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From the Troubadours to Sinatra: Part II

Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven; drawing by David Levine


By the middle of Volume 2 of his entertaining, provocative, and massive Oxford History of Western Music (five volumes, plus a sixth with indices and a chronology), Professor Richard Taruskin reaches the repertory familiar to all music lovers—Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, with the Romantics from Chopin to Tchaikovsky and Wagner following in the next volume. The landscape changes; writing about the familiar presents new problems. Perhaps the chief one is finding something novel and interesting to say about the most famous figures of the past, revered, written about, and overanalyzed for more than two centuries.

Taruskin’s solution has had a certain currency since Lytton Strachey turned his satirical attention to Victorian figures like Florence Nightingale and Cardinal Manning, casting a cold eye upon the respectable glories of the past, taking them down a peg or two. Taruskin’s reassessment is thesis-driven: for him, classical music and all high art in general is produced by and for a social and political elite (although it is not always clear just who belongs to the elite and whether the art created for it was always to its taste), and he feels this to be ignobly undemocratic. Beethoven is his first principal target; his reputation as a heroic figure struggling against critical misunderstanding must have appeared an easy mark.

Taruskin characterizes Beethoven’s political opinions as ambiguous at best. While they may have been somewhat inconsistent, his fierce resentment of aristocratic privilege was reported by no less a figure than Goethe. It is true that Beethoven was generously supported by some members of the aristocracy, above all by the most aristocratic of all next to the emperor, the Archduke Rudolph, brother of the emperor and Beethoven’s pupil (Beethoven certainly considered Rudolph an exception to his class, observing that he treated people with civility even if they were not well-born).

Taruskin fails to mention Beethoven’s democratic leanings, fashionable enough in the decades after the American and French revolutions, but he refers only to his antipopulist remark that he had never believed in the saying Vox populi, vox Dei. Well, you wouldn’t take much stock in public opinion if you were a composer whose every new work had been savaged mercilessly by the press for thirty years. At the same time, he had his critical admirers, of course, but Taruskin oddly reports this by saying that he had a great success with the aristocracy and the wealthy bourgeoisie; actually, many of his supporters were musicians and music lovers from more modest reaches of society. He would not have had such a success with wealthy patrons if he had not been backed by the members of his profession.

Taruskin says not a word about the public humiliation of Beethoven by Prince Esterhazy at the first performance of the Mass in C major, commissioned by the prince, who, on hearing it, said, “My dear Beethoven, what have you done?” and walked out (an incident witnessed by Beethoven’s colleague Johann Nepomuk Hummel).

Taruskin ignores the constant negative criticism, virulent throughout Beethoven’s life, and refers only to composer Louis Spohr’s protests about the Ninth Symphony, characterizing it as “the reaction of one who had known and played under Beethoven in his youth, but who could not accept the new turn the master’s art was taking.” As a matter of fact, what Spohr said was that the Ninth Symphony was “worse than all of the eight previous Symphonies,” which does not suggest that he was objecting only to the new tack.

None of this would matter very much for an understanding of Beethoven’s music if Taruskin did not reinforce his tendentious approach by a long and uninspired quotation from the score of Der glorreiche Augenblick (“The Glorious Moment”), written to commemorate the Congress of Vienna, one of the only two large-scale pieces of junk that Beethoven was ever to produce (the other is the Battle Symphony which he composed with Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome). He compounds this with a failure even to mention the Prisoners’ Chorus from Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. In a book that lays claim to being the first social history of music, this omission is hard to justify. The chorus is perhaps the most significant political statement in music of Beethoven’s time, and it occurs in an opera about the wrongful imprisonment of an innocent man for political reasons by a despotic governor. At the end of the first act the jailer is persuaded to allow the prisoners to walk briefly in the sun, and they come out hesitantly from the darkness of the prison into the light of which they have been deprived. In its effective musical portrayal of the transition from hesitant fear to the dawning of hope, the chorus is an indictment of the abuses of power and a hymn to enlightened humanity.

This slanted view of Beethoven is the result of an excessively naive idea of musical patronage. Taruskin believes that a composer’s music directly reflects the ideology of the class that pays for it, and that, specifically, Beethoven wrote profound and complex music because the Viennese aristocracy paid him to write works that were controversial, hard to listen to, and difficult to appreciate. He does not ask whether the rich patrons who financed Beethoven had artistic inclinations representative of their class, or whether they were mavericks with eccentric taste, a liking for art that was challenging. He does not take into account the desire of professional musicians to make music an art that could be compared to literature and painting, or the tradition of difficult or challenging music kept alive largely in German-speaking countries—in Berlin, for example by Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach, a composer revered by Mozart. In my experience, musicians and artists in general take money wherever they can get it, and look for a patron that will give them the freedom to produce the art that inspires them. They sometimes, but not always, have to compromise, but with any luck they can accomplish what they set out to do.

