Richard Taruskin, provocative scholar of classical music, dies at 77

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Richard Taruskin, a music scholar and historian of wide influence and spectacular fecundity who wrote the gigantic “Oxford History of Western Music,” died July 1 at a hospital in Oakland, Calif. He was 77.

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

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

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

Dr. Taruskin had many admirers. Alex Ross of the New Yorker called him “the most important living writer on classical music, either in academia or in 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 right from page one,” the critic and composer Greg Sandow wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “I found myself on the edge of my seat.”

That first volume, “Music From the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century,” was often judged the most successful of the series. In storytelling both authoritative and transporting, Dr. Taruskin wove facts and impressions from histories, visual art and architecture together into a consistently engrossing narrative that may still be the best overall introduction to “early music” available.

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

As a PhD student at Columbia University, Dr. Taruskin worked with Paul Henry Lang, whose own history, “Music in Western Civilization,” with its then-pioneering efforts to place music within a broader sociocultural 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 was given unusually free rein and soon became a figure of controversy. He reminded some readers of the late drama and film critic John Simon, who was similarly known for reviews that were lively, erudite, fiercely articulate — and sometimes unnervingly brutal. 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 Sept. 11, 2001, Dr. Taruskin wrote a column in the Times about the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s decision to cancel performances of some choruses from “The Death of Klinghoffer,” an opera by John Adams with a libretto by Alice Goodman about the murder of a disabled Jewish American by Palestinian terrorists.

“Censorship is always deplorable, but the exercise of forbearance can be noble,” Dr. Taruskin wrote. “Not to be able to distinguish the noble from the deplorable is morally obtuse. In the wake of Sept. 11, we might want, finally, to get beyond sentimental complacency about art. Art is not blameless. Art can inflict harm. The Taliban know that. It’s about time we learned.”

In reply, 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 has made a specialty of character assassination,” Adams told the British newspaper the Independent in 2002. “This makes good copy. It’s sort of like watching those tacky ‘true crime’ shows on television: there must always be a body count at the end, whether the target is Prokofiev, Shostakovich scholars, or anyone else he decides to humiliate.”

Dr. Taruskin was at his strongest in Russian music, and he returned largely to that study after the publication of his history, which he referred to as “the Ox.” Indeed, he seemed at something of a loss in most 20th-century music without a Russian connection.

In his history, for example, there were no mentions of Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Duke Ellington, Ruth Crawford Seeger or Stephen Sondheim. The name of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, once voted the most popular composer in the world in a New York Philharmonic radio poll and the subject of a huge revival in the last two decades of the 20th century, appeared five times in 4,560 pages, and then only in 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 took up the cello when he was 11 and once said jokingly that he knew he would become a cellist so that the family might play piano trios. Later, the instrument he played most often in public was the viola da gamba, from which the cello is partially derived.

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

After receiving 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 Berkeley’s faculty. He was named a 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 was said to have grown gentler in his later years and he befriended many young critics and scholars, the same sorts of people he used to deride in public attacks and private postcards. He received numerous honors, and in 2012 a conference in his honor was held at Princeton University.

The conference was called “After the End of Music History” and several talks were devoted to Dr. Taruskin’s life and work. This pleased him enormously.

“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 criticism for his writings on music at The Washington Post.

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