Understanding Music

Review of Richard

Every now and then a quiet discipline in the humanities receives a shattering and world-changing shock, when one of its stars leaves its allotted orbit and crashes brain-first into the centre of the subject. The effect is like an asteroid hitting the earth: old life is extinguished, new life promoted, and the landscape forever transformed. Such was the impact in our time of Leavis on academic English, of Wittgenstein on academic Philosophy, and of Ariès on academic history. Such will be the impact also – so I predict – of Taruskin on academic musicology. Having made his name with a plethora of scholarly publications on all aspects of musical history and performance, including a profound book on Stravinsky and some 160 articles on Russian composers in the New Grove Dictionary, Taruskin has now attempted the greatest musicological task of all: which is a comprehensive summary of the Western classical tradition. The result is surely one of the great cultural monuments of our day, the product of a mind as humane and morally focused as it is technically assured. There is not a page without insight, and not a chapter that does not fundamentally change the reader’s perspective on its subject-matter, by making connections and comparisons that call on the author’s amazing store of musical and cultural knowledge.

I add the word ‘cultural’ deliberately. For this is not just a work of academic musicology. It is also, and primarily, a work of cultural criticism, which places Western music in its full historical and literary context. With confident succinctness, Taruskin evokes the time and place of each composer, the currents of thought and feeling that animated the society in which he lived, and the artistic and spiritual expressions that give retrospective form and meaning to his epoch. Envisage Wölfflin’s art-historical imagination, Tovey’s analytical genius and Riemann’s understanding of harmonic function, all deployed by a critical intelligence of the order of T.S. Eliot. And imagine the combination brought entirely up-to-date, with a sceptical grasp of all the fashionable mantras, from ‘metanarratives’ to ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion’. That, roughly speaking, is Taruskin.

Of course, he gets up a lot of noses, and his sense of what is or is not important in our musical history may look decidedly eccentric to many practitioners. Much of the criticism that Taruskin provokes in the profession can be countered, however, if we remember two all-important facts. The first is that the history of Western civilisation looks very different to those who have some knowledge of Slavonic languages and the deeds that they record, from the way that it looks to those who remain corralled in the Latino-Teutonic enclave. If you doubt this, take a look at Norman Davies’s histories of Britain and Europe or Adam Zamoyski’s history of nationalism. Taruskin’s deep knowledge of the Russian experience means not merely that he sees the European tradition from the perspective of those who have sought with supplicating cries to be a part of it, but also that he is not going to be taken in by any of the marxisant windbaggery that colonised American musical scholarship in the wake of Ernst Bloch and Theodor Adorno (who is rightly and contemptuously dismissed in the introduction to Taruskin’s first volume).

The second important fact is that Taruskin is determined to keep sight of what is most important in music, which is its impact on the listener, rather than its utility for the ambitious researcher in need of territory. As a result his vigorous musical analysis never strays into the parched terrains where so many American musicologists now plant their spindly intellectual saplings. The two volumes under review contain no set-theoretic transformation tables, no Schenkerian graphs of imaginary ‘middle-ground’ structures, no attempts at semiology in the style of Ruwet or Nattiez, no gestures towards the empty verbiage of Saussurian linguistics or its structuralist and deconstructionist successors. They go straight to the heart of the matter, which is the musical surface, and give as full an account of its organisation as the reader needs, in order to understand what the music itself is saying. The volumes abound in concrete examples, each thoroughly described and analysed, but presupposing only the kind of knowledge that it is the normal business of musical readers to acquire – the knowledge of chords and their functions, keys and their relations, and the elementary rules of tonal syntax. The result is a vindication of academic musicology that ought to inspire the current generation of young musicians to take the subject up.

Taruskin wishes to do justice to the entire tradition, which does not mean doing justice to all its members. A tradition is understood as the common law is understood – through the precedents or ‘leading cases’ that shape and control the argument. (The common law, incidentally, offers the clearest disproof of the idea put about by Hobsbawm, taken up by Robert Walser in the context of Western classical music, and glancingly addressed in Taruskin’s Introduction to Volume 1, that traditions are retrospectively ‘invented’.) Hence Taruskin concentrates on major stylistic innovations, on the rise and fall of genres, on the local styles, schools and musical cultures, and on the times and places where music influenced and was influenced by the social and political movements that made the modern world. He devotes much space to the Enlightenment, and to nationalism as a pervasive reaction to it. He explores the social and intellectual transition that made music into an emblem of the inner life. And he argues, in one of the most challenging of his chapters, that Beethoven was remodelled after his death in mythic terms, by way of revising the place accorded to the artist in Western culture. He gives weight to composers regarded, in the standard histories, as marginal or minor – Schein, Ferrabosco, Löwe, Balakirev, Dargomïzhsky – and passes over some of the greatest composers in the canon, including Dowland, Charpentier and Bellini, with barely a mention. Bruckner gets short shrift, and the two Couperins appear only en passant, during a discussion of the keyboard works of J.S. Bach. The reason for this (apart from the fact that you cannot say everything about everything) is that Taruskin is not concerned to give an encyclopaedic chronology but an illustrative history. Every chapter hangs on a single and persuasive argumentative thread, which concerns the artistic means and aesthetic goals of a time and a place. Löwe is there, for example, because Taruskin wishes to show the Lied in its full cultural context, as a product of the Goethezeit, and of the romantic attempt to carry the fairy-tale forest into the bourgeois drawing room, there to murmur in the piano strings. Minor Lieder composers are important for Taruskin because he sees them as part of a collective enterprise, in which, as he puts it, the romantic I attempts to bond with the romantic We. He goes on to connect this romantic We with nationalist aspirations, distinguishing the civic patriotism of the amiable Mendelssohn from the darker and more Herderian nationalisms that were eventually to sweep all civility away. All this is suggestively argued, and argued through the music.

