Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Oxford History of Western Music

The Oxford History of Western Music by UC Berkeley professor Richard Taruskin was original published in six volumes in 2005. This original hardcover edition was priced at $750 creating a dilemma for the library whether to buy this as a reference work only, or not to buy it all. Although this is a book that requires sustained attention and dedication, we decided that it was too important not to have in the Library. We are now glad to own two copies of the "lightly revised" five volume paperback edition available for circulation. The now-absent sixth volume contained an index and reading lists that have been folded into the five individual volumes.

The original Oxford History of Music was published between 1901-1905 and was written by a group of British scholars. This was followed by the New Oxford History of Music which was completed between the years 1954 and 1990. This latter set was created by dozens of respected music scholars, all specialists on the time periods and regions they wrote about. The first volume of the New Oxford History of Music (Ancient and Oriental Music) even included cursory coverage of Asian musics, grouped among "primitive" music and the music of antiquity. Taruskin has added the modifer "Western" to his title to clarify the scope of his work - music in Europe and America. He also acknowledges that his subject is the elite music of the West, not folk and popular music.

Taruskin's project is remarkable because it brings such a vast span of time and variety of music under the pen of a single author. The preface (now printed in all five volumes) paraphrases Francis Bacon's requirement for history: "that causes be investigated, that original documents be not only cited but analyzed and that the approach should be as near exhaustive as possible" (vol. 1, p. xii). Taruskin's writing focuses on "discourse and contention" through the "close observation ... of the actual statements and actions of people" (p. xv). He acknowledges that his opinions and ideas can be "admittedly and deliberately provocative" (vol. 4, p. xx). This approach leads to more than 4,000 pages of thoughtful and thought-provoking reading.

Volume 1, Music From The Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, begins with a consideration of the earliest known fragments music noted in antiquity. Volume 2 covers the 17th and 18th centuries, while volume 3 is devoted to the 19th century. A sizable percentage of the set, the 4th and 5th volumes, is devoted to music of the twentieth century.

The Oxford History of Western Music does not demand to be read from beginning to end. It is organized into sensibly unified chapters on various topics, composers, styles, national schools of music, etc... Taruskin looks at music in the context of the social and philosophical currents of the times. These volumes are also replete with musical examples. While the ideal reader of this history will possess a knowledge of music notation and some music theory, such knowledge is not absolutely necessary to benefit from Taruskin's ideas and insights.

Like Alex Ross's popular book, The Rest Is Noise, Taruskin's work is remarkable for presenting music as a platform for serious ideas and thought. For a play-by-play account of the experience of reading this massive book there is also a blog entitled The Taruskin Challenge (subtitled: Two grad students blog their way through the most monumental musicological work in generations).

The Oxford History of Western Music, 5 volumes, by Richard Taruskin (Oxford University Press, 2010).

The Oxford History of Western Music, 6 volumes, by Richard Taruskin (Oxford University Press, 2005).

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