Musicologist Richard Taruskin, who died on July 1 at the age of 77, once recalled a note he’d received from his colleague Susan McClary, saying that the two were “among the few comic writers in an otherwise grim and humorless discipline.”
At times, this could be “funny ha-ha.” After quoting a set of debatable claims made about Tchaikovsky by 19th-century critic Vladimir Stasov, who concluded that the composer’s anti-nationalistic style “suited Europe to a T,” Taruskin responded: “Lucky bastard!” before moving into a debunking of Stasov’s arguments. Other times, Taruskin was downright salty. He had a low tolerance for bullshit, though at times his views on what constituted bullshit could be myopic. Composer John Adams compared some of Taruskin’s non-academic writings to watching true crime: “There must always be a body count at the end, whether the target is Prokofiev, Shostakovich scholars, or anyone else he decides to humiliate.” (Taruskin himself republished this quote in his 2008 book, The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays.)
Still, if anyone advocated for holding two truths at the same time, it was Taruskin. His writing was enlightening, explicit, explosive, emphatic, epigrammatic, eristical, and earnest in its commitment to drawing back the curtain on works of music (particularly those by Russian composers of the 19th and 20th centuries) for general audiences as well as academic peers, placing them into context with the trained eye and steady hand of a jeweler.
Modest Mussorgsky: Prelude to “Khovanshchina” (1886)
It’s fair to say that most concertgoers are more likely to have heard the Prelude to Mussorgsky’s posthumously-completed “Khovanshchina” than they are to have heard the entire work. A favorite among encore pieces, it rises up like mists off the water, spinning itself into five-and-a-half sublime minutes of music, before sinking back down into the depths of history.
Taruskin’s essay on “Khovanshchina,” published in 1982 as part of his book Mussorgsky: Eight Essays and an Epilogue, reconciles this prologue to the rest of the work, which he regards as “no mere ‘historical opera,’” but rather “nothing less than an operatic meditation on history.” Tracing the work’s posthumous assembly by colleagues and friends after Mussorgsky’s death from alcoholism in 1881, Taruskin points out the holes in logic left by a barely-touched score, its compulsively complex creator, and the good intentions of those who tried to complete it. Mussorgsky “had his own reasons for a pessimistic, skeptical view of Russian history. It was a view already quite explicitly embodied in the final scene of the revised ‘Boris Godunov,’ which ends pianissimo, with the lonely Simpleton keening a dirge for his unhappy motherland on a stage littered with destruction. And it is a view that is entirely glossed over in our conventional image of the composer,” Taruskin wrote of Mussorgsky’s political motivations, the parsing of which is central to understanding this work—which is full of musical beauty but easily bogged down by a series of actors and events that require an AP cheat sheet. Taruskin’s essay becomes that cheat sheet and a work of beauty in its own right:
“And this is perhaps the central message of an opera in which personal volition is everywhere set at nought; in which everyone plots and strives and everyone loses; in which the final stage picture is one in which the last survivors of the old order, the opera’s only morally undefiled characters, are seen resolutely stepping out of history and into eternity, where Peter cannot touch them.”
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Ezra Pound: “Le Testament de Villon” (1923)
Not every composer Taruskin covered was destined to quit their day job. “The career of no other artist, perhaps, so nakedly exposes the fineness of the line dividing crackpot from genius,” Taruskin wrote of poet and sometime composer Ezra Pound for the New York Times in 2003. “Pound’s crackpot theories of social, racial and economic justice famously landed him in a mental hospital (the only alternative to prison) after World War II.…And those theories drove him to compose music despite a confessed inability—vouched for by his fellow poets William Carlos Williams and W. B. Yeats, among others—to carry a tune.” Pound’s efforts as a composer culminated with his 1923 opera “Le Testament de Villon,” based on the poetry of 15th-century Frenchman François Villon. This is the one work that, in Taruskin’s view, “constitutes Ezra Pound’s slim sound claim to musical immortality.”
Pound’s fascination with the troubadours of Villon’s era made Pound a good mimic for troubadour melodies and what was believed at the time to be the historical practices of their era. “But Pound was after far more than historical verisimilitude; and here the crackpot took over,” Taruskin wrote.
Igor Stravinsky: Concerti per Due Pianoforti Soli (1935)
In his 1997 book, Defining Russia Musically, Taruskin traced a quote ascribed to a Cold War-era Igor Stravinsky insisting “not on music as metaphor, but on ‘music itself,’” a phrase Stravinsky introduced in his post-War serial period. Not one to suffer fools, even if that fool’s name rhymed with Schmigor Schmavinsky, Taruskin seized on this idea of art-for-art’s sake and gave it a TKO. “The need for such constructions lies in the actions—and the exclusions—that they enable,” he wrote in a Defining Russia chapter, “Stravinsky and the Subhuman,” adding: “So maybe it were better to say that…[the notion of] music itself acts as a cordon sanitaire, a quarantine staking out a decontaminated space within which music can be composed, performed, and listened to in a cultural and historical vacuum, that is, in perfect sterility.”