Following the historian Daniel Heartz, Taruskin attacks what he considers the myth of the supremacy of eighteenth-century German music by insisting that the basic style of the time was Italian. So it was—except that the Germans exploited the style with greater efficiency and more permanent effect. Mozart’s operas are still the supreme Italian operas of the time, closely followed by those of Gluck (who used to be called “the German who wrote Italian music in France”). Even Vivaldi’s concerti grossi, which were the model for all others, take second place to those of Handel and Bach. As for symphonies in the Italian style, Johann Christian Bach (called the “London Bach,” from where he lived) provided the basic model for Mozart, and by the end of the century the Austrians became great exponents of the style in symphony and concerto. That is because the German-speaking composers were able to enrich the somewhat facile and simplistic Italian style with the great contrapuntal Flemish technique they continued to preserve and exercise, and of which Taruskin gives so excellent an account in his first volume. He is not interested in this historical development, however, or in the growing admiration for Johann Sebastian Bach by professional musicians of the 1780s.1

Taruskin believes that one can write social history by explaining the music with an account of who paid for it. This is simplistic: what is needed is an investigation of how the music functioned in society and the culture of the time, the individuals who played it, financed it, and listened to it. Above all, one must realize that society can inflect and influence the development of style, but only within limits: the musical language of the previous generations, the weight of its history, is a check on any new development, and at the same time a stimulus and inspiration to what can be accomplished in the future. Musical style is not a passive material that can be molded at will, but a system that both resists and inspires change.

At one point, Taruskin takes a step in the right direction with a solid and cogent relation of the championship of Beethoven’s chamber music by the members of the Schuppanzigh quartet throughout a great part of his life; but then he draws back from any detailed view of the music that resulted except for one brief passage from the Quartet in B-flat major, op. 130. There is no consideration of how Haydn’s and Mozart’s quartets were played, no discussion of the conditions of performance of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, very little weight given to the relation between private and public performance, no attempt to assess whether performance conditions were adequate or whether several decades had to go by before certain works could be successfully presented to more than a small group. In short, the relation of the music to the society in which it was produced is largely abandoned in favor of generalizations about political ideology and the role of the elite.


Elitism is not the only villain in Taruskin’s narrative. There is also German nationalism. He insists on elevating Brahms’s Triumphlied (“Song of Triumph”), a chauvinist celebration inspired by the Franco-Prussian War, into a major work, and ignores much more significant and inspiring achievements. He ends up by treating Brahms largely through his imitation of Beethoven’s C minor heroic mode. The nostalgic melancholy of Brahms that gains him the affection of so many musicians, the rhythmic experiments that won him the admiration even of Stravinsky, who originally loathed his work—all this passes unnoticed.

Taruskin even spends time on the suggestion of another musicologist that the main theme of the finale of Brahms’s Symphony no. 1 conceals a quotation from a similar bass part in Sebastian Bach’s cantata the Actus Tragicus (the rhythm and accent of Brahms’s motif are unlike Bach’s). Brahms’s main theme, however, openly and exactly embodies part of the famous melody of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, recognized immediately by all, so an extra hidden citation does not seem convincing, although an unconscious reminiscence is, I suppose, a very remote possibility. But Taruskin needs this detail for a bizarre theory. He thinks that Brahms is engaged in a German nationalist conspiracy: “We have another attempt at forging a factitious link between Bach and the Viennese classics [Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven].”

This is about as plausible as the theory that Bacon wrote Shakespeare, and the resort to coded references typical of Baconite logic is a sign that Taruskin’s theory is in trouble. The best-known aspect of Beethoven’s childhood, both to his contemporaries and to his later biographers, is that at the age of thirteen he played the entire Well-Tempered Keyboard—but Taruskin does not mention this. Nor will he say that Beethoven continued to study Bach very late in life, and even transcribed a Bach fugue for string quartet in 1814. Mozart came into contact with Bach at the latest in 1782, when he arranged ten fugues from the Well-Tempered Keyboard and one from the Art of Fugue for string trio and string quartet, and he also studied some of the Bach suites and motets. He even imitated the style of the Bach chorale prelude in The Magic Flute. The growing interest in Bach was natural, as just at this time a dissatisfaction with the oversimplified instrumental style derived from Italian opera began to be felt. In Germany fugues appeared in the 1770s in the string quartets of Haydn and Florian Gassmann (an important figure banished from the history of music by Taruskin, along with the revival of Baroque polyphonic technique that transformed late-eighteenth-century style).

In his attempt to discredit the classical Viennese composers’ evident debt to Bach, Taruskin’s manner develops ominous symptoms of the paranoia of conspiratorial theory:

It was Brahms, in other words, whose music forged the link between Bach and the “Viennese classics” that has since been spuriously read back into the historical narrative, at first by German (“insider”) scholars, and that has quite recently come under intense skeptical scrutiny, chiefly by Americans, the quintessential musicological outsiders.

