Richard Taruskin, a towering musicologist and public intellectual whose polemical scholarship and criticism shook up the history of conventional classical music, died early Friday in Oakland, Calif. He was 77 years old.
His death, in hospital, was caused by esophageal cancer, said his wife, Cathy Roebuck Taruskin.
A professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley and a scholar of Russian music, Mr. Taruskin is the author of a number of groundbreaking musicological studies, including the six-volume Oxford History of Western Music. He also contributed to The New York Times, where his incisive, witty, and scholarly writing represented a bygone era in which clashes over the meaning of classical music held sway.
“He was the most important living writer on classical music, whether in academia or in journalism,” said New Yorker music critic Alex Ross in a recent interview. “He knew everything, his ideas were powerful and he wrote with a dashing style.”
At a time when the classical canon was considered sacrosanct, Mr. Taruskin advanced the philosophy that it was the product of political forces. His pet peeve was the widespread idea that Beethoven’s symphonies and Bach’s cantatas could be separated from their historical contexts. He fiercely criticizes this idea of ”music itself”, which, he writes, represents “a decontaminated space within which music can be composed, played and listened to in a cultural and historical vacuum, i.e. say in perfect sterility.
His words were anything but sterile: Mr. Taruskin courted controversy in almost everything he wrote. In the late 1980s, he helped spark the so-called “Shostakovich Wars” by criticizing the veracity of “Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as bound and edited by Solomon Volkov” (1979), which portrays the composer as a secret dissident. (Mr. Volkov is a journalist, historian and musicologist.) Drawing on a painstaking debunking by scholar Laurel Fay, Mr. Taruskin called the book’s positive reception “the biggest critical outrage I’ve ever witnessed.” .
In a controversial 2001 Times essay, Mr. Taruskin defended the Boston Symphony’s cancellation of a performance of excerpts from John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” after 9/11 of that year, arguing that the opera romanticized terrorism and included anti-Semitic caricatures. Even advocating what some called censorship, he emphasized a core element of his worldview: that music was not neutral and that the concert hall could not be separated from society.
“The art is not faultless,” he writes. “Art can do harm.” (His writing could hurt, too; Adams countered that the column was “a nasty personal attack and an appeal to the worst kind of neoconservatism.”)
Mr. Taruskin’s most notable flamethrower has been his campaign against the movement for “historically authentic” interpretations of early music. In a series of essays anthologized in his 1995 book “Text and Act”, he argued that the use of period instruments and techniques was an outgrowth of contemporary tastes. He didn’t want conductors like Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Roger Norrington to stop performing; he just wanted them to drop the pretense of “authenticity”. And many have.
“To be the true voice of one’s time is (as Shaw might have said) about 40,000 times more vital and important than to be the supposed voice of history,” he wrote in The Times in 1990. “To be the means expression of his own age is – obviously, right? — a goal far more noble than historical verisimilitude. What is verisimilitude, after all, if not correctness? And accuracy is the smallest of virtues. This is something to require of students, not of artists.
Mr. Taruskin had a no-holds-barred approach to intellectual combat, once likening an academic colleague’s plea for a Renaissance philosopher to defending Henry Kissinger’s Tiananmen Square crackdown. He has been accused of building simplistic straw men and lacking empathy for his historical subjects. Following a 1991 campaign by Mr Taruskin claiming that Sergei Prokofiev had composed Stalinist propaganda, a biographer complained of his “mocking antipathy”. Mr. Taruskin’s response? “I am sorry that I did not flatter Prokofiev enough to please his admirers on his birthday, but he is dead. My concern is with the living.
But his squabbles were often productive: they changed the conversation at the academy and in the concert hall. Such arguments, according to Mr. Taruskin, could help save classical music from its increasingly marginal status in American society.
“I have always considered it important for musicologists to place their expertise at the service of ‘average consumers’ and alert them to the possibility of being misled, not only by commercial interests, but also by academics. complacent, biased critics and pretentious performers,” he wrote in 1994.
Mr Ross said: “Whether you judged it good or bad, it made you feel that the art form really mattered in the wider cultural scene.” Mr. Taruskin’s polemics, he added, “ultimately served a constructive purpose of bringing classical music out of the fantasy world and into the real world.”
Richard Filler Taruskin was born on April 2, 1945 in New York City, Queens to Benjamin and Beatrice (Filler) Taruskin. His youthful family was liberal, Jewish, intellectually and musically fiery: his father was a lawyer and amateur violinist, and his mother was a former piano teacher. He started the cello at age 11, and while attending Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art (now Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & the Arts), he voraciously consumed books on music history at the New York Public Library.
