Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin; drawing by Tom Bachtell

Richard Taruskin must surely be our most ferociously adversarial writer on music. He has read everything, he argues with everyone, he sets out his views with rhetorical flair, and he has been at the forefront of some of the great musical controversies of our day. He took center stage in the debate around the early music movement’s claims to authenticity, arguing that its performances were no more than vital, modern interpretations, and he denounced John Adams’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer as morally and musically abhorrent for its alleged pro-Palestinian stance. In academic circles he is best known for his pathbreaking studies of the Russian musical tradition. It is more than a decade now since he produced, without a hint of research assistance, his huge five-volume (plus index volume) Oxford History of Western Music, overflowing with detailed knowledge and trenchant opinion, which in Cursed Questions, his new collection of essays, he cheerily refers to as The Ox.1

As a result, Taruskin recalls:

The question I am most frequently asked…is “What will you do now?,” the emphasis suggesting that there may not be anything left to do…especially since…I had ventured to predict the end of the tradition of which I had written the history.

However, the tradition of Western music has shown considerable signs of continued life—at least until the current pandemic prevented the communal performances on which it thrives—and the whiff of lively controversy around his powerful and detailed volumes seems to have only encouraged him to keep writing. The Conservatorium van Amsterdam held a session in December 2014 called “Catching Up with Richard Taruskin,” a potentially exhausting activity that Cursed Questions helpfully assists.

Taruskin’s public prominence emerged suddenly: in New York in the early 1980s, when the revival of Renaissance and baroque music was reaching new heights of popularity, he was teaching at Columbia and was active both as a choral conductor, directing Capella Nova in the intricate music of Johannes Ockeghem and other Renaissance masters, and as a viola da gamba player with the Aulos Ensemble, appearing as a soloist in Bach’s Passions. So it was a surprise to many when he attacked the oft-repeated premise of many performers of early music that “following the composer’s intentions,” by reviving period instruments and past performing styles, was an unquestionable virtue. From within, Taruskin became the leader in subverting the whole basis of what was then referred to as “authenticity” in performance, pointing out its logical deficiencies with a rigor that permanently changed the nature of that debate.

Taruskin’s explosive essay on the subject, “The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past,” was reprinted in his collection Text and Act (1995), along with a postscript that quotes with evident glee examples of the controversy it generated.2 Charles Rosen’s telling remark that Taruskin had reserved “his most crushing arguments…for opinions that no one really holds” was quoted alongside Andrew Porter’s accusation that he was “driving a scholarly steamroller at Aunt Sallys that few serious musicians take seriously.” These comments Taruskin took as demonstrating the rawness of the nerve he had touched. And it was certainly true that early music practitioners felt undermined by his arguments, and many felt inhibited from responding because of the incisive forcefulness and intellectual firepower with which they were formulated.

As a brilliant polemicist, he became an ideal writer beyond academic journals, first for the now-defunct Opus magazine and then for The New York Times (thanks in both cases, as he acknowledges here, to the music editor James Oestreich). This gave him the opportunity to express in high-octane prose not only his thoughts on the early music debate but on the other wide-ranging preoccupations of his academic research, from Stravinsky and Russian music to Wagner, contemporary music, censorship, and anti-Semitism, the latter frequently revisited in Cursed Questions. Having collected many of these pieces from the Times and The New Republic in The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (2009), he now turns to address his academic colleagues again; the essays are mainly lectures given to them. He gathers his thoughts on the big issues, or, as he calls them with reference to his Russian roots, the “cursed questions” around music. There is something obsessive in the mood here, as Taruskin admits: the questions are “ineluctable. They are vital. They are addictive. This is the book of an addict.” Each of the thirteen chapter titles is a question, some more obscurantist than others, all typically wide-ranging, from “Did Somebody Say Censorship?” and “Haydn and the Enlightenment?” to “Nicht blutbefleckt?” and “Which Way is Up?”

In returning to what he describes as “less public, more insularly disciplinary turf,” we wonder for a moment if perhaps Taruskin has mellowed when he writes:


Big philosophical problems like my cursed questions may not be soluble, but they can be whittled down, just as objective reality may not be directly or completely known, but it can be approached through the exposure and elimination of error.

Later he suggests nobly that “we all recognize the pursuit of understanding to be our common purpose, and that in seeking understanding we come neither to bury nor to praise.”

