The Taruskin Style

A really fine historical argument can be written with as much artfulness as any sonata form movement, and thus is equally as ripe for formal analysis, as any student of rhetoric will tell you. RT’s “The Comic Style” (Ch. 8 of vol. II) is just such a chapter. Here is a rough-and-ready outline of its rhetorical structure:

  • present a problem: Though historians have tried for generations, we can’t get from Bach and Handel to Mozart and Haydn in a single straight line.
  • offer a feint that only draws out the nature of the problem: W.F. Bach seems a predecessor of Mozart and Haydn, but diverges from JS Bach in several mysterious (for the sake of suspense in the argument) reasons
  • make the problem even worse by adding other unexplained evidence: CPE and JC Bach
  • then, when the desire for a resolution has been whipped to a fervor, offer it: The comic style of 18th century opera—especially in its naturalness—was the germ that spread to all late 18th-century style.

I know how paltry this stripped down recounting of the argument must seem. It’s like showing you the skeleton of a peacock and telling you to imagine the true glory of its plumage. You simply have to read it yourself to get the full effect. But it got me thinking about how a structural analysis of the argument of many of Taruskin’s chapters in the OHWM would generously repay the analyst.

Pardon a momentary effusiveness, but allow me to step back and say wow. It is truly remarkable that RT maintains such a high level of writing craft throughout this behemoth work. It’s like Telemann—in all that prolificacy, you would think that there have to be some bad apples, right? At some point, Taruskin must have just stitched together an argument, gotten lazy—and who would fault him for one pedestrian argument anyway, as long as the logic was sound? But if there are seams in the writing, they are hardly noticeable, a fact that not only displays his skill, but sheer diligence. And if I’m getting carried away and exaggerating, it’s only a little bit.

Okay, effusiveness abated. Here’s my question to you all as fellow students and practitioners of writing: what is that one essay that you keep going back to as a model of how to craft an argument? That article that, when a student asks you how to craft an argument you say, “read this.” Musicological writing would be preferred, but interdisciplinary examples are game too. And in a few words, tell us why the writing caught your eye.


  1. Brenda Large says:

    OK. I have started to read on March 26. Not promising to keep up with you, but just want to congratulate you on your noble project.
    Please keep it funny whenever possible – and logical. Otherwise, stick to pointing out material everybody needs to know.

  2. Zach Wallmark says:

    Wow, good question. Hmm. Here are a few things I’ve read recently that have really impressed me:

    Jann Passler. “The Utility of Musical Instruments in the Racial and Colonial Agendas of Late Nineteenth-Century France.” (Journal of the Royal Music Association 12/1, 2004): Archival research doesn’t get any more meticulously researched and vividly articulated as this. An amazing piece of scholarly writing.

    Carolyn Abbate. “Music – Drastic or Gnostic?” (Critical Inquiry 30/3, 2004): I don’t buy all of Abbate’s premises here, but it’s a startling fresh read about a *huge* question in music scholarship. Bound to provoke thought whether you agree with her or not.

    Timothy Taylor. “The Commodification of Music at the Dawn of the Era of ‘Mechanical Music.” (Ethnomusicology 51, 2007): Drawing from archival material, economic theory, and the history of technology, Taylor weaves a fascinating argument about a neglected piece of music technology – the player piano. Great integration of social history, economics, and music.

  3. DCG says:

    New reader, totally sucked in!

    This is a dissection of the idea of ‘extra-musical’ or non-absolute interpretation. I don’t necessarily agree, but it’s very interestingly put together.

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