Obituary: Famed Fiery Musicologist Richard Taruskin Has Died at Age 77

By Chris Ruel

Renowned musicologist Richard Taruskin died from cancer at age 77 on July 1, 2022.

Taruskin was the author of the monumental “The Oxford History of Western Music,” a six volume set tracing Western music from around 800 CE to the late-20th century. The Washington Post called Taruskin’s massive 4,000 page narrative history “Erudite, engaging, and suffused throughout with a mixture of brilliance and delirium…staggering, brilliant, opinionated..”

Born in New York City on April 2, 1945, Taruskin studied cello while attending the High School for Music and Art. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. from Columbia University where he served as faculty member from 1975 to 1986 before moving to the University of California, Berkeley.

Taruskin made a strong mark on Russian music scholarship, particularly the music of Stravinsky. His 1996 book, “Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through ‘Mavra’ ” was a groundbreaking tome covering Russian music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Taruskin’s penchant for taking on social, cultural, and political issues was born from his time in Moscow as a Fulbright Scholar.

Besides his utterly remarkable historical survey of Western music, Taruskin wrote over twenty journal articles, contributed chapters to twelve books, and wrote twelve other books of his own. He also penned many articles for The New York Times during the 1980s.

His awards include the Noah Greenberg Award, the Alfred Einstein Award, and two Otto Kinkeldey Awards from the American Musicological Society. The Royal Music Academy awarded him the Dent Medal. He was awarded the Deems Taylor Award from ASCAP, and the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy.

As a firebrand, the musicologist was a polarizing figure, not pulling punches in his opinions regarding composers such as Schoenberg and Prokofiev, as well as fellow scholars. In 2002, American composer John Adams told the Independent (UK) that “[Taruskin] has made a specialty of character assassination.” Taruskin had sparred with Adams over perceived anti-Semitism and the portrayal of terrorists in his opera “The Death of Klinghoffer.” The Boston Symphony canceled a 2001 performance of excerpts in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, a move with which Taruskin agreed, sparking discussions of censorship.

Taruskin is survived by his wife of 38 years, two children, his brother and sister, and two grandchildren.