This publication is a translation of the 21st chapter from the posthumous collection of essays by Richard Taruskin “Musical Lives and Times Examined: Keynotes and Clippings, 2006-2019,” released by the University of California Press in early 2023. The text is based on the key report of the American scholar, delivered on October 25, 2018, at the Belgrade University of the Arts at the 14th International Conference “Contextuality of Musicology—What, How, Why and Because.” In this talk, Richard Taruskin summarized the features of his scholarly method, emphasizing the importance of contextualization for a hermeneutical-oriented history of music. The fundamental point for the author of the article is a broad understanding of the category of context when interpreting the phenomena of musical art: the context extends in time from the moment when the author conceived his work to the days of the life of a music critic. At the same time, the meaning of the composition is not limited to the content that the creator put into it; it includes all the meanings that have arisen in the process of perception.
Defending contextualization as a method, Taruskin enters into controversy with its opponents. He protests against the too narrow understanding of the context adopted by US music theorists under the influence of literary New Criticism: according to the scholar, it is wrong and illogical to identify the text of a musical piece—as the most large-scale structure in relation to the parts of music composition—with this category (although this practice is common among those who analyze music). Acting in this way, we actually introduce a ban on consideration of what is the actual context of the work—Taruskin regards this practice as a relic of the romantic ideal of aesthetic autonomy, which retains an influential position both in literary criticism and in musicology in the United States. Taruskin makes ethical accusations against those who adhered and continue to adhere to these positions: decontextualization means, in his opinion, an escape from social and political reality, and also, in the end, from one’s own “bad conscience.” In this regard, the final section of the article is of particular importance: Taruskin analyzes the performances of symphonic music by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwengler in the last years of World War II, as well as the responses of contemporaries, residents of the German capital doomed to defeat.
The edge of Taruskin’s controversy is also directed on the other side of polemics: against those who, attacking the traditions of New Criticism in American academia, call for abandoning the category of context in principle. Such are the supporters of the actor-network theory, the followers of Bruno Latour: speaking in defense of works of art as “non-human actors,” they actually abolish or minimize the role of both the author and interpreter. This approach seems absurd for purely intellectual reasons—as a nominalist conceit (it turns out that the works compose themselves and speak to their audience on their own). But it is even more unacceptable for Taruskin ethically: endowing subjectivity to what makes up the environment of musical compositions, their “world,” that is, ultimately, the context, supporters of the latest scholarly approaches remove responsibility from the true actors of the artistic process (composers and critics in case we are talking about music), allowing them to operate under the guise of countless “agents” of art history.
Taruskin, R. “‘Everybody gotta be someplace’ (on context),” trans. and annot. by R. Nasonov. Muzykal’naya akademiya [Music Academy], no. 2, 2023, pp. 52–83, doi:10.34690/308. (In Russ.)
to “California University Press” for the permission to publish the article’s translation, Cathy Taruskin and professor of Princeton University Simon A. Morrison for their help with searching for the material and getting the publication permission.