Perhaps the greatest irony of classical music is that, while Jews have excelled in the genre as both composers and musicians, they have left very little notable music with an identifiable Jewish strain. Many have tried, to be sure—Leonard Bernstein and Steven Reich, to name two. But both those greats will be forever famous for their non-Jewish work. Yet if us Jews can claim few hits in the classical pantheon bearing our unique musical marks (klezmer, Sephardic music, cantorial chants, whatever), we can claim one of the greatest music scholars—Richard Taruskin—as our own. And a staunch Jewish defender at that.
If you haven’t heard of him, he’s the very much living—he’s 66—musicologist most known for his 4,000-plus page tome, “Oxford History of Western Music.” But don’t go rushing out to buy it (though a more approachable single volume, 1,000 word college edition has just been published). All you need to do is surf the archives of mainstream publications, like The New York Times, where he contributes frequently.
The Times, in fact, is where I came across the latest piece of Taruskania. It wasn’t written by him, but about him, and by the paper’s classical music critic James Oestreich. He was reporting on a recent conference at Princeton that revolved around Taruskin’s Wagnerian effort to define the classical music canon. What was surprising was that, despite the lightening rod that Taruskin can be—as Oestreich put it: “He does not suffer fools, period, and has been known to raise a ruckus at a scholarly gathering”—he was more or less congenial the whole time.
But that got me thinking about the less sedate side of Taruskin. And not a few of those hair-raising moments came from what Taruskin, who is Jewish, wrote about Jews. For the most part, he’s an ardent sleuth of anti-Semitism in classical music—which there’s never been a shortage of. But beyond the obvious folks (i.e., Wagner), one of the most provocative cases Taruskin raised was with Igor Stravinsky. About two decades ago, Taruskin wrote an academic essay, covered in the Times, that detailed the life-long anti-semitic views of Stravinsky, and even worse, his cheap attempts to use them to curry favor with the Nazi regime.
The essay was attacked by Stravinsky’s official biographer, Robert Craft, in the New York Review of Books. Craft argued that Stravinsky’s anti-semitism was unfortunate but unexceptional, given his place and time. A Russian who claimed himself descendant of Polish nobility, it was only natural for Stravinsky to thumb his nose at any kind of riff-raff or “low-born” type—Jews, communists, anarchists, you name it—Craft argued.
But Taruskin’s reply, which appeared shortly after in the New York Review of Books, was stringent and complete: he quoted the letters Stravinsky wrote in the late-1930s, to Nazi officials, asking his work to be rehabilitated, which it was, after he cited his noble bloodline credentials. He was also nothing but cruel to his Jewish son-in-law. And as he infamously wrote to his Russian editor in 1933, shortly after Hitler took power: “I am surprised to have received no proposals from Germany for next season, since my negative attitude toward communism and Judaism—not to put it in stronger terms—is a matter of common knowledge.”
That was just one instance of Taruskin’s staunch defense against the white-washing that often goes on with the biographies of our artistic greats. But he’s done it many other times, like when the Boston Symphony Orchestra, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, cancelled a performance of John Adams’ controversial Middle East opera “The Death of Klinghoffer.” The work revolved around the murder of a Jewish-American by Palestinian terrorists in 1985. The orchestra cancelled it because they did not want to stage anything that might exacerbate tensions in the U.S. But after many liberals attacked the decision as a capitulation to right-wing Islamophobes, Taruskin wrote an impassioned essay defending the orchestra. He said that there was no doubt that Adams’ opera was “romanticizing terrorists,” and the orchestra was right to nix it.
There are plenty of cases like that you can find with Taruskin, and while many of them aren’t about Jewish issues, the ones that are can be endless intellectual grist. Whether you agree with him is almost beside the point; what matters is that he makes you think, and makes you take a stance.