This rather earlier book of the famous, and now perhaps also infamous, musicologist Richard Taruskin is an excellent read on many subjects of music. The book was published in 1995, it is a collection of essays, and although it is already quite radical on many points, it is not yet as extremist as Taruskin's later writings. In 1995 there are still 6 years before Sep 11, and life is peaceful, beautiful and prosperous. Taruskin tells us that "A humanist has been defined as one who rejects authority but respects tradition." At that moment, he still finds it "so dispiriting, and ultimately sinister" when rhetoric is taking the opposite track "respecting authority and rejecting tradition" - exactly a position he takes himself some 13 years later, i.e. today.
However, in those glorious past days, he is more preoccupied with musical, not political dilemmas, and his erudition is astounding. The book touches on many issues. I liked his essay on modern vs traditional approach in interpretations; he provides a marvelous excursion in the past, speaking of enormous liberties conductors like Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner, Willem Mendelberg were taking with the score, in particular, with Beethoven. He gives a lot of credit to Toscanini, who was the first one to play "com'e scritto", whatever it meant for the Maestro, however. He notes that the speedy tempos of Toscanini were lauded during his days by German and Austrian audiences, and that future conductors, as Furtwangler and Scherchen, are already examples of the Glacial Shift theory, according to which performances have been getting steadily slower.
Taruskin's favorites are clearly defined. He prefers Nicholas McGegan in Handel, Nicolaus Harnoncourt in Bach, and in Mozart, he esteems Frans Bruggen, Malcolm Bilson and John Eliot Gardiner. His rage and fury are targeted on Christopher Hogwood's Beethoven, while he praises much Roger Norrington in the same First Symphony. Along the lines of his argument, Taruskin tells interesting stories of Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Schubert, their famous expressions and dialogs with their teachers, which make it somewhat an entertaining read, although in no way Taruskin's writings are an easy read - his vocabulary is extensive, and his constructions are rather complex.
I also liked very much the chapter "Resisting the Ninth" - an essay on Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. Taruskin reviews in particular the recording under the baton of Roger Norrington, but he gives extensive background on this opus, and to my amazement, I learned that in the 19th century this symphony was viewed as "eccentric, unconnected, and incomprehensible; the fourth movement of it so monstrous and tasteless, and inits grasp of Schiller's Ode so trivial" - this all is according to Louis Spohr, a musician who played for the composer conducting. Then Fanny Mendelshon, whose brother dicrected it in Dusseldorf premier in 1836, wrote that the symphony was "in parts abominable...a burlesque". Taruskin explains that the only musicians who embraced the Ninth without reservation were those "whose own aesthetic program it could seem to validate", i.e. Wagner, and later Brahms in his First Symphony, Frank, Bruckner, Mahler. This chapter is truly full of the most interesting facts and ideas, and is marvelously written.
Taruskin's essays on Mozart was also valuable. Naturally, he is dismayed by commercialization of Mozart and by sentimental approach to his art. It was personally intriguing for me to find that Taruskin sees Mozart as a tragic figure, which is quite close to my own view on Mozart's music, that it is not at all cheerful as it is frequently served to the "faceless mass" (per Taruskin), but rather that his music is full of melancholy. Taruskin's essay does not mention Salieri specifically, but he concedes that Mozart's music was more complex that his contemporaries, and was viewed as brash and overspiced for an average listener. "Too many notes, my dear Mozart, and too beautiful for our ears." - complained Emperor Joseph II at a rehearsal of Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
Perhaps the most controversial idea expressed in the book is concerning Bach. Taruskin claims that "Anyone exposed to Bach's full range knows that the hearty, genial, lyrical Bach of the concert hall is not the essential Bach. The essential Bach was an avatar of a pre-Enlightened - and when push came to shove, a violently anti-Enlightened - temper. His music was a medium of truth, not beauty. At the truth he served was bitter. His works persuade us - no, reveal to us - that the world is filth and horror, that humans are helpless, that life is pain, that reason is a snare."
However, this seems to reflect on the author's inner ideas about life, and ironically such views made him come to his later conclusions, expressed in "The Danger of Music". I think everyone has her own Bach, and to view the glass is as half-full, one can retort by saying that Bach music is full of hope and vigor, its intrinsic beauty persuades us that humanity is also genius and bliss, that life is creation, that reason ultimately prevails over horror, that inspiration is divine. That to me seems to be the ultimate conclusion of Bach, but not an intermediary means he uses to show filth and horror, only to bring the listener to the enlightened end, which is the magic of music. But as with everything, each man worships his own Bach and tends to his own garden.
Overall, this is a great book to learn a lot, while keeping in mind that even in 1995, the author was already criticized of his blunt, if not offensive language, and of his "tired neo-Marxist attempt to make music slave of history"; yet I still adore his passion in this book; he is very opinionated and controversial, but never boring. The book is bigger than any review of it. Recommended.