No doubt about it: Taruskin feels threatened by those German insiders. But he mysteriously does not identify his brave Americans, forced beyond the pale. Do they belong to some lunatic fringe? In any case, the link between Bach and the “Viennese classics” (are those quotation marks really necessary?) is not spurious, but an established fact.

More serious is his misjudgment of Brahms’s references to the past. No composer studied his predecessors so intensely and borrowed more from them. What he took, however, was mostly procedures. Like many other composers, he did occasionally refer to a previous composer’s melody, but he generally did so in a way that is prominent and easily perceptible. Everyone recognizes the Beethoven Hammerklavier allusion at the opening of Brahms’s opus 1, and the reference to Beethoven’s Ninth in Brahms’s First Symphony is impossible to miss (it is an exact quotation of one characteristic measure from Beethoven’s theme, played three times in a row in case anyone misses the reference, and the character and style of the Brahms theme is clearly an imitation of the Beethoven). These are messages or manifestos. “Any ass can see that,” he said, when the quotation from the Ninth was noticed. (The only “secret” allusions are to his own or Schumann’s music, intended for Robert and Clara Schumann’s ears.) If he had wished improbably to assert a link with Bach, he would not have hidden it in a reference so secret and unconvincing that it took more than a century to pick up the clues.

The most interesting uses of Brahms’s studies of the past are rarely quotations but adaptations of what he gleaned from his astonishing familiarity with music of the past. The few real quotations he permitted himself are almost always either immediately recognizable or else identified by Brahms for the musicians and readers of the score—the only exceptions are very personal, quotations from his own works to be recognized by friends, and quotations from Schumann’s works intended to be comprehended by the composer in his last years in the insane asylum, or later by Clara (in this case they are messages to be privately understood as a homage). The main theme of Brahms’s Third Symphony, for example, quotes a modest and not very conspicuous phrase from a cadence at the end of the exposition of the first movement of Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony: what he does adapt more blatantly in his main theme, however, is the rhythmic structure of the opening of Schumann’s “Rhenish” and the harmonic structure of Schubert’s G Major String Quartet, as well as transforming an interesting detail from Schubert’s great C Major Quintet. None of this is a quotation.

Brahms once said that there wasn’t a single song by Schubert that you couldn’t learn something from, but he didn’t steal Schubert’s tunes or even allude to them; he adapted his ways of conceiving the relation of text and music. Brahms’s study of Schubert was particularly intense, and he edited many of Schubert’s works for the complete critical edition. For example, the finale of Schubert’s Grand Duo for piano four hands is a rondo in Hungarian style; at the end of the movement in a coda, Schubert slows the tempo, fragments his theme into small four-note motifs, and then repeats the individual elements. Brahms’s Quintet for piano and strings has a Hungarian finale with a somewhat similar melody, and we might think this an unconscious reminiscence, until Brahms also slows the tempo and repeats four-note fragments of his main theme. But he does this in the main body of the movement, not at the end, making a more powerful integration of the effect. He generally strengthened any model he was using in some way.

Taruskin, who has splendid pages in Volume 1 on what he calls “emulation” as opposed to imitation, discussing the practice of the Flemish composers’ borrowings from an earlier composer, each one striving to outdo the previous example, lets his preoccupation with pitch alone run away with him and privileges what he believes to be Brahms’s quotation of tunes by a predecessor including an absurd theory that Brahms, over a tonic harmony at the opening of his First Symphony, is citing the four chromatic steps at the end of the first phrase of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan, a motif harmonized there by a chord so radical that theorists at first refused to recognize it as legitimate. This motif occurs elsewhere in the symphony, and is generally only three chromatic steps (in the introduction to the first movement, it is simply a rising scale with chromatic and diatonic steps, a scale progression so commonplace as to make the suggestion of quotation untenable). It is also difficult to believe that Brahms would make a point—a slyly secret point to be discovered by musicologists two centuries later—of quoting Wagner in a symphony that openly displays a homage to Beethoven. Although Taruskin discusses Brahms’s emulation of Bach’s passacaglia form in the Haydn Variations, his concentration elsewhere on resemblance of theme and motif does less than justice to the complex relation of Brahms to tradition and music history.