Taruskin writes with great ease and assurance, and effortlessly persuades the reader that he is at home in every period, equipped with all the expertise and intimate familiarity that makes him a reliable guide both to the form and the content of the musical works. Sometimes he devotes pages to a single work or corpus: for example, there is a sustained analysis of the French Suites of Bach, and another, crammed with historical, musical and critical insights, of the First Symphony of Brahms. But he does not give an exhaustive catalogue of works or even attempt an enumeration of the most important masterpieces. His technique is to use the music to illustrate some larger aesthetic or historical idea – in the case of Brahms, for instance, the idea of the newly emerging ‘classical repertoire’, as an emotional and cultural constraint on musical creativity. Often he will confine his discussion to a miniature or a fragment, the better to understand the style and outlook through which a composer established his identity as a ‘leading case’. Thus Taruskin presents the historical importance of Chopin in an exemplary analysis of the first Ballade, bringing home the truth (obvious in retrospect) that Chopin transformed the technique of musical development, by opening new harmonic and melodic paths that preserve the memory of an original motif. This discussion is so clearly focused and illuminating that you can (or I can) forgive Taruskin for coupling Chopin with Gottschalk as equally significant ‘exotics’. In discussing Schubert he is far more interested by the composer’s use of third relations in place of the circle of fifths, than by any individual masterpiece such as the Ninth Symphony or the String Quintet. This is because he believes that the underlying change in the musical syntax, and the prominence accorded to the German sixth and the keys of the mediant and sub-mediant, show a new relation between music and the psyche, and a new kind of soulfulness finding its musical vindication. Through the circle of fifths Western music built objective structures that stand firm as rocks like the symphonies of Haydn. Through the circle of thirds it made its journey inwards, to become a self-communing of the lonely soul.

Again, when discussing Wagner’s Ring cycle, Taruskin focuses only on one passage – the Prelude to Götterdämmerung, in which the three Norns ponder the fate of the world, as they pass to each other the rope on which the scheme of things is woven. Through studying this intensely atmospheric scene, he is able to introduce the theory and practice of the Leitmotiv, the history of the Ring and its composition, the ideological and philosophical background to the drama, and – most important of all – the revolutionary syntax through which ideas and emotions are compelled along the path of the music. He goes on to treat Tristan und Isolde in a similar way, this time giving more space to the overall construction and tonal argument. And you come away from the chapter with a sense not only of Wagner’s achievement as a composer, but also of the irreversible change that he effected in our conception of what music can do. Moving on – through a brief consideration of Musorgsky – Taruskin gives in the space of forty pages a wholly engaging summary of Verdi, as a person, an artist and a national figure, concluding with an analysis of the Tristan chord in Otello that unforgettably illuminates not only Verdi’s but also Wagner’s use of it.

Of course, someone who argues so intently and in such a focused way makes room for disagreement. In his justifiable desire to show the robustly tonal nature of Tristan, for example, Taruskin emphasizes Wagner’s restoration of the dominant pedal and his use of prolonged dominant-tonic progressions, arguing that these show a move back from the third-relations explored by Schubert and Liszt. But the third-relations are just as important for Wagner – the Tristan chord is a kind of vertical résumé of them, and they are spelled out horizontally in the famous opening bars of the work. Likewise, Taruskin is determined to see nationalism as a central current in the evolution of nineteenth-century music, yet he accords no space to the French revolutionary festivals, to the massed choirs of Gossec and the operas of Méhul, or to the rise of the national anthem and the contrasted impact, both musical and political, of Haydn’s hymn to the Emperor and Rouget de Lisle’s La Marseillaise. Nevertheless, the eagerness with which you, the reader, weigh in to argue with him, displays the skill and honesty with which Taruskin engages your attention. There is not a trace of phoneyness, not a suggestion of showing off, even when Taruskin treats us, in discussing Gluck, Piccini and Mozart, to a high-flying exposition of the Enlightenment. Everything is seriously meant, finely observed and intelligently presented. And perhaps nothing is so gripping to the reader as the places where Taruskin, having worked through a sustained piece of analysis, suddenly comes out into the open in a spray of suggestive ideas, revealing just why the process that he has described in musicological terms is not a matter of technique, but of moral and spiritual values. Here is how he concludes his analysis of the Norns:

