Shall We Change the Subject?

A Music Historian Reflects. Part 1

Richard Taruskin


Part II will be published in dissonance 113 (March 2011)

The most frequent question I am asked, since the appearance of my six-volume monster, The Oxford History of Western Music1, is «What will you do now?», the emphasis suggesting that there may not in fact be anything left to do, now that I’ve set down a narrative encompassing the whole thousand-year panoply from Gregorian chant to the chaos of postmodernism, and especially since, as those who had actually read my book knew, I had ventured to predict the end of the tradition of which I had written the history. Every so often, while working on it, I had to admit a superstitious little pang that I was putting myself out of business, and — harder to admit now — the hubristic thought that I might be putting my colleagues out of business, too.


But by the time I finished writing I knew better, to my combined relief and horror. The relief was similar to the relief Steve Martin describes in Born Standing Up2, when he writes of his «short-lived but troublesome worry» that writing comedy might be «a dead end because one day everything would have been done and we writers would just run out of stuff». «I assuaged myself», he goes on, «with my own homegrown homily: Comedy is a distortion of what is happening, and there will always be something happening.» That’s just as true of historiography, which could be described as a distortion of what has happened. The very attempt at capturing it shows up the extent of the distortion, so nobody knows better than we historians how distorted the tale becomes in the telling.


I set out on my task of narration full of ideas about what was wrong with the tradition in which I had been trained, and set myself in opposition to it, with the result that my work has become controversial within the discipline. But as many of you will have realized by the time I finish this talk, in no other discipline than musicology would work like mine be thought of as radical, or even especially advanced. Why has music history been such a «laggard, insular subject», as Joseph Kerman, a perennial gadfly, complained in print only last December3? Kerman attributes the lag to musicology’s «traditional paradigm», which he characterizes as «Whiggish or Hegelian», and he notes that «for many reasons, some of them obvious enough, this paradigm stopped working». But my perception is less optimistic. The old paradigm has not stopped working; it goes deeper than Whiggishness, even deeper than Hegel’s influence; and its consequences have affected not only the historiography of music, but the history and practice of music as well.


By the time I had finished the Oxford History I was far better aware of its shortcomings than my critics, who mainly complained about missing persons (a complaint that I regard as at once insignificant and telling). I knew better than they how I might have done it differently. And that was the horror. What gave me that troubling perspective on my own work was my concurrent activity as a music journalist. A journalist is by definition concerned with the present, not the past, and in the case of an arts journalist like me, with artifacts of the past only insofar as they exist in, and continue to affect, the present. I found that I was able as a critic to confront head-on issues that I had to confront only askance as a historian. It was not a question of academic propriety or scholarly circumspection, because I regarded my journalistic arguments as altogether proper and responsible. One of my main purposes in writing the Oxford History was to expose the historical contingency of our default assumptions, the truths we hold to be selfevident. And yet I found myself unable to shake these limiting assumptions when writing history to the extent I was able to do when writing journalism. It was not that I was altogether helpless. Part of it was calculation, knowing, as Cocteau would say, «jusqu’où on peut aller trop loin», how far one can go too far and still retain credibility with those whom one would persuade. But when I think back on what I’ve written, I see how much further I might have gone, and I wish I had.




The full version of this article has been published in DISSONANCE 112.

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1  Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005 (6 vol.).

2  Steve Martin, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, New York, Scribner, 2007.

3  In a review of Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise, in The New Republic Online, now available at http://www.powells.com/blog/?p=2757.

by moxi