A very large book has landed with a huge and happy thud on my desk. And when you see the title you realise why it could hardly be a pocket-sized paperback. The history of western music is an enormous subject and all credit to authors Richard Taruskin and Christopher H Gibbs for managing to pack so much that is so useful and interesting into a single volume.
The Oxford History of Western Music is in fact a reduced version of the earlier six volume work by the same authors, but there’s a free companion website and a CD (available separately for instructors) to make sure that users don’t miss out on much.
The 1200 page book is chronological. It takes the student from the earliest written Western music - the Gregorian Chant - to post Millennium developments. It is clearly aimed at serious music students. The text - uncompromising but accessible - is punctuated with helpful short summaries of what has gone before. Each section ends with a set of study questions and a list of key terms.
There is an assumption that the user is a music reader, although there is plenty of information here which is perfectly accessible even to those who cannot read or respond to the musical quotations. And it’s beautifully written with statements such as “History, language and melody made Russian opera the genre that best suited impressive nationalist statements” or “For a Romantic reactionary like Wagner, the very incarnation of corrupted Modernity was the figure of the emancipated, assimilated, urbanized Jew.”
For someone like me who is very interested in classical music, but who has never studied it academically (Graded violin exams and Grade V theory hardly count!) the chapter headings are a revelation too. We get, for example, a whole long section on literary musicians such as Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Schumann who all, sometimes, used great drama as inspiration — plenty there of interest to actors. Then there are sections on Slavik Harmony and Disharmony, Modernism in France, and changes in the 1960s and 70s. I really learned from the way the authors include social context. And the glossary is outstanding.
All in all, this book is a magnificent achievement of extraordinary breadth. I usually pass on review copies because I simply can’t accommodate more than the 5,000 or so books I already own. But this one is staying right here - on a (strong) shelf near my desk because I know, I shall want to refer to it. Often.