Death of a mesmerising musicologist

Death of a mesmerising musicologist


norman lebrecht

July 01, 2022

Richard Taruskin, the most contentious and influential musicologist of his time, died today in Oakland, California, of cancer of the esophagus.

He was 77.

Taruskin was the emperor of musicology, holding sway over the field from professorships at Columbia and California, with visiting lectureships at Cambridge and elsewhere. His major work was the six-volume Oxford History of Western Music, alongside numerous other publications, some of them ferocious and combative.

A specialist in Russian music he took side in the Shostakovich wars – both sides, in fact. He at first endorsed Solomon Volkov’s smuggled memoir of Shostakovich, then denounced it, at times in language that was more passionate than scholarly. He preferred to win an argument through force of personality rather than meticulous scholarly detail.

He was best known for articles in the arts pages of the New York Times, where at least one editor was his former student. He exerted a mesmeric control on the paper’s reporting about Russian music.

He never knowingly backed down in an argument, and sometimes took principled disagreement as personal enmity.

A New Yorker by birth, he played the viola da gamba in the Aulos Ensemble, while issuing fierce and often justified diatribes against the ayatollahs of the Historically Informed Performance movement.

Dull he was not.


  • A Pianist says:

    I loved Taruskin. He was cantankerous and sometimes I vigorously disagreed with him to be sure. But would that more musical academics put themselves out there, take strong positions and stir up trouble.

    • guest says:

      “… take strong positions and stir up trouble”. How about Philip Ewell?

    • esfir ross says:

      I’m so sad about RT passing. We used to meet at concerts in Berkeley and talk. We always were in agreement. He was a genius. He admired me for reading many books on music. I’ll miss him and his brilliant writing.

    • tet says:

      He was the real deal: he had the intellectual chops, the scholarly goods, the rhetorical flair, all in the service of a penetrating insight.

      Most music critics/academics had none of these attributes, the good ones had one, Taruskin had all four.

      And when he took aim at his subject, it must have been like looking into the barrels of two double-barrel shot guns inches from your face, and that’s before he even pulled the trigger.

      This article illustrates this and changed my views about many things:

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Taruskin was a big fan of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music, which is something I certainly agree with.

    • Michael B. says:

      I, too, am a big fan of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music, but I definitely disagreed with Taruskin regarding his opera “The Golden Cockerel” (“Zolotoy Petushok”). Taruskin called that opera a “trifling parody.” In fact, that opera spawned an entire genre of Russian satirical opera and gave rise to such works as Shostakovich’s “The Nose,” Schnittke’s “Life with an Idiot,” Shchedrin’s “Dead Souls,” and Desyatnikov’s “Rosenthal’s Children.”

  • Christopher Stager says:

    A great loss. I saw him last March in Berkeley give a talk: “Reception and Social Issues Surrounding Bach’s St. John Passion”. Wise with insight.

  • Sixtus Beckmesser says:

    He was certainly the most interesting musicologist of recent years, along with Joseph Kerman and Charles Rosen. Virtually every page of his colossal Oxford History bristles with provocative insights. Who will take his place? The profession now seems to be fraught with woke politics and is busy “decolonizing” itself.

  • Max Raimi says:

    I was just poring over his provocative and fascination essay “The Dark Side of the Moon” the other day. Not for the first time, by any means.

  • ThrownOutOfTheKremlinForSinging says:

    A dear friend of mine was one of Professor Taruskin’s protégés, but got hit by a car and killed in Leningrad, where he was spending a semester studying original manuscripts in the University library. Russian drivers didn’t believe in turning on headlights when driving at night in poorly-lit neighborhoods.

    RIP Professor Taruskin, and RIP Grisha.

  • Sisko24 says:

    Mr. Lebrecht, enjoyed your last two paragraphs in this commentary, especially the line “…the ayatollahs of the Historically Informed Performance movement.”

    I’ve often wondered if they helped dull the wider enjoyment of Baroque music by their insistence that they were the only ones who were/are correct and everyone else was/is an ‘historically uninformed infidel’. LOL! Maybe those ‘ayatollahs’ just weren’t as HIP as they thought?

    • MWnyc says:

      The period-instrument people themselves rarely, if ever, insisted that theirs was the only way to play Baroque music or that modern-instrument players should stop playing Baroque music.

      But plenty of modern-instrument players and fans insisted (and continue to insist) that the period-instrument people *did* say that.

      The vehemence all came from the modern-instrument fans against period instruments; the period-instrument people were enthusiastic but never angry — except, sometimes, when someone like Pinchas Zukerman was gratuitously vicious, but even then the period people mostly rolled their eyes.

      Did the period-instrument movement dull the wider appreciation of Baroque music? Well, since the mid-1980s, period-instrument recordings of Baroque works have tended to outsell modern-instrument recordings of those same works. They’ve sold well enough that, except for solo keyboard works played on piano, most labels have given up releasing new recordings of Baroque music on modern instruments — and that’s presumably a business decision.

