This post is part of a series celebrating #ClassicalMusicMonth. We’re pleased to share the below excerpt from Richard Taruskin’s just-released, On Russian Music at Home and Abroad: New Essays. Stay tuned for our final post next week, and enjoy free access to curated Classical Music articles through September.
An excerpt from “NOT MODERN AND LOVING IT” (Chapter 5)
When I was a lad I received a present from my mother, who was a piano teacher (but not my piano teacher; she knew better than that). It was a set of sepia-toned lithographed portraits from G. Schirmer, the main American music publisher of standard and pedagogical piano literature. The portfolio was titled “The Great Composers,” and it started, perhaps needless to say, with J. S. Bach. The others Bs then passed in review, along with Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Wagner, Verdi—the whole crowd. What was surprising was the end-point: the only composer in ordinary modern dress, beardless, wigless, short-haired, altogether contemporary and therefore quite exotic in such surroundings. It was Rachmaninoff, of course, the only composer who was still alive at the time the set was issued. Rachmaninoff, the portrait set quietly insisted, was the last of the Great Composers, the only one left. That made quite an impression on me.
I remembered that ancient gift and the impression it made when it came time, perhaps fifty years later, to frame my account of Rachmaninoff in the Oxford History of Western Music, my attempt, in only six volumes and a mere one and a half million words, to put everything about classical music into a single perspective. As a historian, I saw my task as reportage, not evaluation, still believing that a neutral point of view, if not actually achievable, is nevertheless the thing toward which, asymptotically, one strives. Whether I myself agreed with the value G. Schirmer had claimed for Rachmaninoff was, I assumed, of no interest to my readers, who would be seeking from me the information they would need to reach their own informed judgments. As a reader I always cherished this right and resented historians who tried to usurp it. What the historian owes the reader is a just account of historical significance, an account that should originate in observation, not predilection. For me to say “Rachmaninoff was the last of the great composers” would have been absurd; and it would have been equally absurd for me to say that he was not. And yet, needless to say, reportage and evaluation are not so neatly separable. The act of selection—of choosing what shall be reported—is implicitly, and inescapably, evaluative; and evaluation is implicitly, and inescapably, contentious.
My solution to this dilemma, or at least the criterion of relevance I sought to apply to the task of selection, was to ask myself always what was the necessary contribution of this figure or that fact to the story as a whole. And here is where that old set of sepia prints gave me the answer. “There were many,” I wrote, “during the 1920s and 1930s, who regarded [Rachmaninoff] as the greatest living composer, precisely because he was the only one who seemed capable of successfully maintaining the familiar and prestigious style of the nineteenth-century ‘classics’ into the twentieth century.” I congratulated myself when I came up with that sentence, because it reported the fact that Rachmaninoff was widely regarded as great, and it also signaled his unusualness within the stylistic spectrum of his day, even hinting that his role was an embattled one. Rachmaninoff, I concluded, was “the most effective antimodernist standard bearer.” The fact that he was both antimodernist and successful, I continued, “and that his style was as distinctive as any contemporary’s, could be used to refute the modernist argument that traditional styles had been exhausted.”
In the mood for some classical music now? Listen to Sergei Rachmaninoff play his Piano Concerto No. 2. This selection was recorded in 1929 by RCA victor with Rachmaninoff’s favorite orchestra; the Philadelphia Orchestra. Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) is conducting.
To read more by Richard Taruskin, see his recent article, “Was Shostakovich a Martyr? Or Is That Just Fiction?,” in the New York Times, or a recent book review in the Times Literary Supplement.
To get your own copy of his new book, check your local bookstore, or purchase online at IndieBound, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or UC Press (to save 30% on ucpress.edu, enter discount code 16M4197 at checkout).
Richard Taruskin is the Class of 1955 Professor of Music emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught from 1987 to 2014, after twenty-six years at Columbia University (man and boy). He is the author of Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, On Russian Music, Defining Russia Musically, and the six-volume Oxford History of Western Music.