Another instance of Taruskin’s iconoclasm is even less judicious2: he claims that Debussy was anti-Semitic on the basis of his declaration that Paul Dukas’s opera Ariane et Barbebleue “is a masterpiece but not a French masterpiece,” meaning that Dukas was Jewish. This is surely wrong: Debussy was certainly implying only that the opera was too Wagnerian, too German, to fit his ideal of French style.3 An idolater of Wagner when he was young (“to the point of forgetting decent manners,” he once remarked), he was concerned to escape from the influence, and, as Taruskin reports his saying, to keep the old magician Klingsor, the villain of Parsifal, out of his opera Pelleas et Melisande. Taruskin might have told us how he exorcised him: by literally quoting Klingsor’s leitmotiv at the death of Melisande. And not by a partial and obscure allusion, like the dubious ones that Taruskin thinks he has uncovered in Brahms and elsewhere: there is a silence, and then all nine notes of the leitmotiv are played by the unaccompanied cellos, followed by another silence. It is Debussy’s way of signaling to the Wagnerites and to himself what has been eliminated. (In any case, the question whether Debussy was anti- Semitic does not concern his music at all: it is just gossip. A consideration of his late works, now very much admired but absent from the book—the chamber sonatas, the piano Etudes, and the ballet Jeux—would have been more to the point.)

Earlier in The Oxford History, Taruskin asks if we have the right to listen to the chorus in Bach’s St. John’s Passion where the Jews demand the death of Jesus: he hastens to say that he is only posing the question, not giving an answer, but some questions are too foolish to be asked. The proposal to censor the art of the past to hide unpleasant aspects of history puts Taruskin with one foot in the camp of those who would ban Huckleberry Finn from the shelves of our school libraries.

Earlier in The Oxford History, Taruskin asks if we have the right to listen to the chorus in Bach’s St. John’s Passion where the Jews demand the death of Jesus: he hastens to say that he is only posing the question, not giving an answer, but some questions are too foolish to be asked. The proposal to censor the art of the past to hide unpleasant aspects of history puts Taruskin with one foot in the camp of those who would ban Huckleberry Finn from the shelves of our school libraries.


Starting with 1700, major developments in Western music are passed over by Taruskin without a word. Perhaps the most astonishing lapse concerns the changed role of dynamics and marks of expression in the late eighteenth century. Before then, these were largely left to the performers, and, with few exceptions, only pitch and rhythm were notated (these exceptions were generally confined to a simple opposition of piano and forte). Taruskin never considers the drastic change in the nature of composition when accents became an integral element of the written work, when a sforzando became as much a part of the identification of a motif as pitch. He mentions in passing that the Mannheim orchestra was famous for its crescendo, but neglects the way a musical conception was fundamentally altered when gradual changes of dynamics became an essential element of the musical structure.

Taruskin has proclaimed the opposition between score and performance, between the “literate” and the “oral,” as the keystone of his account, but when the greatest revolutionary change takes place in the relation between them and so much of the performer’s role is incorporated in the score, he passes it over in silence. The dethronement of pitch and rhythm as the sole significant elements of music by composers after 1750 changed the face of Western music, and saw the invention of rapidly changing and complex orchestral tone color that went beyond the simple contrasts to be found in the Baroque. Gradually more and more details of performance are specified by composers until, in twentieth-century electronic music, the performer has disappeared from the scene.

Taruskin says almost everything possible at length about what notes are played in the main theme of Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony but never remarks on the elaborate and subtle changes of dynamics and a startling off-beat accent in the second violins more striking than some of the pitches that are his only concern. This simple concentration on pitch to the exclusion of almost everything else persists even in his examination of twentieth-century works. His detailed analysis of Anton von Webern’s Variations for Piano, for example, never considers dynamics and phrasing, and these are what make the piece so poetic. (I have played this piece for years never knowing exactly what the tone row was that determines the succession of pitches until I read Taruskin’s pages, and I can’t say that I am now in a better position to play, or listen to, the work.)

Register and tone color are also neglected by Taruskin: the sonorities invented by Debussy that contrast and combine high and low notes are sometimes more important than the harmony, but they are not part of this history. His remarks on the last pages of Strauss’s Salome make a good point about the gritty harmonic dissonance, but he says nothing about the soft trill in the high woodwinds, which goes on relentlessly for minutes and by its friction makes Salome’s orgasm convincing.

It might appear unfair to reproach Taruskin with what is missing when he gives so much, but in a work of six large volumes that aspires to replace all other contenders for the basic university text for introductory courses in music history, one expects that some of the most important elements of the subject should not be entirely absent. With his chapter on Mozart’s operas, however, we realize that this monumental history is suitable only for those who already have a deep and wide acquaintance with the subject. He has a fine description of the final scene of I domeneo, but does not even touch upon the major innovations of Mozart in this work: an ensemble of a dramatic power and complexity never before attempted in the history of opera, and the unprecedented richness of orchestration (Ilia’s aria in the second act, for example, is a sinfonia concertante for flute, oboe, bassoon, and horn).

When he comes to The Abduction from the Seraglio, Taruskin makes interesting observations about Belmonte’s aria, remarking on the tone painting of the hero’s sensibility, but passes over in silence the astonishingly long instrumental concerto that introduces Constanze’s “Martern aller Arten,” or the second-act finale quartet that Mozart was so proud of, or the exquisite serenade in exotic folk style of the hero’s valet, unique in opera literature. It is perverse in a work that claims the status of social history to eliminate the political aspect of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute. (Taruskin curiously affirms that Beaumarchais’s Figaro plays were in no way revolutionary: maybe not, but everybody at the time thought they were, which is almost as good.)