      • Gone-but-not-forgotten says:

        Um, I’ve played for several big name Baroque ‘specialists’ during my career, and believe me they insisted that their way was the only way. The worst was the guest conductor who brought a boom box to our rehearsal to play a cassette (yes, cassette) of his own ensemble playing Baroque music the ‘right’ way. They sounded like a chorus of cats.

        • MWnyc says:

          Well, yes, when conductors are conducting, they do tend to insist that their way is the right way.

          But he clearly thought it was fine for modern-instrument ensembles to play Baroque music; if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have been conducting your group in the first place.

          • Gone-but-not-forgotten says:

            Wrong. It was quite disrespectful and insulting. Would you expect a French guest conductor to insist on ‘French’ style in Brahms. There is code in the profession that guests don’t come to an orchestra for the first time and try to reinvent the wheel.

        • music lover says:

          Stuck in the 60s comment.Gone and soon forgotten.

          • Gone-but-not-forgotten says:

            How clever. However would you have a baroque ensemble play Stravinsky’s Pulcinella in a Baroque style just because he reworked Pergolesi? The great choral conductor and Bach specialist Helmuth Rilling never, I’ll repeat, never asked us to play in a ‘baroque’ style, and his concerts were pretty good.

      • music lover says:

        Well,i´ve played under many period people,and mostly it was fascinating,fresh,lively music making…Ton Koopman,Giovanni Antonini,Emmanuelle Haim,Christophe Rousset,Bernhard Forck,they were all great…Goebel i found disappointing,and Norrington was the only one i found horrible….Alas,the worst Mozart i played in were the Muzak Mozart performances under Mehta,Maazel,and,yes,Zukerman….

    • music lover says:

      Stuck in the 60s.

  • Andrew Appel says:

    This is a disrespectful piece on a most brilliant and complicated man. I can only surmise that its tone comes from an ignorance about his life and work and an inability to comprehend the value if his engagement with both musicologists and performers.

  • Clem says:

    So he wasn’t really a scholar, contradicted himself, was a bully, couldn’t accept criticism and couldn’t accept he was wrong, and used his influence to determine what others were allowed to write?
    Some eulogy…

  • william osborne says:

    I think history will find him a bit too partisan–especially the paradoxical strain of postmodern neoconservatism in some areas of his thought. Historical writing is always somewhat subjective though not a place for expressing overt personal resentments and political biases. Still, there’s something about the musicological world that needed, and still needs a shaking up. Who will be the next much needed controversial voice that will point out things like the contradictions of a field proclaiming so much postmodern aesthetic egalitarianism while speaking the from the perches of elite schools that function something like cultural country clubs? Musicology is not a field for those with a low tolerance for pretensions, one-upping phonies.

  • Joel Kemelhor says:

    His articles about Russian music are well written and challenging. His overview of Stravinsky –linking that composer’s early, middle and late works — certainly enhanced my understanding.

  • Wise Guy says:

    Risquait in Pace, Professor Taruskin. You will be sorely missed. Your shoes can not be filled.

  • Duncan says:

    Brilliant, knowledgeable and controversial – even opinionated. All musicologists should be like this!!

  • MacroV says:

    I haven’t read him in a long time, but I recall finding him kind of tiresome after a while. But respect, he did the work. And 77 is a good life but esophogeal cancer is a nasty way to go.

  • Zandonai says:

    In the 90’s I was in Prof. Taruskin’s Music101 class at Berkeley, also Joseph Kerman’s “Opera” class as well as Alan Curtis’ “Bach and Handel” class. It was at that time an unknown hot young Italian mezzo-sprano Cecilia Bartoli made her trial U.S. debut at UC Berkeley’s Hertz Hall (I was there). Good times!

  • Zandonai says:

    I’m always of the opinion that, in order for classical music to be more popular, it needs more controversies not conformnities. This is why Maria Callas became such a cultural icon in spite of her vocal deficiencies and lack of a beautiful voice.

  • Douglas says:

    “…rather than meticulous scholarly detail.”
    Tracing the origins of the folk melodies in Stravinsky’s Rite – to give just one small example – suggests meticulous scholarly detail.

  • Zilberman Iurii says:

    I share Taruskin’s opinion regarding modern “attempts” to play old instruments

    • MWnyc says:

      Taruskin wasn’t against old instruments as such (though he — deliberately, I believe — obscured that opinion); he played viola da gamba and Baroque cello himself.

  • music lover says:

    Many,many years ago,i started reading an essay by Mr.Taruskin about Shostakovich.I believe it appeared in The New Yorker.I stopped reading after a few paragraphs.It was a polemic,vile ,cliche ridden ,hysterically anti commie attack on the composer which sounded like Joe McCarthy or John Wayne at a HUAC hearing in 1947.Without any musical analysis or value.Cheap polemic propaganda,totally out of its time and with no regard to what we know about Shostakovich´s role in the Soviet Union,and the history of music….Absolutely irrelevant drivel.