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (1824)
Taruskin advocated for an understanding of music devoid of sterility. Mixing it with the germs of everyday life only made music—and our understanding of it—stronger. Reflecting on the holiness associated with Beethoven’s Ninth, he linked it to the humanitarian efforts of cellist Pablo Casals and Leonard Bernstein’s Christmas performance of the piece in a newly-wall-less Berlin in 1989. But, as Taruskin pointed out, the Ninth was a political weapon for all sides of the spectrum, a fact underscored in a 1942 performance given by Wilhelm Furtwängler for Adolf Hitler’s 53rd birthday—the video footage of which still survives. “That 1942 performance is a painful thing to witness now, especially the handshake between Dr. Furtwängler and Dr. Goebbels at the end,” Taruskin wrote in 2013. “Such a reminder of the transitivity or relativity of noble aspirations (for, make no mistake, the Nazis certainly thought of their cause as holy) can cast a countershadow over The Ninth, as it has compromised the pretensions of high art to the moral high ground generally.”
Stravinsky: “The Rite of Spring” (1913)
Focusing on Russian music was a risk at the time that Taruskin studied musicology; the composers he focused on were, in his own term, “ghettoized” from the canon. While his writings helped change that, Taruskin was unafraid to poke holes into the myths styled by these very same composers. His comment on Furtwängler conducting Beethoven comes from an essay not on the Ninth, but rather “The Rite of Spring,” published during the work’s centennial year in 2013. In “Resisting the Rite,” Taruskin linked a work decried as sacrilege upon its 1913 premiere to the later epithets it would soon accrue, including the shopworn Beethoven adjective of “universal.” Leading this revisionist history was Stravinsky himself.
“The ‘Rite’ had been pressed into the service of the postwar ‘dehumanized’ esthetic, later to be dubbed ‘neoclassical’; and Stravinsky’s voice was the loudest and most insistent of all in repositioning it—indeed, in rewriting its history and revising its meaning, all the while refusing to acknowledge that he was doing anything of the sort.” Taruskin hones in on Stravinsky’s insistence in his later years that he had always seen the work as a concert piece rather than a ballet. “Of course he did,” Taruskin wrote. “When performed that way it was unencumbered by those aspects of the work that (he must have thought) had been the greatest obstacles to its success in 1913, and besides, he could take all the credit for it as a concert piece.”
This statement also contradicted earlier comments given by Stravinsky to a reporter in 1920, which contextualized the “Rite” as a Gesamtkunstwerk that relied, in no small part, on the visuals and scenario devised by painter Nicholas Roerich—who Stravinsky all but erased, Stalin-like, from the work’s history. “One could say with little exaggeration that [Stravinsky] spent the second half of his life telling lies about the first half,” Taruskin concludes. But those lies also become part of the history, fascinating in and of themselves for what they reveal about the composer—veneers for truths more compelling than fiction.
Sergei Prokofiev: “Alexander Nevsky” (1938)
Born in New York in 1945 to “a family of Yiddish-speaking émigrés from the Russian empire,” many of whom were either Communists or Socialists, Taruskin’s fascination with Russian composers was both understandable and prescient. He would, after all, study their works in a shifting Cold Warzone, culminating with the fall of the USSR in 1991. In fact, the empire crumbled just months after the Prokofiev centennial, which—given how far in advance orchestral programs are planned—had unintended consequences for many musicians.
“Nobody could have foreseen that performing [Prokofiev’s ‘Alexander Nevsky’] in January 1990 would so sharply pose the old question of ‘political’ art,” Taruskin wrote in the New York Times, referencing a performance given by Kurt Masur and the San Francisco Symphony. Referencing Stalin, he added: “The film, conceived in opportunism and fear, glorified the person and served the policies of a vicious tyrant who was just then gorging himself with special gusto on the blood of his countrymen. It was executed under the supervision of whole cadres of apparatchiks, with a notorious party watchdog in the title role. The cantata was an attempt, on the part of a newly returned composer who had been learning some painful lessons in the facts of Soviet cultural life, to ride the movie’s coattails to elusive official approbation. Both film and music were shamelessly hyperbolic, dramaturgically blatant. They were, in short, propaganda. Could such a project possibly give rise to a first-class work of art?”