In short, the experienced may profit from parts of Taruskin’s work, but students will have to go elsewhere for the operas of Mozart, perhaps to Hermann Abert’s great book on Mozart (a translation of this still-authoritative and almost century-old work would be welcome), or to Joseph Kerman’s Opera as Drama. Since Taruskin has nothing to say about the variety of Sebastian Bach’s fugues or about the Goldberg Variations, they will have to go to Robert Marshall, Christoph Wolff, or Lawrence Dreyfus. The absence of any proper consideration of the Beethoven string quartets means that students must refer to Joseph Kerman’s well-known study, or to Lewis Lockwood’s recent biography, particularly admirable for its consideration of the last Quartets opp. 131 and 135. Taruskin’s has a chapter on Beethoven’s heroic style but a better discussion of the subject can be found in Scott Burnham’s Beethoven Hero. And a history of music that omits any consideration of Aida or Parsifal is not adequate for the inexperienced student.

In his analyses, Taruskin often tells his readers with great vivacity and accuracy what is going on, but he is rarely able to inform them what is conventional and what is novel. In the end, his unbending refusal to generalize about the musical language of an era, to distinguish the banal from the radical, may be the secret of the liveliness of his analyses: he often writes for us without preconceptions, as if he is hearing the piece for the first time and has never heard any other music to prejudice and distract him. This gives an unparalleled freshness to much of his account, but it erases history.

Taruskin invents, for example, the word “defamiliarization” to make the excellent point about Handel’s genius at thwarting our expectations that gives the music its drama. He then remarks on the way Handel makes us wait for the third voice to enter in the fugue from his Concerto Grosso, op. 6, no. 7, and adds: “Thereafter, the whole fugue consists of a game of hide-andseek: when and where will the subject next turn up?” Indeed, but delaying the third entry after the second has followed directly on the heels of the first is very common practice: the fugues in C minor and B-flat minor from Bach’s Well-Tempered Keyboard are two examples that spring immediately to mind, and Beethoven still keeps to this pattern in the Sonata for piano op. 110.

About the return of the first theme very early in the first movement of Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony, Taruskin writes:

We seem to be back at the starting point; but this time the elided cadence (m. 43) does produce the inevitable modulation to the dominant. (And that is the purpose of the initial avoidance: to stave off the inevitable is the essence of suspense, as any dramatist knows.)

This is well put, but Taruskin sounds as if he is explaining this particular symphony, when he is simply describing one of the basic conventions of sonata and symphony. Playing the first theme again immediately after the first appearance and using it to modulate to the dominant is the most common procedure of sonata form: everybody did it almost all the time. The second appearance even has a traditional name; it is called the counterstatement.

What Taruskin calls “the closest technical analysis yet attempted in this book” is on the slow movement of Mozart’s Symphony no. 39 in E-flat Major. He begins by quoting Donald Francis Tovey:

The form of the whole is roughly that of a first movement [i.e., a “sonata form”] with no repeats . . . and with no development section, but with a full recapitulation and a final return to the first theme by way of coda.

Taruskin leaps immediately to comment: “But no one ever listens to music like that. Any meaningful description of the movement will have to account for what it does contain, not what it doesn’t.” What this misplaced attack on Tovey conceals is that a sonata form with no repeats and no development section—in other words, just an exposition and a recapitulation—is a standard form frequently used in slow movements by composers of the late eighteenth century including Beethoven and was also the standard form of the opera overture in Mozart, Rossini, and Berlioz. Mozart used it often in the string quartets and piano sonatas, although rarely in the symphonies, but the slow movement of his “Paris” Symphony displays another example. Unfortunately the form was never given a name—or, rather, the nineteenth century named it “sonatina form,” a term that Tovey evidently refused to employ, perhaps because it mistakenly sounds as if it was a shorter form of the sonata, which it is not, instead of an independent form, which it was. Taruskin’s presentation of Mozart’s symphonic working of this standard form in the E-flat symphony is exciting, bringing out the violent effects that Mozart could accomplish with it, but so is Tovey’s, although he makes no reference to Freudian repression. The most valuable aspect of Taruskin’s pages on this movement is his riff on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s perception of the increased subjectivity in Mozart’s work.


