A feast for musicians, students and casual concert-goers

Oxford History of Western Music (five volumes). By Richard Taruskin. Oxford University Press; 3,856 pages; $185 and £90

“THE feeble beginnings of whatever afterwards becomes great or eminent are interesting to mankind.” So wrote Charles Burney in 1776, opening his history of music with a subtle apologia for the historian’s method. Before Burney, treatises on music had been theoretical, intended for practical use or to elaborate the eternal laws of musical science. The new historical approach brought with it the advantage of a more nuanced conception of the art, better suited to a wider public. But as in other areas of 18th-century learning, history introduced an element of doubt: had there really been progress from ancient to modern times? Might today’s music not be worse than it used to be?

That the ancients eventually won the argument may be gleaned from the fact that we live in an artistic age almost completely dominated by the dead. The modern historian’s task is all the more delicate. It is also lengthier, as is clear from a comparison of Burney’s history with its contemporary equivalent, Richard Taruskin’s five-volume work. Since its initial publication at the end of 2004, Mr Taruskin’s five-volume survey of 1,200 years of musical tradition has come in for many criticisms—selectivity, subjectivity, riding roughshod over contemporary intellectual orthodoxy—but prolixity and over-comprehensiveness have not been among them.

If the original publication of Mr Taruskin’s history sent shock waves through the academic musical world, the present reissue of the set in paperback is, if anything, a more momentous event. For the work, marvellously awash with judicious reflection on the latest scholarship though it is, is not really aimed at professional scholars. Rather, its greatest value comes in bringing the fruits of advanced scholarship to a general readership through a compelling, easy-to-read narrative.

But the original price of the set ($750 or £350), together with an internal arrangement that made the acquisition of individual volumes impractical, put Mr Taruskin’s efforts beyond the reach of those who might benefit from it the most. The new edition is not only much cheaper but its individual volumes are packaged in a way that allows them to be bought separately.

The book excels for three main reasons. First, as the author is keen to point out, this is genuine history. We are presented not with a miraculous chain of great composers producing timeless masterpieces from nowhere. Rather, musical works and stylistic movements are presented in context so that, for example, the origins of the dynamic, dramatic style of Mozart and Haydn are shown to lie in Italian opera buffa rather than in the architecturally static idiom of Bach and Handel.

Second, and despite the sense of flying through the terrain at breakneck speed, the level of detail remains high, with extended commentaries on individual works that show how they were originally conceived and understood. Third, and despite protestations to the contrary in his preface, Mr Taruskin’s subjective preferences make themselves felt throughout the weighty five volumes.

That may sound like damning criticism. In fact, the author’s numerous bee-infested bonnets are a delight, as is the way his enthusiasms inform, for example, an extended discussion of Debussy or the radically Russophile conception of early 20th-century works. After all, however objective we may aim to be in historical discussion of the arts, the truth is that we are interested in art because we like it.

There are two intellectual bugbears which do wreak some historiographical havoc. Mr Taruskin has a profound distaste for obscurity in all its forms; Schoenberg, in particular, seems to be the object of a personal vendetta. He also deeply mistrusts the system of patronage which has proved such a mixed blessing throughout music’s long history.

The intellectual sources for these prejudices are, however, impeccable. Mr Taruskin’s feeling about music is that it is neither pure entertainment nor pure formal play. Instead, he makes every effort to show the degree to which music not only reflects life but participates in it. The misleading debate on “progress” is studiously ignored. The result is a refreshingly open-ended view of contemporary music-making that puts many of his predecessors, Burney among them, to shame.

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