Questions For Richard Taruskin, After His Passing
By Maria Sonevytsky
Reflecting on the legacy of someone who liked to joke that it took him “100 pages just to sign his name” is, in a word, daunting. The “vigorously polemical” musicologist Richard Taruskin, who died this summer at the age of 77, prided himself on being prolific. Indeed, the quantity, breadth, and volume of his publications shows that he was unrivaled in the 20th century as a musicologist, and one whose reach extended well beyond the ivory towers. But, for Richard, this was not just a numbers game: he was prolific because of the deep sense of mission he brought to his work. Early on, as a tireless champion of what he capaciously defined as “Russian music,” Taruskin helped to popularize composers overlooked by the “Germanocentric thrust that the history of Anglophone musicology had imposed on the discipline.” He also debunked all manner of myth—most famously, perhaps, the dubious Testimony attributed to Shostakovich.
But Taruskin’s intolerance for all varieties of mystification reached well beyond the world of Russian music as he took aim at many of the venerated tenets of an older musicology that held “the music itself” apart from everyday life. For Richard, who braided humor into his withering critiques, there could be no music divorced from its social and political context. He believed strenuously that the most bedeviling, the most potentially unanswerable questions, are those that should be asked by music scholars, writing in a 2014 essay that “[o]ur failure to achieve omniscience is not our license to embrace ignorance.” (And then, two sentences later, with his characteristically blunt wit: “’Back off’ is no more a critique than ‘Shut up’ is an explanation.”) The title of his most recent book Cursed Questions (2020) speaks for itself—Richard was dogged in his pursuit of ever more precise answers.
Taruskin’s journey to becoming a “self-appointed missionary” for Russian music was, in his own words, “as calculated and self-interested” as that of his role model and predecessor, the musicologist Gerald Abraham. And like Abraham, his passionate commitment to the topic was sincere, and personal to boot, motivated by his family’s story of emigration from the territories of the former Russian Empire. Born in Queens, New York, to Jewish parents who spoke two varieties of Yiddish (“Litvak” from Latvia and “Galitsyaner” from Ukraine), the young Taruskin became drawn to the Russian language, the “forbidden tongue” that symbolized “hostile power” to his parents, who considered it the “tsar’s language” (On Russian Music, 3). A lifelong skeptic of nationalist projects, Taruskin regularly subsumed his Latvian and Ukrainian inheritances under the umbrella of “Russian.”
Taruskin was neither unaware nor naive about the dangerous possibility that Russian classical music culture might become yoked to authoritarian revanchism—his dust-ups with the conductor Valery Gergiev, who he came to consider as Putin’s “protégé and apologist,” prove as much. Yet Taruskin’s attitude towards the recuperative historical projects of former imperial subjects—Ukrainians, Latvians, and more—could be dismissive. In his essay about a recording of Dmytro Bortniansky’s music (“For Ukraine, He’s a Native Son, Regardless”), first published in the New York Times in 1999, he began: “Say this much for nationalism: its cultural salvage missions, however perversely motivated, can yield up fascinating flotsam.” He then went on to describe Bortniansky as someone “who never thought of himself as Ukrainian and surely spent most of his life trying to forget he ever saw the place.” To me, a scholar of Ukrainian music and the daughter of post-WWII Ukrainian refugees, this position irked me even as I admired—as early as my undergraduate years—his scholarship.
Many years later, when I was hired to join the Music Department faculty at Berkeley in 2018, Richard invited me on a walk. I think it’s fair to say that we hit it off: I found him, in person, to be ready with a joke (he had allegedly softened in his emeritus years), generous (he offered savagely frank feedback on my work under the mantra that honest critique is a form of affection), and always up for intellectual sparring (eager to debate, as he said to me more than once, “until we were blue in the face”). I was able to tell him, in person, that from his perspective—that of former Russian Imperial Jewry who had been pitted against and often violently excluded from the anti-imperialist nation-building projects of Ukrainians and Latvians—a skepticism toward post-Soviet nation-state projects was understandable. But his position also seemed to me out of sync with the shifting realities of post-Soviet Ukraine (and Latvia). While no reasonable person would argue that antisemitism in Ukraine (nor, unfortunately, anywhere) has been vanquished, Ukrainian society through its crises of politics and conscience had transformed enough that a Jewish comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky, could (as the world is now well aware) be elected to its highest office in a landslide in 2019. Our ancestral lineages, and their intersections with our scholarly commitments, became one of our best-rehearsed themes on the walks we shared at Point Isabel.
