For music only became autonomous when it stopped being useful; and this did not happen until conditions allowed such a thing to happen. — Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, Vol. I
Now that’s a provocative statement, and just one of many I’ve run into while dipping into the first and second volumes of Taruskin’s massive history of Western music.
Through all unlooked-for but much appreciated avenues, I now have in my possession those first two volumes (of five in total) in paperback, and when I have the chance, I’m deep in the study of how music in the early Christian church was mediated by Frankish monks into the suggestion of a tonal-centered system. It makes absolutely fascinating reading, and one of the reasons is Taruskin’s lively style (describing a chant, he talks about a “Kyrie sandwich,” for instance).
Taruskin is probably the best-known musicologist in the country today, in part because he writes for the popular press as well as the media organs of his discipline. I’ve not always agreed with things I’ve read of his, and he doesn’t mind getting into a scrap now and again.
But he knows how to tell this story with passion. I enjoyed my studies in music history in college, but I’ve always been geeky and liked that sort of thing anyway. Yet much as I liked it, my classes, and the material we read in them, were hardly the stuff of heated debate. All of it was good, of course, clear and understandable, but you wouldn’t go there if you needed to raise your temperature fast.
Taruskin’s work is another story. It’s authoritative, and yet at the same time, because of his disputatious style, it reads like the fresh findings of new and important research. It’s edgy and unsettled, which has a way of reminding us how vital this music was to its originators, and how vital it should still be to us today.
This is a good time to be reading this work, with the Christmas holidays upon us, because no other discrete, niche body of popular music is so richly grounded in the past except for communities where folksongs are still handed down by oral tradition. The nifty thing about Christmas music is that you can turn to an all-holiday music radio channel (traditional, satellite or Internet) and hear something like Good Christian Men, Rejoice, which is really In dulci jubilo and dates at least as far back as the mid-15th century, followed by someone singing White Christmas, a popular American song written in 1940 by an immigrant Russian Jewish refugee who escaped a Cossack raid and made a lasting contribution to the popular culture of his adoptive land.
History comes alive in junctions like that, and I think that’s one of the reasons I love the music of this time of year. I not only hear the history of countless people who came before me and heard the same songs, but I hear my own history, and that gives this body of music its unique, poignant power.
Taruskin’s work is not exactly for a general audience, but if you are interested in how Western music came to be and can navigate your way through notated examples, it’s well worth the time and effort to try and understand this magnificent story.