Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Bad Boy of Musicology


As a musician, I was always much more of a violin-viola player.  But recently I’ve diversified myself, and am now in a group which meets regularly to sight-sing Renaissance a cappella music.  One group member recently reminisced about partaking in Columbia University’s Collegium Musicum — another early-music singing group — under Richard Taruskin, and a usually-forgotten corner of my past reopened itself for me.

In the — shall we say — last millennium, Taruskin and I were fellow students at Columbia College.  He played cello, and we would read string quartets together.  He was, I think, a Russian major.  Little did I know that he would go on to teach at Berkeley, and  become a celebrated, if controversial, figure in the world of musicology.


Along with being a scholar, Taruskin is (as he denotes himself) a “public intellectual”.  As such, he has written many music reviews, and essays for the New York Times and other periodicals.  I am currently immersed in a collection of these called The Danger of Music (and Other Anti-Utopian Essays) (2009).  The book well deserves its provocative title, given the provocations therein.  One target of Taruskin’s ire is the early-music movement, which (he maintains) claims “authenticity” when in fact all they are is sterile and dry.  The academic composer crowd, with their 12-tone serialism and their noses in the air, also come in for a drubbing.  Mind you, this is somewhat old news — the writing being from the 1990’s — so some of the scene (and/or Taruskin’s views on same) may have changed since then.

Taruskin, however, does have a complementary (and complimentary) side … and I am taking notes, as I progress through the book, of those he favors.  So far I’ve made note of composers (Stefan Wolpe, Vagn Holmboe, Steve Reich, Conlon Nancarrow, Thomas Adès), conductors (Willem Mengelberg), and performers (Robert Levin, Andrew Manze).  I plan to visit (or re-visit) their music in the near future.

Mr. Taruskin will be making a (rare, I think) appearance in the New York City area on December 7, when he gives a talk at the CUNY Graduate Center on “Music in 21st-Century Society”.  (It’s free, but reservations are required; see .)  I wonder if he’ll remember me?


Update:  You can see/hear Taruskin’s CUNY talk here (he starts at 49:30)



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