RT on Historical (Mis)understanding

Our modern (mis)understandings of the past are not mistakes but the products of changed historical conditions. We value in Gesualdo something his contemporaries could not have valued, because we know what they (and he) did not – namely, their future, which is now our past. That knowledge can hardly be erased from our consciousness.

So what interests us now bespeaks our condition and no one else’s. No amount of historical learning can replace new understanding with old understanding. All one can hope to do is add depth and detail to our misunderstanding. (That is where the sacred music and the instrumental music can usefully fit into even the most biased modern appreciation of Gesualdo.) If that seems a paradoxical thing to say, that has been precisely the intention.  (739-741)


  1. Paul says:

    How do you think Taruskin’s statement sits with the exhortation in the introduction to ask not ‘what does music mean?’ but rather ‘what has music meant?’? Is it possible to answer such a question, and is there any point in asking it, if we are destined simply to deepen our misunderstanding?

  2. Zach Wallmark says:

    Excellent question, Paul — I in no way would presume to have an answer to this, but here are a few thoughts

    I would argue that the primary goal of historiography is in the asking of these questions, not in the actual answers. If it’s a metaphysical impossibility that we will ever truly understand what music meant since we are products of a completely different cultural and historical moment, then the answer to the question sort of becomes ancillary to the process of asking it. In exploring historical questions, we try to accumulate as many facts about a particular subject as possible, we delve into the primary sources, we postulate possible meanings and value systems in a particular music, and at the end of the day, I think that this process in itself has value, irrespective of the absolute Truth content of the resulting conclusion. RT’s “..add depth and detail to our misunderstanding” is perhaps an inopportune choice of words: it implies that our misunderstanding “deepens” the more we dig into historical research of a topic. I wouldn’t say that we’re destined to “deepen our misunderstanding” in this sense at all. Rather, I would say that the process of asking these historical questions and attempting to find possible answers adds depth and detail to our understanding that there will always be, to some degree, a misunderstanding.

    1. Paul says:

      And Zach that is an excellent answer to a provocatively phrased question . I would add just one proviso, and that is that the value of historical investigation is not ‘irrespective of the absolute Truth content of the resulting conclusion’. It seems to me that historical musicology is valued more highly if it presents as a genuine attempt at the truth. Thus, while we acknowledge that we will never fully – or even substantially – understand the musics of the past, our investigations have value precisely because this is what they aim at, and we value the very best examples of historical musicology because they seem to us to approach historical reality most closely.

  3. Mark Samples says:

    As Taruskin is fond of saying to his students (paraphrased to the best of my memory), “If you want certainty, join the clergy.”

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