What is missing in Taruskin’s history, what, in fact, he seeks to evade throughout, can be seen in his treatment of what he himself calls “an elegant and memorable” observation of Manfred Bukofzer in his history of Baroque. Bukofzer claimed that Bach lived at a time when the old polyphonic tradition was declining, the new and simpler harmonic style was gaining, and the two “were in exact equilibrium.” Bukofzer added that “this interpenetration of opposed forces has been realized only once in the history of music and Bach is the protagonist of this unique and propitious moment.” Taruskin comments:

There was indeed a unique moment of which Bach was the protagonist. It took place, however, not during Bach’s lifetime but in the nineteenth century, when the concept of impersonally declining and ascending historical “curves” was born. It was a concept born precisely out of the need to justify Bach’s elevation to the legendary status he had come to enjoy as the protagonist of an unrepeatable, mythical golden age and the fountainhead of the Germanic musical “mainstream.”4 The “equilibrium” and “interpenetration” of which Bukofzer wrote, and to which he assigned such a high value, were qualities and values created not by Bach but by those who had elevated him. The history of any art, to emphasize it once again, is the concern—and the creation—of its receivers, not its producers.

Taruskin’s final flourish conveniently gets rid of the intention of the artist. Very fashionable in literary circles today, such an approach absolves the historian of any responsibility to the work itself. In short, Bukofzer is writing the history of music, and Taruskin is writing the history of the reception of music. He even implies here that the history of music does not exist.

It is true that the history of music cannot be fully understood without the history of its reception, but the belief that it can be completely reduced to its reception is crass. The dismissal of Bukofzer’s terms “equilibrium” and “interpenetration” is not merely dogmatic, but naive. The second volume of Bach’s Keyboard Exercises (one of his few publications) contains an Italian Concerto and a French Overture, which showed his vital interest in the balance and synthesis of stylistic tendencies of his time. His revival of the most ancient forms of counterpoint in the Art of Fugue at the same time that he was absorbing and incorporating much of the new courtly style of younger composers (the so-called galant style)5 in the Goldberg Variations demonstrates his ability to deal at the same time both with the less fashionable contrapuntal art and the new conceptions of harmony.

Taruskin asserts that the declining and ascending musical traditions are merely a “concept” invented by German nationalists, a kind of fiction. But it is a fact that the contrapuntal art of intertwining individual lines was less and less practiced (although it continued to be taught) and that a new and simpler Italian art based on a succession of chords was more and more widespread. Is Taruskin actually trying to deny this? Bukofzer’s terms call for discussion: Did the older tradition of counterpoint really balance the new harmonic fashion, or did Bach, in fact, need to resurrect it almost willfully? Were there personal factors at work in his life that took on the recent developments of style almost aggressively and asserted the importance of the past? Did it come about because the composer was imprisoned in the ambiance of an unimportant town instead of being active in the life of an important and up-to-date musical center?

Bukofzer attempted to explain what made it possible gradually to impose Bach in professional circles as a great master in the later years of the eighteenth century and reveal him to the general public in the nineteenth. We must note that Taruskin does not debate Bukofzer’s point that the old contrapuntal and the new harmonic traditions were in exact equilibrium at the moment Bach appeared, but simply dismisses it: Does he think that they did not exist, or that they had no strength or influence over musical practice—or simply that music history can be written without any consideration of the prevailing musical traditions?

He produces fascinating pages on the influence of provincial Protestant theology on Bach’s music, and the way it illustrates by unpleasant sounds how mankind wallows in degradation and sinfulness (pages written by Taruskin with a certain glee as he is sure that readers today will find aspects of it disagreeable and even disgusting), but he passes over the influence of musical tradition. He evidently wants to realize Carl Dahlhaus’s once radical suggestion that music should be studied not according to its moment of creation but in reference to the moment it became socially and critically significant and relevant. The study of reception, however, is only a necessary completion of the study of the historical forces that influenced its creation, not a substitute for it. His claim that the history of any art is the concern only of the receivers and not the creators is unwisely reductionist.


Volumes 4 and 5 of The Oxford History of Western Music are devoted to the twentieth century, and are the result of formidable research, presented in the liveliest way. The movements in the history of the last century are laid out at length: neoclassicism, expressionism, atonality, futurism, symphonic jazz, minimalism, electronic music—all there, with all the gossip, the factional struggles, and the internecine warfare in the different camps. The information is well organized with the chief emphasis on music in America, and Taruskin’s account is magnificently detailed. What he is unable to do, however, is give us any idea why anybody would want to write, or listen to, most of the music of the century that he treats at such length. He leaves us feeling only sympathy and admiration for a historian who would subject himself to so much ungrateful material in order that we may be better informed.

Music—even classical music—is intended to give pleasure. Without pleasure, there is no understanding. In a letter to Stephen Spender, T.S. Eliot put it with eloquence and precision:

You don’t really criticize any author to whom you have not surrendered yourself…. Even just the bewildering minute counts; you have to give yourself up, and then recover yourself, and the third moment is having something to say, before you have wholly forgotten both surrender and recovery. Of course the self recovered is never the same as the self before it was given.6

Taruskin does not surrender. As a result, he writes polemics and not criticism.

With the work of the twentieth-century avant-garde, Taruskin makes life difficult for himself by a curious view of listening. He likes to identify other people’s fallacies, but this is one of his: we may name it the fallacy of instant intelligibility. It already appears in the previous volume.

