Richard Taruskin, the pioneering musical scholar, teacher, performer and public intellectual whose eloquent and fiercely argued work exerted a lasting influence on the field, both within the academy and around the world, died on Friday July 1 in a Oakland Hospital. He was 77 years old.
The cause was esophageal cancer, according to his wife, Cathy Roebuck Taruskin, who confirmed his death.
Taruskin has spent much of his career on the faculty of UC Berkeley, where he has trained several generations of students to view music as he did – as a complex and deeply human endeavor with implications that go far beyond from aesthetics to encompass politics, sociology, history and more. .
For him, there was no such thing as “music itself”, existing only as an abstract, bloodless region of idealized sound. Instead, Taruskin insisted on understanding music as a social practice, subject to the same pressures and incentives that govern other pursuits.
This in turn meant that political considerations were as important to understanding music as a technical analysis of harmony or rhythm. This meant that written musical scores, while essential for researchers and performers, were at best only an approximation of a full musical experience.
“His example completely changed the way I do research,” said Professor Mary Ann Smart, her Berkeley colleague. “He taught academics to follow what music means to people at a given time, rather than what a piece means across time. And the whole field followed him on that.
Taruskin described these positions in voluminous writings that were as elegant and compulsively readable as they were long. “I need 100 pages just to sign my name,” he said. once joked.
Through countless thousands of printed pages and many millions of words, Taruskin has covered just about every topic related to Western music. He boasted particular expertise in Russian music and the music of the medieval and Renaissance periods, but his work encompassed opera and modernism, philosophy and cultural theory.
“He was the greatest music historian of all time,” said Professor Simon Morrison, a specialist in Slavic music at Princeton University. “It’s not just his sheer productivity, which is Tolstoyan, but the fact that he created real diversity in the field.
“The fact that we study Russian music in the United States, for example, is its achievement. He brought rigor and criticism and an enormous amount of homework to a repertoire that had been neglected or walled off because of the Cold War.
Taruskin’s influence in academia was profound, and his writings in the popular press brought his ideas to an even wider audience. Beginning in the mid-1980s, he regularly published articles in The New York Times and The New Republic that challenged readers’ notions of works they thought they knew well.
One of the earliest and most explosive of these episodes concerned the world of early music and its growing emphasis on “historically informed interpretation”. Taruskin pushed back against the idea that groups like the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, playing period instruments in a style meant to reflect the practice of 18th-century musicians, were producing something “authentic.”
His counter-argument was that the movement’s fast tempos and clipped rhythms reflected 20th-century sensibilities — and that was actually a more worthy goal for living performers.
Both in public and within the academy, Taruskin has repeatedly courted controversy. In a 2001 New York Times article, he praised the Boston Symphony for its “patience and discretion” in canceling a performance of excerpts from John Adams’ opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” following the September 11th. He shamelessly attacked composers such as Prokofiev and Carl Orff for their accommodation of tyrannical regimes.
In the 1980s, Taruskin helped lead the charge against the uncritical acceptance of “Testimony”, a 1979 publication by journalist Solomon Volkov that claimed – based on flimsy documentary evidence – to be a secret memoir of the resistance of Shostakovich under the Stalin regime.
Yet for all the pugnacious fervor in his writing, Taruskin was never simply about provoking for his own good. He saw lively debate as an enjoyable way to a measurable end, which was a deeper understanding of music history and culture.
Debate and assiduous erudition too, because Taruskin’s work has always rested on a solid base of historical evidence. Perhaps his greatest coup in this regard was “Stravinsky and Russian Traditions” (1996), a huge two-volume study documenting how the composer, after being driven from his homeland, had systematically obscured and falsified his deep ties. to his Russian heritage.
In 2005, Taruskin unveiled his magnum opus, “The Oxford History of Western Music”, a massive six-volume project that traced the course of Europe and America from the Middle Ages to the turn of the millennium. It was a typically ambitious and brilliant undertaking, and unlikely to be repeated.
Taruskin was born in New York on April 2, 1945 and grew up in a cultured, lively and politically engaged family. His father was a lawyer and amateur violinist, and his mother a former piano teacher.
Adlai Stevenson’s failed runs for president in 1952 and 1956 were landmark events in the family. Later, Taruskin – whose politics were often mislabeled as Marxist or neoconservative – described himself as an “old-fashioned liberal”, saying his political watchword was “What would Adlai do?”
He studied Russian and music at Columbia University and, after a year in Moscow on a Fulbright scholarship, returned to earn a doctorate at Columbia and then to join its faculty. He taught there until 1987, when he joined the faculty of Berkeley. He retired in 2014.
Early in his career, Taruskin was an active performer of new music. He was a virtuoso of the viola da gamba and conducted Renaissance choirs in New York.
Despite his gift for public vituperation—and his habit of shooting postcards at academics or journalists who he believed had made embarrassing mistakes—Taruskin was known to be a warm colleague and mentor.
“He was 100% supportive and generous, and very easy going,” Smart said. “You couldn’t have asked for a better senior colleague.”
Among Taruskin’s many publications are “Music in the Western World,” a 1984 compilation of primary historical documents he collaborated on with fellow Columbia student Piero Weiss; “Text and Act” (1995), a collection of essays on the historical performance movement; “The Danger of Music” (2008), a collection of essays on music and politics; and at least four volumes of Russian music studies. In 2017, he became the first music scholar to win the prestigious Kyoto pricesafter personalities like Olivier Messiaen, John Cage and Cecil Taylor.
In addition to his wife, Taruskin is survived by his son, Paul; his daughter, Tessa; his sister, Miriam Lawrence; his brother Raymond; and two grandchildren. Plans for a memorial service are pending.