Again, Taruskin was chafing against the idea that music can be divorced from politics, an attitude that seems to be reinforced by the cyclical nature of history. Times readers were not persuaded. “The fact that Prokofiev lived in Russia at the same time as Stalin should not affect the way we listen to his music,” complained one reader. “Should we not also discard Wagner because Adolf Hitler liked his music…?” Another wrote: “Now along comes Mr. Taruskin, suggesting we bid farewell to ‘Alexander Nevsky’; suggesting we stop listening to one of the most skillful, inspiring and accessible works of the period because of its alleged political incorrectness; suggesting, more broadly, that we measure the sky-aspiring world of art by the mundane ruler of politics.”
Taruskin, being Taruskin, offered a response that rings just as relevant in 2022 as it did in 1991:
“I am sorry I did not flatter Prokofiev enough to please his admirers on his birthday, but he is dead. My concern is with the living. I cannot help seeing a connection between the complacency of artists and art lovers who ignore or condemn all questions of social value and the debased role of art now plays at the margins of our culture.”
"I am sorry I did not flatter Prokofiev enough to please his admirers on his birthday, but he is dead." A Richard Taruskin Playlist via @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet
Sergei Taneyev: “The Libation Bearers: Elektra, Orestes, Women’s Chorus” from “The Oresteia” (1895)
“The reason why Russia has so stubbornly remained exotic has also had to do with its political and cultural isolation in the twentieth century,” Taruskin wrote in a 2011 article for the journal 19th-Century Music, examining the fetishization of nationalism in Russian music and the exoticism that bloomed from that ground. In the same article, he recalled a Society for Music Theory conference in which a presenter, discussing Russian composer Sergei Taneyev, “went out of his way to inform the audience that Taneyev’s compositions were ‘without conspicuous nationalistic elements.’” This was presented as a defect in the composer’s style, and when Taruskin questioned the need to make this point, he was told by the presenter that “it answered ‘a natural question’ about a Russian composer.” He reflected that the incident got him “thinking seriously for the first time about the pitfalls of essentialism.”
Taneyev was a composer whose work, most notably his grand triptych based on Aeschylus’s dramatic trilogy, defied many Russian conventions of the time, both musical and dramatic. Instead of Russian history or fairy tales (or the fine line that toed both), Taneyev opted for a libretto rooted in Greek tragedy. His hours logged in Parisian opera boxes at a time when the grand operas of Verdi, Meyerbeer, Massenet, and Gounod ruled the stage are reflected in his dramatic reveals and grand reconciliations, such as the reunion duet between Oreste and Elektra. (At times, he even veers into the epic Wagnerian gestures of “Lohengrin” and “Tannhäuser.”)
Without making the connection explicit, Taruskin mentioned “The Oresteia” in the same journal article, where he deconstructed both the exoticism of isolation and the pitfalls of essentialism. The exotic, capital-C Classical trappings of Aeschylus’s triptych—which covers Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon, her own subsequent murder at the hands of her son Orestes, and Orestes’s eventual trial by furies—obscure a somewhat ordinary tale of history and power. It’s also a work whose meaning is easily manipulated to serve what theater scholar Avra Sidiropoulou calls the “essentialist attitudes of the ruling authority.” In his Grove entry on the opera, Taruskin suggests the fragility of both meaning and essence when he notes that the opera (a failure upon its premiere) experienced a rare revival in Moscow on the eve of the 1917 Revolution.
Dmitri Shostakovich: Act II, Scene 5 from “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (1934)
One of the biggest and brightest musicological molotov cocktails Taruskin threw in his career was in response to Testimony, Solomon Volkov’s purported memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. He wasn’t the first to call foul on a book that made Stravinsky’s revisionist history seem like shades-of-gray detail in comparison, and credits fellow musicologist Laurel Fay with the initial “meticulous” fact-checking that “absolutely demolished [the book’s] credibility.” In an article for The New Republic, however, Taruskin took aim at the film adaptation of Testimony (starring a post-“Gandhi” Ben Kingsley as Shostakovich).
Most notably, he argues against both the book and the movie’s treatment of the premiere of Shostakovich’s opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” its denunciation in Pravda, and subsequent ban in Stalin’s Russia. “Everyone knows it as the opera Stalin personally repressed. That, according to Volkov and [‘Testimony’ director Tony] Palmer, is reason enough to love it.”
Taruskin argues that what Shostakovich portrays in his opera is Stalinistic in its own right: a tale of class warfare. Katerina murders her husband because “he is the beneficiary of the social system that oppressed his wife, and that suffices to justify his ‘liquidation.’ And all of this is conveyed to us by the music alone.… So ineluctably has the opera come to symbolize pertinacity in the face of despotism that it is almost impossible to see it clearly now as an embodiment of that very despotism. The fate of ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’ opened Shostakovich’s eyes to the nature of the regime under which he was condemned to live. It could be argued that the work’s martyrdom humanized its creator. And yet the opera remains a profoundly inhumane work of art. Its chilling treatment of the victims amounts to a justification of genocide.” ¶