Richard Taruskin's six-volume history of western classical music is personal and incomplete. But it offers a magnificent glimpse of the wholeby Roderick Swanston / April 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
The Oxford History of Western Music by Richard Taruskin (Oxford University Press, £280)
Writing a history of music, even a history of western music, begs some big questions. Is there such a unified entity as “music” of which a history can be written, or is it not the case that in the west there have been several musics: folk, dance, “high art” (or classical), jazz, pop, to name just a few?
Richard Taruskin states plainly in his introduction that his book is about the classical music composed in Europe and America. For the most part it excludes discussion of orally transmitted folk music, except as it impinges on high art, and jazz and pop music except as it influences some 20th-century classical styles.
These, however, are easy to exclude, as they are tangential to a history of classical music. Harder to explain, and more contentious, is the exclusion of composers such as Villa Lobos (western does not include South American), Vaughan Williams, Frederick Delius (or that much English), Franz Berwald, Vilhelm Stenhammer (Scandinavian), and Alfons Diepenbrock (Dutch), and even Marin Marais, Antoine Forqueray, Johann Schenk and John Jenkins, among others. Each of these is undeniably a western classical composer, and, as such, has a right to inclusion. But it seems that composers, and works, are included not so much because of intrinsic merit or popularity as for being part of an implied canonic history. A History of Western Music is not complete or accurately titled without them, but a book that included them would be impossibly large.
Taruskin’s agenda is conservative, even Hegelian, and implies an evolution of music from the 6th century AD to the present. Key works and composers are included that have in some way contributed to music’s progression.
Much of the first 100 pages is devoted to the evolution of Gregorian chant. Rightly, Taruskin cites the major authorities on the subject, Richard Crocker and David Hiley, both of whom have demonstrated that it has little, or more likely, nothing to do with Pope Gregory. First, liturgical chant existed in many places and repertoires before Gregory’s pontificate (c600 AD), and his eponymous association with chant did not start until the 9th century. It was a careful piece of historical revisionism by the Roman church to give its particular chant repertoire a historic status and supremacy. Given these scholarly developments, it seems perverse to continue to refer…