The Taruskin Challenge’s 200th Post


(click on the image for a bigger scale)

Many weeks and pages after beginning our project, The Taruskin Challenge has reached its 200th post. To commemorate, I used a handy tool to create this visual representation of the content of our blog. What you see here is a scaled representation of the words in all of our posts and all of the comments up through our 199th post (all 150,000 of them, give or take). Greater size indicates greater frequency of the word (common English words like “and” or “to” are discounted). It’s an interesting and, I think, insightful way to look back over the project so far, as we approach its end.

Our Weight is Lifted: The OHWM Online

The folks over at Oxford University Press (OUP) recently rolled out the latest component in the OHWM ecosystem: an online version of Taruskin’s complete text, accessible through a institutional or individual subscription. A few weeks ago, the people over at OUP gave me advance access to the database, which allowed me to poke around and ponder some of the advantages and potential disadvantages of this new iteration of the OHWM.

The first advantage is perhaps the most obvious: it makes the OHWM portable. “Portable” is definitely not a word used to describe the series up to now. Virtually every story written about Taruskin’s opus has mentioned its formidable size, this blog included (more than once).  My non-virtual edition (that is, the paperback one) of the OHWM lives at home, and I almost never take it with me to school or class, for practical reasons. I certainly have never taken the entire set out of the house at once. There have been several times over the last year when, in the final preparations for teaching a music history class, I suddenly think of something in the OHWM that would go perfectly in the lecture. Whereas before I would have to file it away “for next time,” having access to this database anywhere, anytime, could bring more of those potential teaching moments to immediate reality.

The second advantage I noticed was the searching capability, which allows the reader to investigate conceptual threads throughout all volumes. Search “passus duriusculus,” for instance, and you immediately get an at-a-glance perspective of this rich concept’s pervasive presence in Taruskin’s history.

From my limited interaction with the site (my preview access has expired), it seems like a fairly straightforward porting of the text from page to screen, with only a few bells and whistles. The pages are parsed out by section (rather than chapter), so that the text comes in relatively small chunks, equivalent to a few “real” pages at a time. All musical examples and images are incorporated into the flow of the text (with a handy “Art Credits” link). Though each entry is placed within the flow of the overall text via the table of contents sidebar, the interface encourages various reading experiences other than the traditional linear one. You can skip around, search key terms, or click on the related links to outside material from Grove Music Online. While I can see some benefits of these alternate strategies, I can’t help but feel that the overall narrative and argumentative arc of the history, which Taruskin has crafted so consistently and skillfully, will be lost on more casual users of the site.

One opportunity that I would like to see pursued is the development of even more interconnectivity with Oxford Music Online. Currently, Taruskin’s sections link to Grove online, but it doesn’t look like that connection is a two-way one. It would be nice, with a single search, to receive results from Grove Music Online, the Oxford Companion to Music, the Oxford Dictionary Online, and the OHWM. I don’t know if this is even possible (for legal reasons) or ultimately desirable (for philosophical ones), but the prospect is a tantalizing one. I can easily imagine a distinct benefit for the end user.

In my opinion, the best way to experience the OHWM is to read it straight through, on paper. This is the way Taruskin conceived of it, and his writing shows that he took the long-form medium seriously. I also see the immense practicality the digital OHWM will bring to its current readers, and the increased dissemination of the material to potential readers. In other words, I like both; I want both. Can I have my cake and eat a virtual version of it too?

But now I ask you: If you had access to this database, how/when/why would you use it? Would you do all your reading on the site, or only when you were away from your paper copy? If you don’t own a paper copy, would you feel a need to buy one given that it’s all there online?

Dramatic Tension

Over the next few weeks, you may notice that our posts are slightly out of sync with our posted weekly readings. Since Zach and I have not been able to post as much as we would like over the last weeks, we are going to go back and work through some of the fascinating content Taruskin covers: symphonies, concertos, “the anatomy of a joke,” and plenty more. We both felt it was more important to take our time and really dig into the content of these chapters than to rush past them simply for the sake of scheduling. So the reading schedule will trudge on as planned to the end of this volume, with our essays in slight tension with the page numbers posted. But don’t worry—now that we have reached our FOP, we can gradually work our way back into resolution with the reading by the time we reach Vol. III.

