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Musicologist Richard Taruskin has Died, Aged 77

The American classical music scholar, who authored a six-volume history of Western music, was considered one of the most important musicologists of his time


Venerated musicologist Dr. Richard Taruskin, died in a hospital in Oakland, California from oesophageal cancer, according to his wife.

An emeritus musicology professor at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), Taruskin was a Russian music specialist with a particular interest in composer Igor Stravinsky, on whom he produced many scholarly writings.

Born in 1945 in New York City, in Queens, Taruskin’s father was a lawyer and amateur violinist, and his mother a former piano teacher. Taruskin began learning the cello at age 11 and attended what is now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. During this time, he reportedly read every music history book at the New York Public Library, according to The Washington Post.

He later studied music and Russian at Columbia University, where he remained to complete his doctorate — researching early music and 19th-century Russian opera under the mentorship of music historian Paul Henry Lang

Holding a teaching position at Columbia University during his postgraduate studies, Taruskin began freelancing in New York playing the viola da gamba, and led a choral group performing Renaissance repertoire. He published his first book in 1981, and in 1986, he joined the UCB faculty until his retirement in 2014.

As reported by the New York Times, Taruskin’s 2005 “Oxford History of Western Music” of six volumes, including the index, developed from his undergraduate lectures at UCB. In over 4,000 pages, the text provides detailed analyses and contextualization of classical music from 800 AD to the end of the 20th century — presenting musical history as also involving argumentation, politics, and power.

“His example completely changed the way I do research,” said Mary Ann Smart, Taruskin’s UCB colleague in the San Francisco Chronicle. “He taught scholars to track what music means to people in a given moment, rather than what a piece means across time. And the whole field went along with him on that.”

In the mid-1980s, Taruskin became a music critic for the NY Times and was published in the New Republic. He drew attention for his criticisms of composers Carl Orff, Arnold Schoenberg, and Sergei Prokofiev, plus contemporary American composers such as Milton Babbitt, Donald Martino, and Elliott Carter.

Often tangled in controversy, Taruskin challenged preconceived ideas about well-known works and sparred for years with music theorist Pieter van den Toorn — to whom he eventually dedicated one of his books, with “public adversary, private pal” as its inscription.

Advancing the idea that the classical canon’s inviolable status has been due to political forces, Taruskin believed that pushing against certain dogmas could help classical music break out of its marginal status in some American communities.

“I have always considered it important for musicologists to put their expertise at the service of ‘average consumers’ and alert them to the possibility that they are being hoodwinked, not only by commercial interests but by complaisant academics, biased critics, and pretentious performers,” wrote Taruskin in a 1994 essay — which became part of his book of papers titled, “Text and Act” in 1995.

Before his death, Taruskin was working on a book of essays that would serve as an intellectual biography. One of his last books was the 2020 compilation, “Cursed Questions: On Music and Its Social Practices.” 

Taruskin’s awards include Japan’s prestigious Kyoto Prize, which he received in 2017, and a conference in his honor was held at Princeton University in 2012.

“Richard was a beloved and deeply engaged member of the Berkeley faculty,” wrote UCB music department chair, David Milnes, on Facebook. “[His] teaching and research inspired generations of students and transformed the field of musicology.”

Dr. Taruskin is survived by his wife, son, daughter, siblings, and two grandchildren. Our condolences to his family, friends, students, and colleagues.

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