Taruskin Charges Again

Everyone with an opinion about the future of classical music should read Richard Taruskin’s elegantly brilliant article “The Musical Mystique” in last week’s New Republic. Once again, with razor-sharp points and machine-gun energy, he’s articulated things I deeply believe that I had never gotten around to formulating in words. His target this time is the Germanic view, prominent among the musical elites of America and Britain, that art and entertainment are different spheres, and we owe it to ourselves to eschew entertainment and cultivate a love of art because, well, because it’s art. His impetus is a trio of “Oh-my-god-classical-music-is-dying” books, and his well-supported conclusion is, classical music isn’t dying – it’s changing. Hallelujah, and pass the popcorn.

In my callow youth I was a proponent of the view Taruskin attacks, a real Adorno-ite, art-is-good-for-you, pop-music-dismisser. I’m stubborn as hell, and yet I got over it: why can’t other people? One of my best assets, I think, is a strong sense of musical reality, which I attribute to having been deeply exposed to music before I could talk. And even though I grew up rather shockingly distant from my generation’s beloved rock ‘n’ roll, my sense of reality told me fairly early on that there was nowhere to draw a line between the pleasure I got from listening to, say, Bruckner or Feldman, and the pleasure that I got from the occasional Brian Eno or Residents song that I was driven to listen to over and over again. And I slowly realized that I didn’t get that pleasure from listening to, oh, Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, or Carter’s Second Quartet, which I did out of a rather pious sense of duty and a feeling that they would build character. And then, of course, the new music, or Downtown music, or experimental music, or whatever delicate euphemism you terminophobes want to apply to the music that I wrote about at the Village Voice for 19 years, was a repertoire dedicated to plastering in the gigantic crack between pop and classical. Some of that music was more conventionally entertaining than other pieces, but there was no way to deeply appreciate that music and pretend that art and entertainment were separate human activities. I can boast a virtuoso range of ways to be entertained, but any music I’m not entertained by I quit listening to, no matter how highly ranked it is in the history books.

And this is the common-sense tack Taruskin takes, with plenty of erudite historical context. Why does any of us get into music except for pleasure? And why would a composer try to do anything in his music except elicit pleasure? Keeping in mind that there are thousands of varieties of musical pleasure, from the algebraic to the sensuous to the perverse to the brain-teasing to the cathartic – and that the pleasure of feeling smugly superior to one’s fellow man, which is also in there, is not a very healthy one. The people who praise Art and decry the lazy blandishments of Entertainment, he says, just happen, coincidentally, to be the very people who take upon themselves the prerogative to define what Art is for all humanity. What, Taruskin asks, are these authors’ “objective and abstract criteria of musical worth? Merely what any university or conservatory composition teacher will tell you they are.” “It is all too obvious by now,” he continues,

that teaching people that their love of Schubert makes them better people teaches them nothing but vainglory, and inspires attitudes that are the very opposite of humane….

There are at least as many reasons why they listen to classical music, of which to sit in solemn silence on a dull dark dock is only one. There will always be social reasons as well as purely aesthetic ones, and thank God for that. There will always be people who make money from it–and why not?–as well as those who starve for the love of it. Classical music is not dying; it is changing.

Let it change, let it change, let it change – that is this blog’s ubiquitous mantra. But I can’t do his rapier-etched argument justice, and I’m reduced to quoting him. You should just go read him.


  1. mclaren says

    The wailing and thrashing and gnashing of teeth and rending of clothes that goes on among American music criticis about the “death of classical music” never fails to crack me up. It illustrates once again how crudely cartoonish American views of culture have become.

    Other societies enjoy a more sophisticated view of culture. The dying god who gets continually reborn, from Egypt’s Osiris to the Greek deities Dionysus and Adonis to the Nosse god Balder to the Canaanite god Baal-Hadad who defied death and rose again to the johnny-come-lately Christ, the trope of the god who dies and comes back to life seems as old as the hills in other cultures. Since music is the god whom musicians worship, why should it prove startling that this god also continually dies and constantly gets reborn?

    But, no, Americans seem unable to get heads around that one. So American music critics wail with terror every time serious contemporary music goes through a sea-change, like cavemen howling with terror during a lunar eclipse because they think a dragon is eating the moon.

  2. mike says

    can;t get enough of Schoenbergs’ piano concerto–though a bit rythmically stiff, the pitches are transcendent, and the stucture is glorious-and for that matter Cartier’s 2nd quartet is not half bad—but I understand the jist of your wider arguement , point well taken–even if these little gems have to be sacrified for the greater good,

  3. Rodney Lister says

    Like you, I also had an enthusiastically positive reaction to the Taruskin article–more or less for the same reasons you state (as he did) very eloquently and well. What’s always gotten me very irritated in conversations of this type is when we get past the part about you (one) doesn’t HAVE to like the Carter or Babbitt 2nd quartet to the place where NOBODY could POSSIBLY like those pieces (as well as a piece by Feldman or Nancarrow or Crawford or Thomson or Percy Grainger, say, or anything else–fill in the blank), and if they say they do, they have to be either lying or brain-washed. As far as I’m concerned that amounts to the same thing as saying you can’t like anything but Carter.