Welcome New Readers!

If you’ve just found the site, this post will give you a brief tour:

The Taruskin Challenge is meant to foster conversation about music history, the discipline of musicology, and many related topics that are engendered from reading our way through Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music. You’ll find mini-essays on composers, styles, and especially on theories and practice of historiography (try here, here, here, or here to start). You’ll also find frequent musical and video examples, and we make weekly reviews of the readings. Make sure to take a look at our about our project page. Also, we have begun compiling a list of “Musicology Must-Reads,” an un-scientific gathering of exemplary musicological books (read the explanation here and find the page itself here). The must-reads list is meant for interested students just getting into musicology, for grad students to round out their reading lists, or just to see what your colleagues are reading. Take a look around, and we hope you feel welcome enough to join in the discussion.

RT on the Politics of Music

In today’s society, it may not be superfluous to observe, the charge of “political correctness” is almost invariably made by members of privileged groups against the claims and concerns of the less privileged. It is a way of warding off threats to privilege. “Classical music,” like all “high art,” has always been, and remains, primarily a possession of social and cultural elites. (That, after all, is what makes it “high.”) This is so even in a society like ours, where social mobility is greater than in most societies, and where entry into elites can come about for reasons (like education, for example) that may be unrelated to birth or wealth. To maintain that “classical music” is by nature (or by definition) apolitical is therefore a complacent position to assume, and a rather parlous one. Complacency in support of a not universally supported status quo can serve, in today’s world, to marginalize and even discredit both the practice and the appreciation of art.     (II, 112)


I’ve rarely strayed outside of our topic on this blog, but I wanted to take a moment to encourage everyone to visit the following websites to make a donation. Haiti has been absolutely battered in the last couple of years, but yesterday’s earthquake pushed the suffering quotient to a heartbreaking peak. We should all do what we can to help out. [On a more personal level, my fiance Marie was born in Haiti, and during my years living in Miami, I was welcomed with open arms into the community. My Haitian soon-to-be family are some of the most gracious and big-hearted people I know and have taught me a good deal about perseverance, bravery, and compassion. America can learn a lot from Haiti.]

The White House Blog: Good gov’t resource with quick, easy ways to help. Complete with Obama’s recent address on the catastrophe. To donate $10 right now, text “Haiti” to 90999. (It will show up on your cell bill.)

US Aid: An effective, far-reaching organization.

American Red Cross

Wyclef Jean’s Yéle Haiti: A great aid organization established by Wyclef.

Oxfam: British charity organization

Doctors Without Borders: Numerous hospitals have collapsed and urgent medical attention is needed.

New Feature

To inaugurate both Volume Two and the new year, it is with great pleasure that we announce the addition of a new feature to the blog – the Musicology Must-Reads List!

The list comes out of a basic question that we have at various points in our academic lives both asked and answered: What is this music scholarship thing and what could I read to get a glimpse of the major issues and questions in the field? Of course, every musicologist has a very different answer to this question, and the sheer range and diversity of perspectives in the discipline have perhaps led many musicologists to stay clear of list-making entirely. There’s a real shortage of basic resources for the curious neophyte and the interested student out there, and this feature is the TC’s humble attempt at rectifying this paucity.

The goal of the must-reads list is to provide an organic, constantly growing compendium of outstanding pieces of music scholarship. It is in no way an attempt to form a “canon” of Great Music Books, nor is there any claim of comprehensiveness; indeed, there will be unexpected items on the list, and things that we left off that really should be there. That’s why the list will rely in large part on contributions and comments from TC readers. Please add your suggestions, corrections, musical invective, praise, criticism, and whatever else. Mark and I will add all suggestions to the page.

Instead of foolhardily attempting our version of a definitive list, the must-reads page features books that represent personal engagements with the field. We surveyed a group of music scholars and graduate students on what books really sparked their imaginations, exposed them to new possibilities, and influenced their work and the discipline in general. Nothing was edited out. After compiling the list, we placed all entries into five broad categories for the sake of convenience (not out of an uncritical adherence to disciplinary divisions). Of course, this is just a starting point; along with your help, the list will expand over time.