The full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022 rattled Richard’s sense of purpose. In early March, after attending a public lecture I gave on understanding the war through Ukrainian musical culture, he emailed me with words of support and comfort. He also disclosed how upsetting it was for him to witness how the vile nationalistic ideology of Putinism had led to the horrific war: “Me, I'm just dejected and full of revulsion at what I studied so long and so lovingly.” Our dialogues were then confined to email (I had moved back to the East Coast), and as such, less dialogic than usual. I longed for real exchange, well aware it might be punctuated by acute disagreements that would help me to sharpen my own positions. Today, bereft, I have so many questions for Richard after his passing, beginning with: how would you rebut or nuance what I have just written?
Another question, transposed from another context: what do we do with the artworks of monstrous regimes? What should we say about the recent performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony by the Russian State Kremlin Orchestra on the ruins of the Mariupol Drama Theater, where hundreds of innocent Ukrainian citizens are believed to be entombed? Is it right to present the canonic musical works of the Russian Empire—operas like Eugene Onegin—at this time of ongoing devastation?
In his own essay for the San Francisco Opera’s program for Eugene Onegin, written for the 1996–97 season, Taruskin adamantly defended the opera against literary critics like Vladimir Nabokov, who considered Tchaikovsky’s adaptation of Pushkin a failure. Taking aim at Nabokov’s “militant tone deafness” allowed him to advance a deep musicological argument: that without proper attention to the signs and symbols deployed in the music, one would miss the “dazzling details” of Tchaikovsky’s adaptation to the operatic stage. To Taruskin, Tchaikovsky’s musical settings are the legendary narrator from Pushkin’s original, managing “to invest the opera with the same multileveled perspective—the same ironies and knowing asides—that Pushkin achieved through the more predictable use of words alone.” I would counter (as I have in my own recent contribution for this season’s program) that there is no apparent musical nor textual irony in the chorus of serfs in Act I of the opera, and that this in fact reveals the oppressive imperial dynamics in the background of the aristocratic love story.
How would Richard respond?
Later in the essay, Taruskin quotes Tchaikovsky writing to a friend about how he felt himself to be “a realist and fundamentally a Russian.” Taruskin seems to agree with the composer’s self-assessment. Yet the profundity of Tchaikovsky’s realism and the authenticity of his Russianness could be troubled through some quick contextualization: Tchaikovsky was descended, on his father’s side, from Ukrainian kozaky (more commonly written as “Cossacks”). His family’s choice to assimilate into the Russian imperial elite is characteristic of what some scholars identify as the “dynastic” type of colonization, in which local elites become co-opted into an imperial project of marking their local languages and cultures as inferior, thereby helping to mask the repressions and divide-and-conquer techniques of subjugation. Tchaikovsky’s Russianness was hardly essential—it was emergent, arising from the context of the hierarchical, imperial society into which he was born. Despite the lies emanating from the Kremlin today (voiced on the international stage by Russia’s current Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov) Russia was, indeed, an oppressive empire; in 2022, it appears desperate to regain its formerly subjugated territories.
I wonder how Richard would react to what I’m about to do: to invoke what might be his most notorious essay, on the danger of music. Published in the New York Times on December 9, 2001, Taruskin reacted to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s decision to cancel performances of choruses from John Adams’ “notoriously controversial opera” The Death of Klinghoffer. That opera is based on the true story of the 1985 cruise ship murder of an American Jew by Palestinians. Writing in the wake of 9/11, with his take-no-prisoners style on full display, Taruskin leads his readers to the following question: “And why shouldn’t people be spared reminders of recent personal pain when they attend a concert?” Then he offers a remedy, that of “self-control”: “There is no need to shove Wagner in the faces of Holocaust survivors in Israel and no need to torment people stunned by previously unimagined horror with offensive ‘challenges’ like The Death of Klinghoffer.”
If indeed the “exercise of forbearance can be noble,” might this moment of ongoing tragedy finally shake us loose of our “sentimental complacency about art”? What, Richard, should we do with our Eugene Onegins at a time when the same Russian “greatness” you found present in that opera is being deployed on the fresh mass graves of Ukrainian citizens?
For all his self-deprecating humor—or lightly disguised pride—about his own verbosity, Richard could be pithy when the moment required. Having now spent hundreds of words myself imagining how he might respond to the current moment, I feel even more acutely the absence of his expansive and incisive mind.