Taruskin: History of Western Music I

April 8, 2010

The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume 1
Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

Richard Taruskin (Oxford, 2005)
928 p.  First reading.

Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music must be one of the most ambitious publishing ventures in recent history.  The five-volume set runs to well over 4000 pages, and Taruskin has written the entire thing himself.  Even taking into consideration that the text is generously illustrated with musical examples in score, it’s a project of colossal scale.  I purchased the set a few months ago (at a steep discount) and have been slowly working my way through this, the first volume.  Having finished it, I am ready to toss my hat in the air and move on to the next.

The fact that the entire book is written by a single author (and not, as one might expect in a work of this size, by multiple authors contributing individual chapters) has advantages: the discussion is well structured and integrated, with minimal repetition, and Taruskin can reference earlier (sometimes much earlier) points in order to illustrate developments and influences.  It also gives the work a unified authorial voice.  On the other hand, nobody undertakes to write a book of this size without having some opinions about the subject matter, and the fact that we hear only from Taruskin raises the possibility that we are getting a specifically Taruskian history, with whatever idiosyncrasies of opinion that might entail.  Only a reader who already knows the subject matter thoroughly will be able to pick up on such eccentricities consistently, and I am not that somebody.  (Charles Rosen, on the other hand, is such a somebody, and his review of the book is probably worth looking at for those who take the trouble to read Taruskin; he quarrels with some of the book’s claims.  To me his points of contention seem quite minor.)  Subtle interpretive eccentricities aside, I can say that Taruskin’s style is distinctive: witty, even breezy at times, but precise and easy to follow.  As befits a book about music history, the discussion does sometimes ascend into technical analysis of scales, harmonies, and so forth; this was mostly lost on me, but I found I could skim through such flights of erudition and resume the narrative thread without too much difficulty.

In general, Taruskin wants to illustrate the continuity of musical development.  He resists the usual “period” labels (Renaissance, Baroque, etc.) on account of their balkanizing effect.  He avoids the “great man” version of history in which certain figures (Dufay, Josquin, and Palestrina, for example) so dominate our view that their predecessors and contemporaries fade into the shadows.  (This is not to say that he fails to do justice to the genuine greatness of those men — he does not — but he shows us that they came from somewhere, and were attended by other talents.)  When a discontinuity in musical practice does appear, he generally argues that the discontinuity is only apparent: the music is being written down for the first time, not played or sung for the first time.  Indeed, this is a very important point that comes up again and again, especially, I expect, in this first volume: the history of Western classical music is the history of literate music, music that was either principally conceived in written form or principally known to us through written sources.  In the course of history different genres entered the literate tradition at different times, and so appear as novel developments to us, but only because we have only written sources to rely upon.  A consequence of this limitation to written sources is that the history of western music is largely a history of elite music, for it was the wealthy and powerful who could afford to have their music written down and preserved.

An overview of the topics covered in this volume must greatly simplify.  Given his self-conscious attentiveness to literary sources, it makes sense that Taruskin begins when he does: the Carolingian period. This was the time at which the tradition of sacred liturgical chant began to be codified and promulgated in a uniform edition throughout the Carolingian empire, all of which required writing down what had been an oral practice with regional variations.  He follows the Frankish introduction of new genres of liturgical chant: sequences, tropes, hymns, and antiphons, and the development of the theory of musical modes.  (Throughout the book, Taruskin illustrates the fruitful interplay between the theory and practice of music.  At times it is theory that guides practice, but perhaps more often it is theory that provides a justification for established practice.)

We learn about the earliest written secular music: the songs of the troubadours, trouvérès, and minnesingers.  Our first substantial records of polyphonic music come from Notre Dame de Paris, but this is one of the cases in which he argues that its sudden appearance is more apparent than real — though of course its many glories are undimmed by that concession.  We learn about the abstractions late medieval composers made of rhythm and melody, and the many ingenious ways in which they put the two into conversation with one another (as in isorhythmic motets, for instance, the fantastic complexity of which emerges from simple rules applied to musical abstractions).  We observe the evolution of new genres and practices: ballata, rondellus, fauxbourdon.  The elite genre of the thirteenth century was the motet, but by the fifteenth century musical settings of the Mass Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) became the most prestigious compositional genre.  Not long after, instrumental music began to be notated for the first time (though not, of course, played for the first time).  More pregnant with consequence for the entire subsequent history of music was the practice of printing music on a large scale, which also began at about this time.