A strategically placed 6/4 chord or a tremulous pedal can cause a key to heave up before the contemplating ear like an iceberg in the path of the Titanic; and the key so drastically prefigured can be “liquidated” (to use a term Arnold Schoenberg invented for the process a generation later) before any of its primary functions have been asserted. Indeed, there is a whole category of leitmotivs (Fate and Oblivion, to recall two) that seem to have no other purpose than the securing of these effects – effects that resonate insidiously with their dramatic import.

So by now, a great flare-up of a long-awaited tonality like the present E-flat can be accepted as no more than provisionally decisive or conclusive. We can no longer trust harmonic functions to deliver, as once in Beethoven’s time they did, on their promesse de bonheur, the “promise of happiness” that the French novelist Stendhal named as the most essential aspect of artistic beauty and the reason why art is cherished. We feel ourselves buffeted by the loss of certainty more deeply than a theory of representation can ever explain, for here we come to the nub of what makes the Wagnerian “sea of harmony” so much more than a metaphor or a representation.

That, it seems to me, is music criticism as it should be, and it leads into a long and illuminating discussion of closure in the Wagnerian idiom, and of the state of mind that it is used to articulate.

Despite the enormous time and energy that Taruskin has devoted to such musical analysis (surely the strongest point in these volumes), he has also kept abreast of musicological scholarship in other fields, and with the main currents of American cultural and historical criticism. He generously gives credit to other scholars whose arguments and phrases lend weight to his own (to Karól Berger, for instance, in the argument just referred to), and although it is true that he ignores many writers who are equally important to his overall conception of the Western classical tradition (Nicholas Till on Mozart and the Enlightenment, James Johnson on the rise of the listening culture, Martin Cooper on late Beethoven, Wilfrid Mellers on Couperin, to name only four), his selectiveness is in part explained by his need to win the acceptance of American musicologists for a project that puts so many of them in the shade. This is the only explanation I can imagine, indeed, for the respect that Taruskin pays to the silly feminist theories of Susan McClary (the Ninth Symphony as a fantasy of rape, etc.), or for his obeisance towards Edward Said’s libel against the Enlightenment (Nathan der Weise, Rasselas, Les letters Persanes, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, etc., etc., all dismissed as ‘orientalism’). At the same time, Taruskin is neither a time-server nor an arse-licker; his raspberry for Adorno is quickly followed by an equally provocative, and equally gratifying cock of the snook at Carl Dahlhaus, the self-satisfied doyen of contemporary German musicology. Taruskin’s respect for his colleagues is countered, indeed, by a marked disrespect for the gurus who have led so many of them astray.

Someone might raise a question-mark about Taruskin’s project, nevertheless. Given the vast extent of musical and musicological scholarship, it is surely unlikely that one man can comprehend it all, or that he can really be an expert on all the composers whose music is central to our cultural history. Ought not an ‘Oxford History of Western Music’ to be composed by a committee of experts, of the kind put together by the late Stanley Sadie when composing the New Grove Dictionary?

To that question I would respond with an emphatic ‘no’. It is true that, here and there, you can witness the strain on Taruskin’s prodigious energy (not least in the misprints in the musical examples). But he is giving us history of another and, to my mind, more valuable kind than that contained in Grove: the basic facts, certainly, but also an interpretation of them as a unified Gestalt, an interpretation that displays their intellectual and moral significance for us here and now. This is the kind of history that only a single author can present, and which will inevitably be botched by a committee. Taruskin’s book is not a work of reference, any more than was Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Spengler’s Decline of the West. It is a visionary addition to our understanding of our culture.

The reader might nevertheless ask whether Taruskin’s vision has any authority for the rest of us, and from what kind of sensibility it emerges. In response to those questions I will say only this. Taruskin’s is very much a modern sensibility. But it is also a sensibility informed by a far-reaching moral imagination, which makes him alive to the significance of music, and able to address his reader, as Beethoven hoped to address his audience, ‘from the heart, to the heart’. The romantic ‘Beethoven myth’ was not, after all, the fabrication that Taruskin condemns: it was part of the attempt that he himself exemplifies, to show music as a redemptive force, which reconciles us to each other and to the world in which we live. That vision of music may be vanishing from the world of popular culture, as it is dwindling too in the world of academic musicology. But it is a vision that Taruskin, in these volumes, triumphantly vindicates.

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