He writes well about Chopin, and even makes the excellent comparison of the brilliant last sections of the Chopin Ballades with the final virtuoso section called cabaletta of the Italian opera aria. Analyzing Chopin’s Prelude op. 28, no. 2 in A minor, he interestingly and, in fact, bravely declares it “a deliberately, fancifully ugly or absurd utterance.” This is perceptive and satisfying, and so, at first glance, is his remark about the second phrase, which, he says, “is famous for the functional undecideability of the harmony. Where it’s leading is anyone’s guess.” Yet you can, of course, guess that it’s leading to A minor if you have heard it before.7

The first time one hears or plays this prelude may shock or puzzle, but every time one listens again, it becomes more convincing. And not just because of familiarity. There are works that never convince, no matter how often they are experienced, and they fall by the wayside. But you cannot always judge a piece of music adequately by tasting it once, as if it were a soft-boiled egg.

Works of modernism notoriously require relistening, rereading, reexperiencing. With music, we must learn what to listen for—or, indeed, what not to listen for. After a 1964 concert in Berlin of Xenakis’s music in the 1950s, the great Nadia Boulanger, who had taught so many American musicians since the 1920s, said to the composer in her usual forthright, no-nonsense manner: “Xenakis, you don’t know how to develop your themes!” “What themes?” he replied reasonably.

Even more instructive is a comment made to Elliott Carter by a member of the Boston Symphony, when they played his Piano Concerto: “Mr. Carter, the trouble with your music is that if one doesn’t play the dynamics you wrote, it doesn’t make any sense.” “I thought you’re supposed to play the dynamics” was Carter’s comment. What is interesting here is the sighting of a glimmer of sense on the horizon as one learns to perform an unfamiliar work.

On this subject, Taruskin makes me say exactly the opposite of what I once wrote thirty years ago by removing the beginning of a paragraph and slicing off the end as well. He would like me to maintain the ridiculous thesis that music should be unintelligible to be any good. He starts by misinterpreting what Stravinsky said about Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto for piano, harpsichord, and two small orchestras, claiming that Stravinsky only called it a masterpiece because he could not understand it (that is of course patently untrue). Then Taruskin adds:

Charles Rosen, the pianist in the first performance of the Double Concerto, offered a secular variation of Stravinsky’s piety when he wrote that “it is important for a radically new work to be understood only little by little and too late,” because “that is the only proof we have of its revolutionary character.” On the face of it both Rosen’s and Stravinsky’s remarks are examples of a special kind of tautology known as the assumption of a false converse: if masterpieces are inscrutable, then what is inscrutable is a masterpiece; if what is revolutionary is understood too late, then what is not understood now is revolutionary.

If I replace some of the context, it is clear that my nonsense should be credited to Taruskin’s ingenuity. It comes from an article that had more to say about the experience of performing new works than it did about listening, and that it referred to a “myth” where Taruskin would have the reader think otherwise:

The myth of the unrecognized genius is a necessary part of the public aspect of art today. It is important for a radically new work to be understood only little by little and too late: that is the only tangible proof we have of its revolutionary character. There has never, of course, been a truly neglected genius in the history of music—at least not since the time that we have any real data on the lives of composers….

It is important to note that Carter’s distinction has been won neither in spite of this reputation [for difficulty] nor because of it. To a great extent—and this is one of the paradoxes of American musical life—it is assumed that because Carter has developed an original style by purely musical procedures and with no recourse to the doctrinaire shenanigans of many of his contemporaries, his music must therefore be hard to grasp. To the normal difficulties of playing any new music of any originality is added our expectation that avant-garde art must puzzle, shock, and, above all, resist immediate understanding. Both performer and listener come to a new work of Carter with a conviction of initially insurmountable problems. Our sense of history and the organization of our musical life combine to help us realize these comical fears.8

I am elsewhere cited with great courtesy in this six-volume monument, but it is reasonable to ask how a critic as astute as Taruskin can have misunderstood my clearly spelled out insistence that the difficulty of much contemporary work is, at least in part, a delusion fostered by tradition, since the rest of my article explained how it was generally overcome without much trouble.

I do not believe that Taruskin’s twisting of my words was done in bad faith. It must be distressing, however, to write about music that has never given you the pleasure that is the prerequisite for understanding, and it is easy to grasp at straws that will allow you to think that neither the pleasure nor the understanding actually exists. Taruskin finds himself goaded by the prestige Carter’s music has recently gained to write forty pages on him that are detailed without ever being illuminating, unable to explain why some find the music so eloquent and fascinating. I know of no other distinguished scholar so anxious to display not only his talents but his limitations with such panache, as if they were stigmata.