The practice of writing largely indepedent vocal parts began to give way to imitative polyphony, and it was Josquin Desprez who mastered this method to a degree that dazzled his contemporaries.  This style of composition attained international prestige and evolved into the high art we normally call “Renaissance polyphony” in the hands of many wonderful composers: Gombert, Clemens non Papa, Willaert, Victoria, and, of course, Palestrina and Byrd.  The last few chapters of this volume consider three forces that ultimately unseated polyphony from its throne of preeminance: the advent of printed music and the consequent entry of vernacular music into the literate tradition, the fracturing of the Catholic Church and the consequent rise of different liturgical practices and ideals, and the quite different and distinctive ideas about the purpose of music brought to bear by radical humanism.

This last point relates to one of the most interesting meta-historical points that Taruskin makes: the music we call “Renaissance polyphony” has little to do with the Renaissance as usually understood.  If the distinctive mark of “renaissance” art is a return to the classical sources of antiquity, then music was in a peculiar position, for there was no surviving ancient music from which to take inspiration.  Humanist scholars did study ancient descriptions of music and its purposes, and tried to promote the creation of a music that would match, but that music was not polyphony.  To a good approximation, it was opera, and especially recitative.  Strange as it may sound, it was the Renaissance that destroyed “Renaissance polyphony” as a leading style of composition.  Instead of calling this music “Renaissance polyphony” Taruskin proposes that it be called ars perfecta, which is what it was called by its (late) practitioners.

The book is full of fascinating musical illustrations.  Among my favourites were the descriptions of some of the amazing feats of musical mathematization that medieval composers devised, such as Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum, in which the various vocal parts are all based on a single musical line, differing only in the speed at which it is sung; the music has been so cunningly conceived that it harmonizes with itself when sung at the correct tempi. His analysis of Dufay’s stupendous motet Nuper Rosarum Flores, which is a kind of echo chamber for Biblical, Pythagorean, harmonic, architectural, and numerological allusions, was among the best things I have ever read about medieval music.  Also excellent was his overview of the “L’homme armé tradition”; dozens of composers based the music of their Masses on a popular song (possibly a children’s song) called L’homme armé, and the result was a fine century-long tradition of musical homage and oneupmanship.  His chapter on Palestrina and Byrd was superb: these two men dedicated their lives to writing music to adorn the Catholic liturgy, and while one, because he lived in Italy, became the preeminent composer of his age, the other, because he lived in England, wrote some of his most admired music for a beleaguered few celebrating illegal rites.  Taruskin’s discussion of the expressive power of Byrd’s intimate music I found quite moving.

Reading a book like this is bound to put expansion pressure on one’s music collection.  I would estimate that I already have in my collection roughly 70% of the music Taruskin selected for illustrative purposes (and being able to listen to them was a great help in understanding certain things he says), but I have added many new items to my wish list.  One that I have already acquired in the course of reading is Ludwig Senfl’s Ave Maria … Virgo Serena, a gigantic homage to Josquin’s famous motet on the same text.  Senfl uses Josquin’s musical materials but spins from it a much larger scale composition.  It’s a beautiful discovery.

The next volume in the set covers the music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  I’d better get started.

**

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2 Responses to “Taruskin: History of Western Music I”


  1. Many thanks for this. Taruskin is always worth reading, even (especially) when he takes idiosyncratic and controversial positions. I’ve dipped into the OHWM several times but haven’t read it through – perhaps one of these days. . .


  2. […] first volume of Richard Taruskin’s massive Oxford History of Western Music had ended in Venice with the […]


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