That is indeed a worthy aim, but alongside a limited amount of praise, there is still a great deal of burying going on here. Fellow scholars are subjected to relentless elimination. Carl Dahlhaus’s “aggressive, preemptively judgemental style of argumentation” produces “a senseless distinction” and “a veritable salad of empty binarisms.” Jim Samson is “waffling” and “downright sentimental.” George Steiner has a “a fanatically hypocritical complacency.” Joseph Kerman’s classic book Opera as Drama is “suitably irritable and prim.” (Cursed Questions is dedicated to Kerman’s memory, an irony Taruskin acknowledges.) Even the tiniest supposed flaw is grist to his mill: you have to feel for that fine scholar of the Enlightenment David Schroeder, who argues for the aspiration of Haydn’s age “to tolerance, not dogmatism” and is roundly dismissed for using the phrases “Haydn can be seen to be demonstrating” and “this message…can be heard in many of Haydn’s late symphonies” on the grounds that “to say that something can be seen or can be heard is to acknowledge that it is not likely to be so seen or heard without the special pleading.” Really?

Behind the bluster there are serious issues that have preoccupied the academic study of music for a long time. What Taruskin characterizes as “the Great Either/Or, the great bane of contemporary musicology” is a broad and rich debate in which he has been constantly and fruitfully engaged, one which underlies many of the struggles in this book. To grossly oversimplify, the question comes down to this: What is the most important way to understand a piece of music, by a deep analysis of its content outside time, understanding the mechanics of its composition, or by a deep understanding of its cultural surroundings and the circumstances that brought it into being?

Taruskin has been at the sharp end of this debate because he is without doubt an exponent of the latter view, and a brilliant one. To reduce it to a single piece, Stravinsky’s epoch-making The Rite of Spring, it was Taruskin who in his book Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions (1996) showed how dependent the music of The Rite was on Russian tradition and specifically on Russian folk material: as he recaps it, “the fantastically influential ostinato-driven style of The Rite of Spring was founded on a repertoire of folk songs chosen for their antiquity.” That was not the way the composer liked to present his vision, and the conclusion was anathema to the analysts who had spent years marveling at the perceived originality of the score and demonstrating its intricate inner workings. Typically, Taruskin not only provided the work’s Russian background but also attacked the formalist products of the analysts, notably Allen Forte, and as a result was described by the scholar Arnold Whittall as “the present day’s most notorious theorist-basher.” This is another adverse accolade that Taruskin quotes with pride, in the chapter around these issues, “Unanalyzable, Is It?”

The question of whether writing about music consists of description or analysis is a long-standing one: in fact, as many pages of the Oxford History bear witness, Taruskin is a master of vivid description tending toward analysis. His account of the second movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, based around “the career of a single pitch over the course of the movement,” is a fine example, drawing on previous work by Leo Treitler. He warns that “the object of analysis will be not so much the recondite technical means as the palpable expressive achievement,” and that seems exactly the right aim. But as a nonacademic close listener, I always wondered: Why cannot it be both/and rather than either/or? Each discipline, both deep analysis and rich cultural studies, adds to our understanding: great pieces such as The Rite of Spring and Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 are worth every ounce of effort across different disciplines that one might devote to them.

Taruskin’s writings have a symphonic breadth and a structural precision that compel attention; he marshals his material with forensic attention to detail. He sweeps the reader along, but is there sometimes the tiniest suspicion of overstatement or exaggeration to fit his purpose? In his chapter “Did Somebody Say Censorship?” he cites Lewis Lockwood’s perfectly reasonable musical judgment that Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory and Der glorreiche Augenblick “should be set aside as negligible byproducts, not as works in the main line.” He then twists that to suggest of the latter work that Lockwood “seems to call for its suppression” in order to link Lockwood’s opinion to far more egregious examples of censorship.


Most notoriously, Taruskin is not on firm ground in rerunning more than once in this collection his grotesque 2001 attack on The Death of Klinghoffer in the immediate aftermath of September 11, when the Boston Symphony canceled its planned performances of choruses from the opera. The work roused very strong opinions, especially among those who had not seen it. But any fair account of the controversy around Taruskin’s personalized denunciation of the composer (he would argue that it was not that, but that is what it was taken as, and what it again reads as here) should at least bring the story up to date with the opera’s wide acceptance through its Juilliard School concert performance in 2009, the well-prepared revival at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2011, and a sold-out Metropolitan Opera staging in 2014, when after some protests the work was received, understood, and admired by many critics and audiences alike.

One puzzle is that Taruskin, a performer himself who in his public phase as a writer spent much time reviewing recordings with subtlety and precision, does not write much here about actual performance. He engages strongly with reception studies, the process of understanding what has happened to the reputation and understanding of music since it was written. But one of the sea changes of our time has been the move from the study of musical works as artifacts in the same tradition as literary works—the traditional idea of musicology as a philological discipline—to a much more subtle and open approach that starts from a new understanding that music is essentially performance. It was the scholar Nicholas Cook who drew attention to the

extraordinary illusion, for that it is, that there is such a thing as music, rather than simply acts of making and receiving it, [which] might well be considered the basic premise of the Western “art” tradition.