We’ve also set up a personalized page with where you can purchase all the books on the list. For each purchase, the TC will receive a small commission that will go into a blog fund for future features and maybe even a party at an upcoming AMS conference. (The amusicology party in Philadelphia was a fantastic idea for bloggerly camaraderie!)

So, without further ado, we’d like to introduce the Taruskin Challenge Musicology Must-Reads list! (cue Orfeo)

New Feature On Its Way: Musicology Must-Reads

Students: Have you ever gone to your music history professor’s office hours and asked, “This musicology stuff is kind of cool, and I’d like to learn more about it. Can you suggest some music scholarship books as a starting point?”

Teachers: Have you ever had a student come to your office hours and ask the same question? What do you tell them?

We have alternately asked and been asked these very questions frequently. Judging by conversations with colleagues, it’s not all that infrequent for them either. And yet there is no obvious place to send the inquiring minds that come our way.

Next week we will try our hand at filling this gap by rolling out a new feature of this site called “Musicology Must-Reads.” It will be an on-going, semi-annotated list of books that we consider to be rich, inspiring, or sound examples of what the discipline is about. The initial list will be just a beginning—we hope that the musicological community will also chime in over time to make it a solid catalog and resource for students. Keep an eye out for it.

A Grim and Humorless Discipline?

We’re among the few comic writers in an otherwise grim and humorless discipline.    — Susan McClary in a note to Richard Taruskin (quoted in RT’s review of the  McClary Festschrift)

It’s a blessing and a relief that Taruskin knows how to employ the comic voice in the OHWM. At close to 4,000 pages, it would be a stultifying reading experience indeed if the prose did not dance. Looking back on the successfully-scaled first major peak of our ascent, I’m struck by how painless it all was. I can honestly say that I never once got bored (of course, ten pages at a time helped in this respect). Nor did I ever get that sinking feeling that comes on occasionally that this is all just a waste of time. (I recall a moment a few years back digging through a dense, hopelessly dull article establishing Dufay’s whereabouts in year X and wondering if I shouldn’t just go to law school.) For all the many minor flaws with the text, the most important element of historical writing is here in abundance – it manages to be continuously interesting, fresh, and relevant. And some of this is due to Taruskin’s mastery of the comic voice.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I often found myself chuckling aloud while reading Vol. I. His style of humor is difficult to pinpoint exactly. Occasionally it is silly, such as when he refers to Bartolomeo Tromboncino  as “the little guy with the trombone” (696). (It’s what his name means, I know, but what a funny way to phrase it.) Sometimes it is ironic: “.. in single stanzas, or ‘through-composed,’ as we now rather gracelessly say in musicologese (a dialect of German)..” (813). Most of the time, Taruskin’s humor comes from a certain lightness of tone. He’s clearly having fun writing his history, and it shows in the text. The OHWM, despite its behemoth dimensions, is not ponderous in the least.

The comic voice developed late in the field of musicology, and as McClary indicates, it isn’t very common still. This is quite a shame. Perhaps Taruskin’s greatest achievement of the history is its sheer readability; the OHWM is actually enjoyable to read. (Initiates into other unnamed texts [ahem, Grout] will know that enjoyability is not on the agenda of most histories of music.) And shouldn’t a book about music be enjoyable after all? I don’t mean to sound flippant about this, but we are scholars of music, perhaps humankind’s most universally adored activity. If we can’t make music fun, then what use is our field to the world?

If musicology is indeed a “grim and humorless discipline,” perhaps it became that way because of a ceaseless desire for recognition and status in the academy. Money is tight, and what musicologists do could be considered relatively trivial. Therefore, in order to justify the “-ology” in our title, maybe some scholars tried to adopt the most scientific, “serious” sort of language possible. With serious-mindedness comes credibility (and funding). Perhaps, therefore, all humor was wrung from the discipline precisely in order for it to become a stable, safe, and respected academic field. Remember: when the first musicology programs were founded, officials were often skeptical (the dean of Harvard quipped, “we might as well talk of grandmotherology.”)

Do you think musicology as a discipline is “grim and humorless”? Why is the this the case (or not)? How might the scholar, conscious both of getting a tenure job and of actually being read by a larger audience, ameliorate this deficiency? Extra points if you use a pun in your reply.