Past imperative The Oxford history of western music Richard Taruskin Oxford University Press (New York & Oxford, 2005); 6 volumes; £400, $699. ISBN 0 19 516979 4.
Volume 1: the earliest notations to the sixteenth century xxxiii, 854pp. ISBN 0 19 522270 9.
THE SCOPE of Richard Taruskin's achievement in writing the five text volumes which make up this new Oxford history has already been widely noticed. If there is something 19th-century about the heroic scope of his endeavour - and mid20th-century about a single author tackling the whole history of western music - his approach is fully modern. It might be objected that a history which keeps only to the well-worn path of western classical music (all-white, all-European, all-male) is by definition not modern in a useful sense; but, surprisingly perhaps, it turns out that within that old formula there are illuminating new things to say, as Taruskin proves on just about every page. There are those who may feel uneasy about the framework, or the need for another music history of this kind, but the detail makes essential reading. To take just one example: the comparison of Josquin with Beethoven could never have been undertaken in an older music history; either the (single) author would not have known anything about Josquin, or the (several) authors would not have had the licence to cross boundaries. Taruskin has the knowledge and the freedom to make leaps between periods (and between disciplines - the reference to Kurosawa's Rashomon in the introduction shows the way), and all this in a generalist study which will be fanfared on to every library shelf. His efforts will be giving the study of music history the most tremendous shot in the arm.
The protean nature of these volumes is underlined by the way they have been published. It is assumed that they will all be taken as a unit, with the index, bibliography, list of musical examples and elaborate chronological chart only available in a separate sixth volume; and the chapters are numbered through the volumes. However practical this maybe for each individual reader, it points to something important in the way the project was approached from the outset. Here is an author who can start a chapter (eight) with the words: 'And yet (to pick up immediately on the closing thought of the previous chapter, and perhaps pick a fight with it)' (p.247). One of the great advantages of a single-author survey (apart from the supreme one that the whole thing is likely to be delivered for publication at once; by the time the last volume of the old New Oxford history of music had appeared all but one of the editorial board had died, inevitably casting doubt over the relevance of the whole enterprise) is that there will be a consistent tone and viewpoint throughout. Taruskin is relentless in maintaining both, and they affect everything: the insistent desire to deck out the contemporary stage on which his featured composers were passing actors; the ever-recurring reasons why certain kinds of composition claim our attention and the connections between them over the centuries; the easy-going, at times journalistic style of writing, which can set up a paragraph dealing with mindnumbing complexities (especially relevant to this volume). The merit of a symposium is that each new author will bring his or her own predilections to the volume, but none will dominate; the danger of a single-author enterprise, especially one of such length, is that the inevitable personal angles will become tedious. Taruskin has his methods and his repetitions, but it says something for OUP that the value of wrapping so much knowledge and experience of listening to music into a consistent whole has not escaped them.
The counterpoint which Taruskin sets up in his prose between journalist and hard-nosed explicator of details which even the most experienced student can find hard to grasp is one of the modern, even Californian, aspects of this series. …