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Richard Taruskin, groundbreaking, polemical musicologist, dies at 77

Richard Taruskin, a musicology professor at University of California, Berkeley, and a specialist in Russian music, visiting Manhattan in November 2004.CHESTER HIGGINS JR./NYT

Richard Taruskin, a commanding musicologist and public intellectual whose polemical scholarship and criticism upended conventional classical music history, died early Friday in Oakland, California. He was 77.

His death, at a hospital, was caused by esophageal cancer, his wife, Cathy Roebuck Taruskin, said.

An emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a specialist in Russian music, Mr. Taruskin was the author of a number of groundbreaking musicological studies, including the sweeping six-volume Oxford History of Western Music. He was also a contributor to The New York Times, where his trenchant, witty and erudite writings represented a bygone era in which clashes over the meaning of classical music held mainstream import.

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“He was the most important living writer on classical music, either in academia or in journalism,” Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, said in a recent interview. “He knew everything, his ideas were potent, and he wrote with dashing style.”

At a time when the classical canon was considered sacrosanct, Mr. Taruskin advanced the philosophy that it was a product of political forces. His bête noire was the widespread notion that Beethoven symphonies and Bach cantatas could be divorced from their historical contexts. He savagely critiqued this idea of “music itself,” which, he wrote, represented “a decontaminated space within which music can be composed, performed and listened to in a cultural and historical vacuum, that is, in perfect sterility.”

His words were anything but sterile: Mr. Taruskin courted controversy in nearly everything he wrote. In the late 1980s, he helped ignite the “Shostakovich Wars” by critiquing the veracity of “Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov” (1979), which portrayed the composer as a secret dissident. (Volkov is a journalist, historian and musicologist.) Drawing on a careful debunking by scholar Laurel Fay, Mr. Taruskin called the book’s positive reception “the greatest critical scandal I have ever witnessed.”

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In a contentious 2001 Times essay, Mr. Taruskin defended the Boston Symphony’s cancellation of a performance of excerpts from John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” after Sept. 11 that year, arguing that the opera romanticized terrorism and included antisemitic caricatures. Even in advocating for what some criticized as censorship, he underscored a central component of his worldview: that music was not neutral, and that the concert hall could not be separated from society.

“Art is not blameless,” he wrote. “Art can inflict harm.” (His writings, too, could inflict harm; Adams retorted that the column was “an ugly personal attack, and an appeal to the worst kind of neoconservatism.”)

Mr. Taruskin’s most consequential flamethrowing was his campaign against the movement for “historically authentic” performances of early music. In a series of essays anthologized in his 1995 book, “Text and Act,” he argued that the use of period instruments and techniques was an outgrowth of contemporary tastes. He didn’t want conductors like Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Roger Norrington to stop performing; he just wanted them to drop the pretense of “authenticity.” And many did.

“Being the true voice of one’s time is (as Shaw might have said) roughly 40,000 times as vital and important as being the assumed voice of history,” he wrote in The Times in 1990. “To be the expressive medium of one’s own age is — obviously, no? — a far worthier aim than historical verisimilitude. What is verisimilitude, after all, but correctness? And correctness is the paltriest of virtues. It is something to demand of students, not artists.”

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Mr. Taruskin had a no-holds-barred approach to intellectual combat, once comparing a fellow scholar’s advocacy for a Renaissance philosopher to Henry Kissinger’s defense of repression at Tiananmen Square. He faced accusations of constructing simplistic straw men and lacking empathy for his historical subjects.

Following a 1991 broadside by Mr. Taruskin contending that Sergei Prokofiev had composed Stalinist propaganda, one biographer complained of his “sneering antipathy.”

Mr. Taruskin’s response? “I am sorry I did not flatter Prokofiev enough to please his admirers on his birthday, but he is dead. My concern is with the living.”

But his feuds were often productive: They changed the conversation in the academy and the concert hall alike. Such hefty arguments, Mr. Taruskin believed, might help rescue classical music from its increasingly marginal status in American society.

“I have always considered it important for musicologists to put their expertise at the service of ‘average consumers’ and alert them to the possibility that they are being hoodwinked, not only by commercial interests but by complaisant academics, biased critics and pretentious performers,” he wrote in 1994.

Ross said: “Whether you judged him right or wrong, he made you feel that the art form truly mattered on the wider cultural stage.” Mr. Taruskin’s polemics, he added, “ultimately served a constructive goal of taking classical music out of fantasyland and into the real world.”

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Richard Filler Taruskin was born on April 2, 1945, in New York City, in Queens, to Benjamin and Beatrice (Filler) Taruskin. The household of his youth was liberal, Jewish, feistily intellectual and musical: His father was a lawyer and amateur violinist, and his mother was a former piano teacher. He took up the cello at age 11 and, while attending the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan (now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & the Arts), voraciously consumed books on music history at the New York Public Library.

At Columbia University, Mr. Taruskin studied music along with Russian, partly to reconnect with a branch of relatives in Moscow. He stayed for his doctorate, with music historian Paul Henry Lang as his mentor, as he researched early music and 19th-century Russian opera. He also began playing the viola da gamba in the New York freelance scene and, while subsequently teaching at Columbia, led the choral group Cappella Nova, which gave acclaimed performances of Renaissance repertoire. He joined the Berkeley faculty in 1986.

In the 1970s, musicology was still largely focused on reviving obscure motets and analyzing Central European masterworks. Mr. Taruskin participated in the “New Musicology” movement, a generation of scholars that shook up the discipline by drawing on postmodern approaches, feminist and queer theory, and cultural studies.

“Richard had a very keen sense of the political stakes of music history,” scholar Susan McClary, a pioneer of New Musicology, said in an interview. “He also was an extraordinary musician. And so he was not going to sacrifice the music itself for context; these always went together for him.”

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Teaching a Stravinsky seminar at Columbia inspired the two-volume “Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions,” a seminal 1996 study that upended the cosmopolitan image that the composer and his acolytes had long cultivated. Mr. Taruskin drew attention to traditional Slavic melodies that Stravinsky had embedded within “The Rite of Spring,” and how the composer himself had deliberately obscured the folk roots of his revolutionary ballet.

The Oxford History of Western Music, published in 2005, grew out of Mr. Taruskin’s undergraduate lectures at Berkeley and his dissatisfaction with textbooks that presented a parade of unassailable masterpieces. In more than 4,000 pages, he wove intricate analyses alongside rich contextualization, revealing musical history as a fraught terrain of argumentation, politics and power.

Critiques of the “Ox” abounded — that it betrayed its author’s personal grudges, that it unfairly treated modernists like Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez. But it remains a central, seemingly unsurpassable text.

“This is the last time anyone’s going to tell this story,” McClary said. “And it was told in a way that was just as good as it ever possibly could have been.” (Her own criticism of the Ox is perhaps the most enduring: Mr. Taruskin’s survey almost entirely ignores Black musical traditions.)

Garbed in a purple blazer, Mr. Taruskin was a larger-than-life figure at conferences of the American Musicological Society, where his presentations were blockbuster events. In recent years he refrained from giving papers in favor of attending talks by his many former pupils.

He married Cathy Roebuck, a computer programmer at Berkeley, in 1984 and lived in El Cerrito, California. In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Paul Roebuck Taruskin; daughter, Tessa Roebuck Taruskin; sister, Miriam Lawrence; brother, Raymond; and two grandchildren.