His neglect of tone color makes it difficult for him to deal not only with the range of avant-garde music in the twentieth century but even with the more conservative strains. He says nothing about the brilliant sonorities Rachmaninov could create, the bell-like clang of his piano writing, and comments only on the fact that the melody of the slow variation of the Paganini Variations for piano and orchestra is the main theme inverted. He does not give a good account of the extraordinary tone colors of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (and I am astonished that he does not know that the four-hand version from which he takes his examples is not an arrangement, but the original, and that the orchestration came later).

With some major composers of the second half of the century, he is at a loss. Of Pierre Boulez, the master of iridescent sonorities, he deals largely with the driest and most dogmatic work of all, the opening section of Structures for two pianos, because it is notoriously easy to analyze; the gorgeous sounds of Pli selon Pli and Répons are ignored. With Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, he discusses a short piano piece, but says nothing about his most famous work, Gruppen, for three orchestras. Taruskin’s claim neither to advocate nor to denigrate the music he discusses is a hollow one: you cannot make sense of music without advocacy, and not to make sense of it is to condemn.

In the volumes of the twentieth century, there is a serious omission: American musical comedy. Gershwin gets in for the Rhapsody in Blue and the Concerto, but his songs are out. For most musicians, the songs are more interesting than the concert pieces, and even the score for a Fred Astaire movie, Damsel in Distress, would give a fairer view of his genius. Taruskin claims to write the history of “literate” music, and musical comedy was certainly written down. It’s not as if he restricted himself elsewhere to highly serious work: Offenbach and Johann Strauss get in, and Gottschalk is absurdly treated at length, juxtaposed with Chopin in a foolish effort to provoke. Harold Arlen is a more interesting composer than Gottschalk, and “Stormy Weather” a much better piece than a lot of the music Taruskin takes seriously.

Some of the twentieth century’s once admired stars of high style (Roy Harris, Ernst Krenek) are already candidates for resuscitation as unlikely as some of the once celebrated figures from the middle of the eighteenth century, the great age of Hasse and Vinci, while Gershwin, Arlen, Cole Porter, and others still retain their freshness after so many decades. In addition, the arrival of the phonograph has abolished the opposition between literate and oral on which Taruskin bases his work. The improvisations of Art Tatum, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans are now preserved for examination as surely as the notated scores of Machaut and Mozart. Future histories of twentieth-century music will have to do justice to the total picture.

A brief postscript: Taruskin continues to circulate a widespread myth that has outlived any interest it may have had, which was not much to start with. It concerns Hans Sachs’s admonition at the end of Die Meistersinger to honor the old German musicians. This has been taken in our time as a forecast of Nazi aggression (and is so taken by Taruskin): at this point in the opera, most producers now feel obliged to make some kind of pictorial reference to Auschwitz or to SS troops, and if they don’t, the critics protest. What Sachs says is that when Germany is conquered by a foreign power like the French, a continued respect for the old masters will allow German culture to survive. This seems to me patriotic, but perfectly acceptable. Protests are misplaced. When an American lecturer exhorts us to continue reading Emerson, Whitman, and Mark Twain, I do not think we should feel obliged to flash slides of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo on the screen.

—This is the second of two articles.

  1. 1

    A good history of this development can be found in the articles of 1801, “Remarks on the Development of the Art of Music in Germany in the Eighteenth Century,” from the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung by Johann Karl Friedrich Triest, translated by Susan Gillespie in Haydn and His World, edited by Elaine Sisman (Princeton University Press, 1997).  

  2. 2

    He oddly misses a good chance to blacken the reputation of a famous composer when he writes about Orlandus Lassus, who composed a motet on a text of his own, congratulating the Archbishop of Canterbury on the number of Protestants he had burned at the stake. 

  3. 3

    Georges Liébert, one of the editors of the new edition of Debussy’s correspondence, has assured me that there is no trace of anti-Semitism in Debussy’s life. 

  4. 4

    The quotation marks around “mainstream” are tendentious: the acceptance of Bach in England, Poland, and France was widespread even if it redounded to the credit of German culture. Ascribing the success of Bach only or even principally to German propaganda is a shallow and oversimplified view of the international musical world of the time. 

  5. 5

    See Robert L. Marshall, “Bach the Progressive,” in The Musical Quarterly, 1976. 

  6. 6

    May 9, 1935. Quoted by Frank Kermode in Pleasure and Change: The Aesthetics of Canon (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 43. 

  7. 7

    Taruskin maintains wrongly that “there is no thwarted inevitability about the harmonic trajectory, although (and this should be taken as a caution) analysis can always be employed in hindsight to suggest the opposite.” Wrongly, because analysis properly works by hindsight not by analyzing first impressions, and because he himself knows just how Chopin makes it sound inevitable, as he remarks that “the part writing, however arbitrary the effect, is contrapuntally pristine, rendering the piece at once academically impeccable and poetically fractious.” It is the part writing and not the standard tonal analysis that makes it work.  

  8. 8

    One Easy Piece,” The New York Review, February 22, 1973.