Wednesday, July 29, 2009

TLS Review of Rosen and Taruskin Worst Thing Ever

Oh, no. This is really bad. I don't just mean that, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, it's a quagmire of muddled thinking, although it certainly is. E.g., first paragraph:
Although Charles Rosen is described by his Festschrift's editors as "perhaps the single most influential writer on music of the past half century" and Richard Taruskin is said by his blurb to be "America's 'public' musicologist", producing some of "the very best work being done today not just in musicology", it is curious how little they feature in these, each other's books. I suppose that such a distinguished musician as Mr Rosen, with a lifetime's experience as virtuoso pianist and thoughtful writer, can inspire seventeen valuable essays in his honour that have little need to cite anyone much except their dedicatee. Mr Taruskin, on the other hand, engages constantly with other writers and performers, as often as not negatively (and even Rosen does not escape entirely unscathed).
That is, it's odd that these books about or by music writers, Charles Rosen and Richard Taruskin, who tend to write about completely different subjects, usually for quite different audiences, should fail to cite each other, except that the Charles Rosen book under review is not really by but sort of about Charles Rosen, and anyway Richard Taruskin actually does cite Charles Rosen. THAT'S OUR INTRODUCTORY PARAGRAPH. Just to let us know where we are: we are nowhere. Fortunately for Peter Williams, nowhere is apparently the place he calls home. Much of the review takes place in a quaint fantasyland, where
As a concert pianist and critic, Rosen is bound to remind English musicians of Donald Francis Tovey (died 1940), though in his lifetime Rosen has been more feted, and for longer, than Tovey was in his. How fortunate, that dwindling number who has heard them both in the flesh!
It is in fact extremely unlikely that Rosen should remind English musicians, as a concert pianist, of Donald Francis Tovey, since the only available recording of Donald Francis Tovey's pianism seems to be (via Wikipedia)
an acoustic recording of Beethoven's 10th Violin Sonata in G major, Op. 96) played by the violinist Adila Fachiri, with Tovey at the keyboard, made for the National Gramophonic Society (NGS-114-117) during the early 1920s. This is the celebrated recording in which, during the first movement, after playing the exposition, the musicians stop playing and Tovey calls out 'Return to the beginning of the record. Second time...' (and then resumes playing), so that the listener shall (literally) have the da capo.
And if Tovey died in 1940, then this "dwindling number" that remains must be, in fact, a bit older than Charles Rosen, whose performing career has already been unusually long. Although I do not doubt that there are classical nonagenarians gracing the English concert stage, I do question whether there are enough of them, proportionally speaking to earn that word, "bound." Other lapses into fantasy:
But [Rosen's] own little essay on Montaigne, which closes the book, might usefully have been replaced with, say, some consideration of his reasons for making no piano recordings of Bach after 1969.
Yes it might have, but—
(Per-haps he felt an inhibiting pressure from the "back-to-original-instruments movement" of the 1960s?)
And it becomes clear that Williams, in reviewing this book, is dreaming about some other book entirely.
The reader naturally wonders what Rosen, as a reviewer, would make of the essays offered in his honour. He might, for example, rewrite one contributor's remark about Bach, who "never lets us forget that the tactile imperatives of the performer - the virtuoso - play out against composerly calculations", for he would know that Tovey put it better: "no rule of counterpoint is kept more meticulously by Bach than the confinement of the part-writing to the stretch of two hands".
This imaginary book is called, VARIATIONS ON THE CANON: Essays on music from Bach to more Bach in honor of Donald Francis Tovey on Charles Rosen's eightieth birthday. Okay so, that's every paragraph but one pertaining to Charles Rosen in this review, and every one contained a pure nugget of the embarrassingly, comically senile and demented. But what about the rest of the review, the part about Taruskin? Full of more harmless doddering, I assume?
...Richard Taruskin is happy to name and shame those whose ideas disgracefully differ from his own, and he is seldom able to resist answering back when criticized. All publicity is good publicity, of course, but I remained puzzled as to why Taruskin invests so much energy and intelligence in médisance until I read his account in The Danger of Music of an upbringing in which Yiddish was spoken; if pressed, he admits to regarding himself as Jewish-American. This immediately brought to mind an observation of Adorno's student Jürgen Habermas, that "the Jews necessarily had to experience society as something one collides with".
... ... ... Oh. Um. Hm. You know, when I said I disliked veiled anti-Semitism, I really didn't think that this was the alternative. Can we put the veil back on it, please? Can we please NOT say, the reason that Taruskin is so belligerent is because he is a JEW?? Anyway, it goes on for another page—at various points he misreads Taruksin, misses the point, and misses the chance to say something intelligent about two of our most accomplished and insightful writers on music—but I think I'm going to stop there rather than gag myself. Congratulations, TLS.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Brilliant post, Dan. I’d still be laughing, if pondering the truths behind it were not so unpleasant. In fact, I’d extend the charge of anti-Semitism to something a little broader.

Williams launches his comments on Taruskin with a potshot at the linguistic impurity of immigrant households. The tone is Victorian ("an upbringing in which Yiddish was spoken"). I recall, as a musicology graduate student in a now mostly-irrelevant Ivy League program decades ago, one of my peers sniffily referring to another as coming from a family that was “right off the boat.” The comment didn’t sit well with me, which is why I still remember it -- my own parents were born in the U.S. (by a couple of months), but neither spoke English at home until they entered grade school. Williams’s class-consciousness and racism is unfathomable to most American academics today, but I fear the same can’t be said of the British academy, which seems to believe it still “owns” our language and defines its etiquette.

Sad that TLS would offer this assignment to someone whose advanced chronological age and antiquated positions can’t disguise the careless intellectual immaturity of an undergraduate.

July 29, 2009 at 5:33 PM  
Anonymous m. croche said...

What, you're leaving out the homophobic bits, the ones where Peter Williams compares Chaikovsky with Oscar Wile [sic]? Or how those who know to add two and two also know how to connect Chaikovsky with his Symphonie Pathetique (or something)?

Oswald Mosley has more in common with Peter Williams than Oscar Wilde has with Chaikovsky.

Bigotry aside, I'm not sure this review is uniquely awful for the TLS. The irreplaceable Andrew Porter aside, their stable of music reviewers is poor. Guy Dammann's review of the Aldeburgh Festival was prolix and muddled.,,25374-2656195,00.html

And, speaking of Jew-baiting, Hugh Wood, in a generally foolish review of Elgar books last year, gave us this gem: "And Harper-Scott is still partly under the scared spell of that old turnip ghost Heinrich Schenker - who has so little to tell us about music, whose range of interest is limited and narrow, who is so prepared to miss out anything inconvenient to his diagrams, whose Ursatz, in fact, is so often Ersatz. The constant invocation of such authorities gives the whole proceeding a rabbinical air. This is not scholarship, but weird amusical pedantry..."

One wonders how much Hugh Wood actually knows about rabbis.

July 29, 2009 at 5:55 PM  

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