Some of you know that I’ve been working on the five volumes of Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music for some years now.  I’ve made it to Volume 5, Music in the Late 20th Century, and, as usual, Dr. Taruskin has grabbed my attention with thought-provoking ideas that may or may not match up with what other musicologists think, but that certainly make a lot of sense to me.  He started out with the premise that he could only write about the history of the literate genres of music, those that have been written down so that future musicians could study and perform them.  Alarmingly to those of us who think literate genres are really good things, Taruskin postulates that their history is drawing to an end.  I am not happy to hear it, but luckily the tradition of written music will probably outlast me, and I won’t have to mourn it unless I choose to do so ahead of time.  I think perhaps I’ll not borrow trouble and just keep on with my slow process through a very long, but very absorbing book.

One reason that it is takeing me so long to read these books is because I never read just one thing at a time.  My other current book is Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America by John Charles Chasteen, which I’ve just finished.  Oddly enough the connection between the two books is the cold war, which certainly was a large part of my growing up and, because of my Dad’s firm convictions about it, remained in family discussions all while he lived with us.

In Dr. Chasteen’s book, the chapter on the cold war details how decisions made in that mind-set affected Pan American relationships.  Either a country was communist or it was our friend.  This is the kind of oversimplification that pleases no one but politicians.  With hindsight, many of these starkly deliniated ideas seem pretty questionable. 

Similarly Dr. Taruskin takes to task the idea that objects of art and ideas may only exist in dichotomy, being either this or that.  I remember Chapter 29 in our trusty Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca about dichotomies in late 19th century music.  One had to be Wagnerian or anti-Wagnerian, for example, or favor old music versus new music, orchestral rather than operatic.  Although these distinctions make a readily understandable framework for students to grasp some of the main ideas, Taruskin says that it is a senseless distinction to ask “The Great Either/Or”, that “There is nothing a priori to rule out both/and rather than either/or.” (V5, p. xv)

I’m not far into the book, but I think he’s going to attack the great cultural divide between classical and popular music.  Not so radical an idea since many composers today have moved right ahead in combining styles – with the same good effects that Mozart created when he did the same thing.  Anyway, I look forward to continuing with Dr. Taruskin’s thoughts, and I can heartily recommend both Taruskin and Chasteen as wonderful writers with the ability to set their thoughts out clearly and convincingly.