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Richard Taruskin, 1945-2022


The world of musicology, but even more the music-reading public generally, has suffered an immeasurable loss in the death of Richard Taruskin, professor emeritus at U. California at Berkeley, but known to everyone in the profession as a peerless expert on Western music through ten centuries, but also as the most vivid and penetrating writer on music of his time, indeed, of the past half-century. I have no hesitation in referring to him as the most brilliant and authoritative musicologist of my generation. He had even been, at one time, a performing musician (cello, viola da gamba, conducting). Now, at the end of his struggle with esophageal cancer, he had hoped to see the early press copies of his latest book; but it was not to be.

Others will doubtless write about his Mussorgsky studies, or his writings on Shostakovich and Soviets in general, or the six-volume history that he wrote singlehandedly for Oxford University Press, but I’ll mention here my favorite work of his: “Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works through Mavra” (California, 1996, 2 vols., 1757 pages). This is a richly-illustrated and voluminously documented historical work that shows with great energy how Stravinsky’s work at its most fertile, 1905 to 1923, is rooted in Russian folk music, visual art, literature, and his own fellow composers in St. Petersburg, from before Rimsky-Korsakov to Roslavets to the Revolution; more than that, unlike most historical musicology, the book covers the music in considerable analytical depth, and you learn and understand, very satisfyingly, why Stravinsky, with or without justice, disparaged Glazunov and Scriabin, and why Petrushka can be honored beyond all others as a story ballet.

Some would call Richard a merely peevish critic. Rather, he was a sharp-tongued professional, who never hesitated to argue when he could also demonstrate, and his critical strifes and storms, were always warm and even warm-hearted, and always a pleasure to read. He locked horns in the musical press, not excepting the New York Times and NYRB with many who had louder swells but less comprehensive knowledge. He was at first deeply respected, later derided by Robert Craft about fundamentally Stravinskyan issues that Craft knew at first hand, and their eventual parting was fraught; and yet, two years ago, when as a member of the advisory board to the Robert Craft and Igor Stravinsky Foundation, I asked Richard if he would be a member of a similar panel to oversee the planning of a critical edition of Stravinsky’s works, he unhesitatingly accepted.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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  1. Thank you for your writing on Taruskin. I studied with him at 19 when I was at Columbia in the Music Dept., and I can say that I had more than one argument with him on a few topics. At that time he had a jumbo beard and cultivated a Rasputinish style; that was my impression. The dept. at that time was rich with Monod, Doris, Beeson, Piero Weiss (my mentor). I was in way over my head, and yet I wasn’t. I learned how to deal with these giants in music, although at the time I did not know they were giants. Piero Weiss was my piano professor as well and once when I said something “intelligent” about a Bach piece he gave me a very back handed compliment, which was pretty much typical of how women were treated in the music department. I will never forget Taruskin for a million reasons, and may he rest in peace. He was venerated.

    Comment by Elllen Fister Oxman — July 2, 2022 at 7:31 pm

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