  4. says

    good stuff. I haven’t read the entire article yet, but I”m pretty sure I agree.
    I spend a good amount of time with my middle school students telling them that it’s cool to like “fitty-cent”, but the more you know about music, there more there is to like. check out this Holst, or Sibelius, and wait till you hear this crazy Gann guy…
    rock on.

  5. says

    I have read the piece many times now, and like you I am so impressed the Taruskin’s arguments and way of arguing that I feel there is nothing for me to say in response. I realize that I really like what might be called “old school” thinking. Writing based on a lifetime of questioning and building up a store of knowledge on which to base perceptions of the world is far sturdier than much of the criticism I have read by very smart younger people who think that they have “it” all figured out.

  6. peter says

    I agree with your and Taruskin’s main argument, and, moreover, I would add that there is nothing “mere” about writing, performing or listening to music for reasons of entertainment. However, it is worth remembering that music may have many other valid purposes as well. Examples include:
    – To evoke moods (either as music on its own, or as part of other art forms, such as cinema).
    – To inspire people to action (see, eg, the music of the 19th nationalists — Verdi, Chopin, Dvorak, Sibelius, und so very many weiter).
    – To express solidarity and communality (whether as performers or listeners: see Mark Evan Bonds’ great book on how Beethoven’s symphonies were perceived by their audience as expressions of and occasions for communality).
    – To put the listener in the mood for altered mental states (eg, trances or other religious experiences).
    – As a form of prayer itself.
    – To channel messages from the spirit world – as any Zimbabwean mbira player will tell he is doing when playing.
    – etc.
    We can write, perform and listen to music for lots of other reasons beside entertainment.

  7. rb says

    Sorry, Kyle. I like your blog and in fact recently recommended it on a Boston website. But I found Taruskins “arguments” stupid beyond alldescription; in fact, the Germanophobe sections (and I agree with some of Taruskin’s views) reminded me of Ayn Rand’s followers’ “Liberals-Enabled-Nazis” hysterics of a few years ago in its step-by-step argumentative fallacies: half-truths and omissions covered by bluster. But instead of going into all of this, Soho The Dog/Matthew Guerrieri — a much better writer than I am — has a better bead on the weeds in Taruskin’s thoughts. To top it off, the fracas Mr. T deliberately set off has resulted in a spike in the books’ sales; obviously the man has more ego than common sense, and it shows through the article’s miles of logistical logorrhea.

  8. Merwin says

    As Calvin in the brilliant comic strip Calvin and Hobbes would say, when in doubt, challenge all terms and definitions.
    I think there isn’t 100% agreement on the definitions of the words ‘art’ and ‘entertainment.’ I am guessing that you are approaching the word ‘entertainment’ as the providing of pleasure or enjoyment. A recent guest speaker (Eric Booth, a Juilliard faculty member – I apologize profusely to Eric if I mangled his concept) proposed a somewhat different definition. An artistic experience is one that explores the unknown; an entertainment experience is one that explores the familiar. As a result, the same composition can be an artistic experience for one listener, and an entertaining experience for another listener. That being said, composer/creator intent obviously plays a large role – in this person’s definition, Finnegan’s Wake would be largely ‘artistic’ for most readers, as it exists outside the boundaries of what most readers would be familiar with. A Mozart Divertimento would be largely ‘entertaining’ for most of his intended listeners, as they remain fundamentally within the familiar expectations of the time period. Whether one experience is ‘artistic’ or ‘entertaining’ would, in this definition, and in my view, have little to do with the amount of pleasure the experience conveys.
    I enjoyed that definition, as I found it avoided value judgement, and makes category boundaries semi-permeable.
    KG replies: As someone whose music is an explicit attempt to blend the unknown and the familiar, I find a certain attraction in the definition – though it may also make all my music ambiguous.

  9. says

    I didn’t know there still was a “Germanic” view. Do the Germans promote it, or just Americans & Brits?
    KG replies: Taruskin reports that the Germans have dropped it, and it’s an American and British problem now.

  10. Jeff Dunn says

    I’m surprise that Taruskin did not mention Charles Rosen and his elitist views on “difficult music” that were propounded in the New York Review of Books about 10 years ago.
    A typical quote of judgmentalism: “Perhaps the public would not mind sitting through a work by [Malcolm] Arnold, but he inspires no passion except in a few English critics happy to find a native work that does not grate on their nerves with horrid dissonance.”