Arguments are Won by the Best Arguer, not Necessarily by the Best Argument: Richard Taruskin's Polemic in The New Republic

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Classical Music,

Why Bother?

Joshua Fineberg

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Why Classical Music

Still Matters

Lawrence Kramer

Arnold Bax described a genius as someone who has, among other things, superior reserves of energy.  Joseph Joachim, violinist friend of Brahms, described genius as “doing with ease what mere talent cannot do at all.” We can all probably agree that genius requires exceptional intelligence yoked with creativity.  For my money, idiot savants are a sentimental myth.

By these criteria, Richard Taruskin is a genius. Probably by most rational criteria. Can you say “indefatigable?”  And his writing is scintillating.

But Taruskin’s awesomely scathing and intemperate assault in The New Republic on musico-sociological tomes by Julian Johnson, Joshua Fineberg, and Lawrence Kramer does him little credit.  His vitriol, entertaining as it is, tells us more about Taruskin than it does about his maimed and bleeding victims.  And I say this as someone who has little use for Johnson et. al, and who admires Taruskin no end.  In fact, I buy and read Taruskin’s books, and it would never occur to me to buy the books he lambasts. But the viciousness and one-sidedness of his attack-piece may make me reconsider. Taruskin quotes from “The Sopranos”, but after reading his latest, I want to quote from “Mash”.  There is a scene in a “Mash” episode where the fatuously moronic Frank Burns is “more sinned against than sinning”.  Hawkeye defends Frank.  He is asked, “Since when do you give two hoots about Frank Burns?” He replies, “Just now, and it’s only one hoot.” Well put. That’s just how I feel in this instance.  

I plan on making more posts about this article, examining Taruskin’s point(s) of view in detail (he’s all over the place).  The gist of the argument is that the three maligned writers are elitist, ignorant, out of touch idiots who want to preserve obsolete Teutonic-oriented prerogatives of taste-making and arrogant  cultural monopolies of limited perspective, and impose these on some public; the general public? (is there such a thing?) The “musically inclined public”? They have allies in the “academic” “public”, I know… probably the widest public Taruskin can mean is the public that shops at Borders and Amazon.  But even this isn’t certain.  Taruskin actually questions Johnson, if not the others, in a moral sense. I also think Taruskin questions the sincerity of music lovers who admire certain styles (Arnold Schoenberg’s style, for instance). This is infuriating.  I am as moved by “Moses und Aron” as he is by Musorgsky or Shostakovich, and genius though he may be, he has no right to dispute this.  He can’t know.  

Schoenberg once made a blistering and unfair critique of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, and ironicallyacknowledged in the very critique that his intemperance spoke against himself and in favor of the work. Taruskin doesn’t have to retract his objections to these highly questionable books, just as Schoenberg didn’t retract his criticism, but a review like this does the books a favor. 

I should add that without Taruskin’s inspired, and if I can put it this way, intoxicatingly sober advocacy for Shostakovich, my understanding for that very great composer would be much the poorer. But “That was then, and this is now.”