taruskin, though, has inconsistent ideas about the extent of knowledge assumed in his audience. On page ι he thinks it necessary to reveal that Opera' means 'work'; 500 pages later he gets round to explaining what 'harmonic rhythm' is (p.501); at the same time his unglossed reference to 'notes inégales' (p.100) assumes an understanding of the convention unlikely in readers who have to be told how to recognise a gavotte (p. 103). Most of the didactic expositions will, however, be genuinely useful to a student readership, for example the accurate and well-referenced discussion of the 18th-century distinction between the beautiful and the sublime (pp.643-40).

Considered as topics for a textbook to accompany an undergraduate course, many of Taruskin's choices become clear. They are essential strands in his narrative thread: in this volume, the invention and exploitation of tonal language. He repeatedly uses the word 'sampling' for his selection of case studies, but the process is much more deliberate than the term implies, and in the event his decisions are justifiable. Moreover, Taruskin constantly disarms criticism by working his examples hard. He proves their significance by constantly cross-referencing them. He even chases them across the volumes, referring back to volume 1, for example, to explain the persistence of the 'In nomine' genre in Jacobean consort music (p. 115), or to trace Bach's source material for Cantata no.oi, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, to Luther's adaptation of a Gregorian hymn (p.

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