Taruskin does engage with a fine colleague of Cook’s, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, who wrote penetratingly about Pierre Boulez’s changing and increasingly expressive performance style. Taruskin picks up this theme and manages in his ingeniously paradoxical way to turn a scholarly article on Stockhausen’s wholly electronic piece Studie II into a consideration of performance tradition, though this is a piece that at first sight should not require any human intervention at all. As he so often does, Taruskin makes us rethink many of our assumptions about how fixed a piece of music, even one that is mechanically generated, can be.

He pursues his reflections on the ambiguous relationship between a musical work and its performance in “Is There a Baby in the Bathwater? On Aesthetic Autonomy,” in which he rightly remarks that

overcommitment to aesthetic autonomy has had a heavy and equally dubious impact on musical performance, promoting…an ever more exacting division between the creative and re-creative functions.

That is well put: the imagined division between creative (the “notated essentials” of a piece of music) and re-creative (its “performative clothing”) has a long history; but those of us who experience music as listeners hear it exactly the other way around, moving from the stimulus of the initial experience of hearing it performed to the further exploration of the score, background, analysis, or whatever takes our fancy. Philosophers tie themselves in knots trying to work out whether a performance of a Brandenburg Concerto with a wrong note can really be called a performance of a Brandenburg Concerto, but we know that the score is not the only evidence, indeed it is far from sufficient evidence, of what a piece of music is and how it communicates.

A scene from Pina Bausch’s production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

Laurie Lewis/Bridgeman Images

A scene from Pina Bausch’s production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, London, 2008

The common theme here is how we perceive music, and how far it is necessary to understand it in order to enjoy it: Do we need knowledge to appreciate it, or can it be accepted on a purely sensual level? This dilemma was best answered by Mozart. Taruskin quotes one of the truest things Mozart wrote (and Mozart wrote a great deal in his letters that was not true): the famous line that his piano concertos contained “passages here and there that only connoisseurs can fully appreciate—yet the common listener will find them satisfying as well, although without knowing why.” Here, even the composer is reassuringly prepared to accept that his music will communicate on many different levels.

There is another, more sinister theme lurking under the surface, which is Taruskin’s bizarre implication that “advanced” music only achieved the status it did in the twentieth century because it was too difficult for people to understand, and therefore was automatically regarded as great. He reports that Alban Berg feared his Wozzeck was too successful at its premiere, and recalls Theodor Adorno’s reassurance to the composer that some of the detail of the opera was really not understood. Taruskin twists that around to suggest a deliberate ploy so that “the composer and his friends may retain their sense that they have after all resisted the public and not courted it, and thus maintain, behind a humanistic façade, a self-congratulating sense of superiority.”

This sort of dubious attribution of motive is rather too frequent in the book. There is a long section, reflecting on one of the most criticized sections of the Oxford History, which darkly attempts to attribute Elliott Carter’s success as a composer to the machinations of a hidden support structure, the praise of fashionable critics, a prolonged PR campaign, and the influence of the cold war. This criticism is then extended by analogy to the publishers of Ligeti and Stockhausen, as if it were not the job of music publishers to promote their composers’ works. From afar I would not presume to judge anything about the effects of the cold war, but it is somewhat naive to imagine that all great composers, from Machaut to Monteverdi to Mahler, have not benefited from a network of self-promotion, support, and interpretation to ensure that their work is heard and understood in the way they desire.

In Taruskin’s chapter “‘Alte Musik’ or ‘Early Music’?” his taste emerges strongly: he draws a contrast between two twentieth-century ways of approaching the music of the past, one by Stravinsky, the other by the Second Viennese School. It is full of fascinating, detailed, lively information about Stravinsky’s magpie-like interest in earlier repertory, the moments when he acquired crucial books and scores, the influence of medieval and Renaissance music that lay behind his later works. But when Taruskin turns to the different approach of Schoenberg and his colleagues, the language changes: Webern’s wonderful transcription of the six-part Ricercar from Bach’s Musical Offering is “dredging up the most arcane and abstract relationships that testify to the music’s ideal structure, the occult level at which lay the true kinship between Bach and Webern himself.” He summarizes: “When Stravinsky turned to the past he looked for difference…. When the neue Wiener Schule turned to the past they looked for sameness.”

“Sameness” is a typically loaded word: you could certainly argue that the Second Viennese School composers looked for continuity with the past, but they changed the sound of the music they arranged quite as much as Stravinsky did. I am not sure why Taruskin protests so much here, because in backing Stravinsky he is clearly on the winning side. Hardly anyone today performs the Schoenberg/Handel Concerto Grosso or the Schoenberg/Monn Cello Concerto that cause him such hilarity; meanwhile, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, arranging what the composer thought was the music of Pergolesi, sparkles constantly as an inspiring example of what a creative interaction with the past can achieve.

