Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, 6 vols. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005)
Until recently, serious students of music did not read sweeping histories of music. In a time of increasing specialization, we do not expect to find new ideas in such work. This has changed with the publication of Richard Taruskin's History of Western Music. Monumental in its scope and original in its approach but informal in its prose and always engagingly direct, it offers a provocative perspective on the whole of music's history and sets fresh agendas for anyone interested in music and its relation to the history of ideas, politics and culture. Taruskin's History differs from all previous projects of its kind in that it does not principally survey famous works by famous composers. Focusing instead on particular issues within a chronological framework (his chapter titles refer, amongst other things, to feudalism, humanism, enlightenment, virtuosos, transcendentalism and totalitarianism), and selecting composers whose music contributes to the consideration of those issues (sometimes omitting well-known figures or placing familiar works in radically new contexts), he sets out quite simply to explain why music has been composed as it has, and to show how its existence has relied not on composers in isolation but on a whole musical culture of composers, patrons, performers, critics and many others. Rather than relegating historical events and ideas to the status of context or calling them extra-musical, he places them at the centre of his narrative and in intricate dialogue with music; so while his close analyses of music will mean most to those with musical training, they are part of an argument about history that will be suggestive and illuminating to any reader.