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Karol Berger responds

Source: The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Spring 2014), pp. 294-296
Published by: University of California Press
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Accessed: 10-09-2018 10:59 UTC

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Karol Berger responds

t is good to learn that Shéhérezade belonged to
Stravinsky’s canon. It is a pity all the same that Richard Taruskin uses
so much space to quibble and to attribute to me some views I have
expressly repudiated in my paper, while treating other views, views I actu-
ally hold, with condescension, instead of seriously engaging with my
arguments; pity, because the issues at stake would deserve thoughtful
consideration. One such issue, in particular, is the proper balance
(I stress, balance, not an either/or choice) in the study of the history
of art music between the examination of individual actions and achieve-
294 ments of the music’s makers and users, on the one hand, and the on-
going social practices that constitute the enabling conditions of such
actions and achievements, on the other. In my view, in his The Oxford
History of Western Music Taruskin does not get this balance right, leaning
too far in the social-political direction and all too often reducing indivi-
duals and their actions to mere illustrations of social identities and
trends. An historian’s proper role, Taruskin avers, is to ‘‘report’’; ‘‘decid-
ing,’’ that is, making value judgments and choices, should be left to their
readers as well as the ‘‘paid’’ (are the historians working for free?) ‘‘pub-
licists and promoters.’’ This strangely self-policing principle does not
matter much in earlier volumes of the History, where choices of the
repertories worthy of reporting upon have been made many times over
and where Taruskin can and does largely follow the conventions estab-
lished by his predecessors. When it comes to the later part of the twen-
tieth century, where the repertory of the historians has not yet had time
to get established, he is forced to decide and pays a price for the decision
to privilege social identities and trends over individual achievements: he
misses an indispensable component of the story.
Taruskin endorses my choices for the list of the leading grand old
masters of late twentieth-century art music (Lutosławski, Ligeti, Kurtág)

The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 31, Issue 2, pp. 294–296, ISSN 0277-9269, electronic ISSN 1533-8347. © 2014
by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permis-
sion to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Rights and
Permissions website, DOI: 10.1525/JM.2014.31.2.294

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K a r o l B e r g e r re s p o n d s

and even throws in one more candidate, Dutilleux, placing him third,
before Kurtág. But, if the Index of his History is to be believed, two of his
champions are never mentioned in the book (Kurtág and, yes, Dutilleux)
and one merits a single mention, listed among those who composed
variations on a Paganini Caprice (Lutosławski, III.256). Ligeti is reduced
mostly to a ‘‘cold-war trophy or poster boy’’ (V.53), but at least he makes
an appearance. If you believe, as I do, that a music historian must study
social practices as indispensable background conditions enabling indi-
vidual actions, but that what ultimately matters in art, what makes its
history, are exceptional individual achievements that embody new ways
of experiencing and being in the world, you will find these omissions
regrettable. If instead you believe, as Taruskin seems to, that such
achievements are mere illustrative ‘‘epiphenomena’’ (I love this lan-
guage, so redolent of my young years spent on the other side of the Iron
Curtain!), that what truly matters are social trends, or ‘‘the forces that
shape the history of the art,’’ you will not care. But then why bother with
these ‘‘epiphenomena’’ at all (after all, there are much better, more
direct ways to study and understand the Cold War than through the
prism of Ligeti’s career)? And if you think that it makes sense to offer
a narrative of recent history of art music without its most significant 295
practitioners, why don’t you offer, for consistency’s sake, a story of the
early nineteenth-century music without Rossini and Beethoven? It is not
that ‘‘the value of musicological or historiographical work is directly
proportionate to the perceived value of its subject matter.’’ It is simply
that, if you care for individual achievements, you should find room for
them in a book of 4,000 pages, no matter how ‘‘first-class’’ your social-
political problems and preoccupations.
Taruskin makes it easy for himself when he casts me in the enforcer
role in his drama (a role that calls for ‘‘a reinforcement of the walls
separating the domain of historical musicology—its purview confined
to canonical works and creators, and its borders heavily patrolled—from
that of the social sciences’’), while he plays the liberator (who wants ‘‘to
see the boundary dissolve between ethnomusicology and its unprefixed
older sibling’’). ‘‘Convergence seems to be the ineluctable—and highly
desirable—wave of the future,’’ he assures us, and ‘‘it will rejuvenate
musicology.’’ (To be sure, ‘‘Western art music is declining,’’ but why
should we care as long as the academic enterprise is flourishing.) Unlike
Taruskin, I do not know what the future holds: neither the decline of the
music, not the rejuvenation of the scholarship seems to me ineluctable.
In any case, the only future that might interest me, whether in music or
scholarship, will be written by free, unpredictable, and imaginative in-
dividuals, precisely those who do not jump on bandwagons to follow
ineluctable trends. And unlike the caricature Taruskin created, I do not

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t h e j ou r na l o f m u s i c o l o g y

fear ‘‘convergence’’ (ineluctable or not) between various component

sub-disciplines of music scholarship—ethnomusicology, theory, and his-
tory. But convergence is one thing, dissolution of all sub-disciplines in
‘‘social sciences’’ is something else again. Historical musicology and ethno-
musicology are both respectable sister disciplines and they do overlap to
some extent. They should not be reduced to one another, lest we end up
with a history in which key actors do not get mentioned. This too belongs
to ‘‘questions of agency.’’


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