I turned to the chapter “But Aren’t They All Invented?” with some anticipation that it would carry forward Taruskin’s characteristic view of traditions, drawing on his assertion that a performance style cannot be reinvented with reference only to history and will inevitably reflect contemporary taste. But instead, he makes a reductionist attempt to correct the influential concept of the “invented tradition” developed by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, on which he had previously drawn. Taruskin doubtless intends this as a further vindication of his idea that all traditions are organically developing, and that there are no revolutionary shifts. But this leads him to reduce radically the subtlety of his previous arguments. He writes of the way performance styles evolved over time:

The old claim—that historically informed performance practice as recovered in the twentieth century chimed with the actual performance practice of the eighteenth and earlier centuries, and that the nineteenth-century performance style in which most twentieth-century performers were trained was just a blip, a deviation, a hiatus or a vagary, which might be bracketed and forgotten—is, by and large, no longer believed. We now accept, I think, that the twentieth-century style was no recovery [of the eighteenth century], and that nineteenth-century performance practice evolved out of eighteenth-century practice the way traditional practices always evolve.

Leaving aside the absurdity of Taruskin’s “eighteenth and earlier centuries,” as if they were one thing, this ignores the fact that late-twentieth-century performance style, under the pressure of intense social and technological change, along with the coming together of scholarly research and the ambitions of performers, evolved in a quite different way. No one disputes that tradition changes over time, but inspiration can come from many directions, rejecting the familiar as well as developing it. There was a defining moment in recent performance history when great interpreters took their inspiration not from their immediate past but from a more distant source. The conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt wrote as long ago as 1968 that

an interpretation must be attempted in which the entire romantic tradition of performance is ignored…. Today we only want to accept the composition itself as a source, and present it as our own responsibility.

However flexible this was in practice, it was a guiding principle and ideal for many, from Christopher Hogwood and Trevor Pinnock to Roger Norrington and Reinhard Goebel, to a whole generation of younger musicians, who have changed the sound of music in our time. This needs to be clearly acknowledged, and it is one of the few areas where one feels Taruskin is willfully avoiding the point.

Here, and especially in the chapter based on his Stanford University lecture “Shall We Change the Subject?” (which draws together a number of familiar themes and could perhaps have been omitted from the collection), he repeats many aspects of his position, and his views come across as stale. But just as you begin to doubt that he has new things to say, Taruskin comes up with a fresh perspective: his last chapter, “A Walking Translation?,” a lecture from 2016, is a wholly original, personal account of Soviet musicology based on his year as an exchange student at the Moscow Conservatory in 1971–1972. It is a reflection on musicology from the perspective of East and West that underlies so much of what he writes; I cannot judge its accuracy, but it is a fascinating piece.

We know that it is partly Taruskin’s infuriating unfairness that makes him so readable and stimulates us to answer back. But very occasionally in these pages we find something wholly positive. At the end of a long riposte to his frequent adversary Charles Rosen, Taruskin, having once again identified himself as “one who regards Rosen’s literary output—all of it—as Cold War propaganda,” comes pretty near to a generous apology:

He was a walking object lesson, at times a deliberately enunciated lesson, in what a gifted person granted freedom of action in the arts could make of that liberty. He was jealously and splendidly protective of his and others’ freedom.

And Taruskin quotes some inspiring words by the composer Roger Sessions:

What music conveys to us—and let it be emphasized, this is the nature of the medium itself, not the consciously formulated purpose of the composer—is the nature of our existence, as embodied in the movement that constitutes our innermost life: those inner gestures that lie behind not only our emotions, but our every impulse and action, which are in turn set in motion by these, and which in turn determine the ultimate character of life itself.

Those “beautiful thoughts” prompt him to formulate

the big cursed question—that none of us can really answer fully, even those of us who have devoted our whole lives to answering it: namely, why it is that people sit still and enraptured in concert halls, intently watching and listening while people on stage zealously hit skins with sticks, blow into brass tubes or cane reeds, and scrape horsehair over sheep gut.

When he comes to the heart of the matter, Taruskin is not talking about academic debate but about the essence of performance and the power of music in people’s lives.

It is profoundly ironic that we should be contemplating this central “cursed question” at a moment when we cannot see and hear musicians doing just those things, when the entire structure of classical music performance is under drastic attack, compounding the problems that have accumulated for orchestras and organizations that already have been too slow to reinvent themselves for a new generation. The restrictions imposed by the spread of a pandemic are threatening the economic survival of individual musicians and musical institutions across the world—those who depend precisely on the ability, and the need, of audiences to gather together to experience exactly the things Taruskin writes about with such informed passion.