Richard Taruskin
Richard Taruskin | Credit: Kenichi Aikawa

Richard Taruskin, the preeminent musicologist of our time and an emeritus professor at UC Berkeley, died early Friday morning in Oakland, CA, aged 77. Cathy Roebuck Taruskin, his wife, reported the cause of death as cancer of the esophagus.

In a career filled with caustic arguments and disputation alongside incisive, groundbreaking scholarship, Taruskin and a few like-minded colleagues hugely influenced the focus of an academic discipline and successfully challenged much of classical music criticism’s holy writ. From piecing together the elements of musical styles, musicology became an intellectual history dealing directly with questions of culture and ideology.

But he was also a public intellectual whose journalistic work appeared in Opus and The New York Times, edited by James Oestreich, and later in The New Republic. In these articles, he showed his readers the stakes in music history and criticism, while wearing his erudition lightly in an engaging prose style.

Taruskin was born on April 2, 1945, and he studied cello as a child. He attended Columbia University both as an undergraduate and as a doctoral student, where his Ph.D. dissertation was on 19th-century Russian opera. At the same time, he switched from cello to its earlier cousin, viola da gamba, and joined New York’s early-music scene, eventually founding the choral group Cappella Nova in the mid-1970s. The ensemble’s groundbreaking performances of Johannes Ockeghem’s music resulted in the LP Johannes Ockeghem, Prince of Music in 1978, financed by winning the American Musicological Society’s first Noah Greenberg Award for “a distinguished contribution to the study or performance of early music.”

Cover of Text and Act

By the late 1980s, however, he was critiquing the early-music movement for promoting its performances as “authentic,” a term he eventually derided as a marketing slogan. Taruskin noticed parallels between the early-music movement’s performance practice and the performance practice of Stravinskian neoclassicism. He eventually posited that early-music performance was not a quest for authenticity but a thoroughly modern style of its own. The decade-long debate resulted in a series of essays collected in the essential book Text and Act (Oxford University Press, 1995). As Taruskin remembers it in the introduction to that book, the initial AMS seminar in 1982 that aired these issues showed him that “our discipline, which prided itself on its freedom from “ideology” (that is to say, of course, from Marxism), had bought into ideologies of other (not unrelated but equally dogmatic) kinds.” With comrades in arms like Ruth Solie, Rose Rosengard Subotnik, and Susan McClary, among others, Taruskin began to challenge this orthodoxy.

In 1987, Taruskin moved to Berkeley, where the music department included Joseph Kerman, who had founded the journal 19th-Century Music a decade earlier. Taruskin had contributed the article “Glinka’s Ambiguous Legacy and the Birth Pangs of Russian Opera” to the journal’s second issue, and Kerman quickly appreciated the younger scholar’s take on the cultural politics that animated criticism of Glinka’s two operas. The focus on nationalism as a cultural force that was far more pervasive than the peasant dances of the acknowledged nationalist-style composers became one of the abiding concerns of Taruskin’s scholarship. He showed forcefully that cultural nationalism had influenced the formation of the classical canon, which was the creation of German historians guided by a nationalist cultural project. In his work on Russian opera, he illuminated the importance of the polemicist Vladimir Stasov in promoting the “Mighty Handful” and defining what was “Russian” in music. His seminar on nationalism in the mid-1990s ended up producing nearly as many dissertations as it had students. As studies of 19th-century music and modernism in the 20th century proliferated, Taruskin found himself supporting many other branches of “new musicology” that questioned orthodoxy: feminist and queer studies and broader cultural studies as well.

Out of the studies on musical nationalism came Taruskin’s seminal two-volume Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra (Oxford University Press, 1996). Stravinsky had long cultivated an image of himself as the ultimate cosmopolitan modernist, inventing himself as he went along. Taruskin uncovered his debt to Russian folk music and, of course, to his teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, analyzing works in great detail to show how pervasive the influence was, and also how his involvement in Russian nationalist political circles drove him to create particular works. Given the centrality of Stravinsky’s music in the modernist canon, this book changed a great deal of how we look at the project of modernism itself.

Possibly Taruskin’s best-known book, publicly at least, is the five-volume Oxford History of Music (2005), more than 4,000 pages long, and with an index compiled by its author (and graduate students). In it, he compiled his decades of voracious reading and research into a readable grand narrative of the kind that many people believed couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be done. Its two volumes on music after 1900 ignited the most protest and commentary, mainly because of composers and subjects that were left out. And really, there are too many strands of modern music to create a coherent narrative. But Taruskin’s effort wasn’t entirely about inclusion but about ideological fights and how musical culture dovetailed with larger cultural subjects such as the rise of totalitarianism. It’s a book that tracks how much territory has been opened by the “new musicology.”

Taruskin’s public fights, such as his involvement in the “Shostakovich wars,” which revolved around the veracity of Solomon Volkov’s Testimony, showed his distaste for hero-making and his determination to correct the historical record where he thought it had been distorted. But it also showed that he was a formidable polemicist and a sometimes callous critic himself, as many of his colleagues already knew. However, it’s notable that when he wrote that John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer contained antisemitic caricatures, the scholar who rose very effectively to the composer’s defense was Taruskin’s former student Robert Fink.

Among his many other prizes, Richard Taruskin won the 2017 Kyoto Prize for his distinguished career.