At Columbia University, Mr. Taruskin studied music with Russian, partly to reconnect with a branch of relatives in Moscow. He stayed on for his doctorate, with music historian Paul Henry Lang as his mentor, as he researched early music and 19th-century Russian opera. He also began playing the viola da gamba in the New York independent scene and, while later teaching at Columbia, led the choral group Cappella Nova, which gave acclaimed renditions of Renaissance repertoire. He joined the faculty at Berkeley in 1986.
In the 1970s, musicology was still largely focused on the resurrection of obscure motets and the analysis of Central European masterpieces. Dr. Taruskin was part of the “new musicology” movement, a generation of scholars that revolutionized the discipline by drawing on postmodern approaches, feminist and queer theory, and cultural studies.
“Richard had a very keen sense of the politics of music history,” researcher Susan McClary, a pioneer in new musicology, said in an interview. “He was also an extraordinary musician. And so he wasn’t going to sacrifice the music itself for the context; these always went together for him.
While researching Russian composers for his doctorate – at a time when scholars largely viewed them as peripheral figures – Mr Taruskin realized how insidiously 19th-century politics had shaped the canon classic. It was no coincidence, he argued forcefully, that Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were so highly regarded: their popularity and acclaim represented the legacy of a long unrecognized and deeply entrenched German nationalist ideology. His monographs on Russian opera and Mussorgsky redefined the study of music in Eastern Europe, shattering long-held myths.
In 1984, Mr. Taruskin began writing for the short-lived Opus Magazine at the invitation of its editor, James R. Oestreich. After Mr. Oestreich moved to The New York Times, Mr. Taruskin wrote long-form essays in the paper’s Arts & Hobbies section that targeted composers often treated as demigods; the section’s mailbag soon fills with furious readers. (He had no qualms about sending his own letters, sending dry postcards to prominent music critics castigating their errors or logical errors.) His writings for The Times and The New Republic were later collected in the books “On Russian Music” and “The Danger of Music.
Teaching at a Stravinsky seminar at Columbia inspired the two-volume “Stravinsky and Russian Traditions,” a seminal 1996 study that upended the cosmopolitan image that the composer and his acolytes had long cultivated. Mr. Taruskin drew attention to the traditional Slavic melodies that Stravinsky incorporated into “The Rite of Spring”, and how the composer himself deliberately obscured the folk roots of his groundbreaking ballet.
The Oxford History of Western Music, published in 2005, grew out of Mr Taruskin’s undergraduate lectures at Berkeley and his dissatisfaction with textbooks that presented a parade of unassailable masterpieces. In more than 4,000 pages, it weaves intricate analyzes alongside rich contextualization, revealing music history as a difficult terrain of argument, politics, and power.
Criticisms of The Ox abounded – that it betrayed its author’s personal grudges, that it treated modernists like Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez unfairly. But it remains a central text, apparently unsurpassable. “This is the last time anyone will tell this story,” Dr. McClary said. “And it was told as well as it could have been.” (His own criticism of The Ox is perhaps the most enduring: Mr. Taruskin’s investigation almost entirely ignores black musical traditions.)
Dressed in a purple blazer, Mr. Taruskin was a larger-than-life figure at American Musicological Society conferences, where his presentations were blockbuster events. In recent years, he has refrained from giving papers in favor of attending lectures from his many alumni.
He married Cathy Roebuck, a computer programmer at Berkeley, in 1984 and lived in El Cerrito, California. In addition to his wife, he is survived by his son, Paul Roebuck Taruskin; his daughter, Tessa Roebuck Taruskin; his sister, Miriam Lawrence; his brother Raymond; and two grandchildren.
Among Mr. Taruskin’s many awards was Japan’s prestigious Kyoto Prize, which he received in 2017. His most recent book was the 2020 compilation “Cursed Questions: On Music and Its Social Practices.” When he died, he was working on completing a book of essays that would serve as an intellectual biography.
Despite his bossy personality, Mr. Taruskin had a soft side known to his colleagues and students. For years he argued with music theorist Pieter van den Toorn over the meaning of Stravinsky’s music – Mr. Taruskin arguing that it could not be separated from the politics of the 20th century, Mr. van den Toorn sees these concerns as extrinsic to scores. .
Nevertheless, Mr. Taruskin dedicated one of his books to Mr. van den Toorn. The inscription: “Public adversary, private friend”.