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Richard Taruskin, music historian, dies at 77

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Richard Taruskin, an influential and spectacularly fertile music scholar and historian who wrote the gigantic “Oxford History of Western Music,” died July 1 in a hospital in Oakland, California. He was 77 years old.

The cause was esophageal cancer, said his wife, Cathy Roebuck Taruskin.

Dr. Taruskin, a longtime professor of musicology at the University of California, Berkeley, was best known for his writings on Russian music and in particular on Igor Stravinsky, whom he revered. His “Stravinsky and Russian Traditions: A Biography of Works through ‘Mavra'” (1996) combines an in-depth technical analysis of the composer’s scores with an exhilarating insight into Russian musical life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. — two volumes and 1,800 pages which took the composer only to the age of 40.

Stravinsky’s later years were covered extensively in Dr. Taruskin’s “The Oxford History of Western Music” (2005), a six-volume (including index) study of classical music of 1.25 million words from 800 AD to the end of the 20th century. which also contained thousands of other names and numbers.

Dr. Taruskin had many admirers. Alex Ross of The New Yorker called him “the most important living writer on classical music, whether in academia or journalism” in a recent interview with musicologist William Robin.

“If you want to know how brilliant Richard Taruskin’s ‘Oxford History of Western Music’ is, just open the first of its five long volumes and start reading from page one,” wrote critic and composer Greg Sandow in the Wall Street Journal. . “I found myself on the edge of my seat.”

This first volume, “The Music of the First Notations in the Sixteenth Century”, has often been considered the most successful of the series. In a narration that is both authoritative and moving, Dr. Taruskin weaves facts and impressions of history, visual art and architecture into a consistently gripping narrative that may yet be the best all-encompassing introduction to “early music”. ” available.

Indeed, Dr. Taruskin made a name for himself through his studies in the Renaissance, with eye-opening interpretations in the 1970s of the music of then-obscure composer Johannes Ockeghem. In a review of “History” for the New Criterion, critic and editor Patrick J. Smith fondly recalled certain Manhattan concerts of Renaissance music by the choral group Cappella Nova, conducted by Dr. Taruskin, adding that “His notes on the concerts ran into dozens of pages, intended to be read at leisure much later.

As a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, Dr. Taruskin worked with Paul Henry Lang, whose own story, “Music in Western Civilization”, with his then-pioneering efforts to place music in a broader socio-cultural context , had a profound effect on him.

Dr Taruskin published his first book, “Opera and Drama in Russia as Preached and Practiced in the 1860s”, in 1981. He also worked with musicologist Piero Weiss on “Music in the Western World: A History in Documents”.

In the mid-1980s, Dr. Taruskin became a contributor to The New York Times, where he had unusual freedom and quickly became a controversial figure. He reminded some readers of the late theater and film critic John Simon, who was also known for his lively, erudite, fiercely articulate – and sometimes disconcertingly brutal – reviews. Dr Taruskin attacked composers Carl Orff, Arnold Schoenberg and Sergei Prokofiev as well as contemporary American composers such as Milton Babbitt, Donald Martino and Elliott Carter.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Dr. Taruskin wrote a column in The Times about the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s decision to cancel performances by some choirs of “The Death of Klinghoffer”, an opera by John Adams with a libretto from Alice. Goodman on the murder of a disabled American Jew by Palestinian terrorists.

“Censorship is always deplorable, but the exercise of patience can be noble,” Dr. Taruskin wrote. “Not being able to distinguish the noble from the deplorable is morally obtuse. In the wake of 9/11, perhaps we would like to finally overcome sentimental complacency with regard to art. The art is not flawless. Art can do harm. The Taliban know this. It’s time we learned.

In response, Adams said he discerned two modes of writing in Dr. Taruskin’s output – his formal musicological work and his “pop” pieces for The Times.

“In the latter, he’s made a specialty of libel,” Adams told Britain’s The Independent newspaper in 2002. “: There must always be a count of the dead at the end, whether the target is Prokofiev, Shostakovich’s academics, or anyone else he decides to humiliate.”

Dr. Taruskin was in his prime in Russian music, and he largely returned to this study after the publication of his story, which he called “the beef.” Indeed, it seemed somewhat lost in most 20th century music unrelated to Russia.

In its history, for example, there was no mention of Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Duke Ellington, Ruth Crawford Seeger or Stephen Sondheim. The name of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, once voted the world’s most popular composer in a radio poll by the New York Philharmonic and the subject of a huge revival in the last two decades of the 20th century, has appeared five times on 4,560 pages, then only passing.

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Richard Filler Taruskin was born in New York on April 2, 1945. His father was a lawyer and amateur violinist, and his mother had taught piano in her youth. Dr. Taruskin started playing the cello at the age of 11 and once joked that he knew he would become a cellist so the family could play piano trios. Later, the instrument he played most often in public was the viola da gamba, from which the cello is partly derived.

He attended what was then called the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan and later claimed to have read every music history book in the New York Public Library. He was a 1965 undergraduate graduate of Columbia University and won a Fulbright-Hays scholarship, which allowed him to visit Moscow in 1971 and 1972.

After earning a master’s degree in 1968 and a doctorate in musicology in 1975 from Columbia, he taught in the university’s music department until 1987, when he joined the faculty at Berkeley. He was appointed full professor in 1989 and retired in 2014.

In addition to his wife of 38 years, of El Cerrito, Calif., Dr. Taruskin’s survivors include two children, Paul Roebuck Taruskin and Tessa Roebuck Taruskin; a sister; a brother; and two grandchildren.

Dr. Taruskin is said to have become softer in his later years and befriended many young critics and scholars, the same kind of people he used to ridicule in public attacks and private postcards. He has received numerous accolades, and in 2012 a conference in his honor was held at Princeton University.

The lecture was titled “After the End of Music History” and several lectures were devoted to the life and work of Dr. Taruskin. It pleased him immensely.

“As long as Taruskin is the one to beat,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle, “Taruskin is happy.”

Tim Page is Professor Emeritus of Musicology at the University of Southern California and won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Critics for his writing on music at The Washington Post.