For Richard Taruskin, the composer Dmitri Shostakovich was anything but a dissident against Stalinism.
His opera "Lady Macbeth von Mzensk" was defamed in the daily newspaper "Pravda" on behalf of Stalin in 1936 as "chaos instead of music", but that must have been more or less a misunderstanding of the composer's motives.
Because, according to Taruskin, if you look at the opera's libretto and study the musical drawing of the characters by Shostakovich, you have to understand the work as a "defense of the lawless extermination of the kulaks, i.e. the big peasants, who Stalin in the 1930s was extremely against brutality and which also promoted the Holodomor, the wiping out of a large part of the Ukrainian population through a deliberately triggered famine.
Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" is a "deeply inhuman work of art" wrote Taruskin.
"His chilling treatment of the victims amounts to a justification of genocide."
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Taruskin's polemics against the image of dissidents that are still portrayed in films, program booklets and books about Shostakovich were persistent.
Taruskin described the fact that Solomon Volkov's book "Testimony", the allegedly authentic "life confession" of Shostakovich, was taken at face value as the greatest critical scandal of the century.
When Julian Barnes' Shostakovich novel The Noise of Time was published, Taruskin prominently warned against taking fiction for fact.
And his judgment carried weight.
Richard Taruskin, born on April 2, 1945 to a Jewish family in New York, was one of the most important musicologists in the world and, as a regular contributor to The New York Times and The New Republic, one of the most prominent music critics in the United States .
As a young man he had played viola da gamba in an ensemble and edited Renaissance music.
It was precisely this intimate knowledge of the works and the playing technique that legitimized him to publicly attack exponents of historical performance practice such as the conductors Roger Norrington and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, claiming that their methods of interpretation should stand for increased historical "authenticity".
They arose from the contemporary taste of the late twentieth century.
Harnoncourt, at least, was amenable to this kind of criticism and emphasized more and more how contemporary his search for the language power of music was.
But Taruskin became famous as an expert on Russian music.
His studies of Igor Stravinsky revealed that the composer's involvement with Russian folklore went deeper and lasted longer than previously thought.
His intimate knowledge of the music of Modest Mussorgsky made him realize that Claude Debussy had plagiarized Mussorgsky's song cycle “Ohne Sonne” at the beginning of his “Nocturnes” for orchestra.
Taruskin coined the bon mot that Russian music is a feast for semioticians and hell for critics.
Because everything in it, the choice of material, the processing technique, the form, the tempo marking, the key, can be an index that refers to something that lies outside the work: a biographical, historical, political message.
But unlike the German Carl Dahlhaus, who claimed in his "Fundamentals of Music History" that biography and social history were "unimportant" for the artistic character of the works, Taruskin was convinced that Bach's cantatas and Beethoven's symphonies were not combined in one politically and socially detoxified clean room, but only achieve their fullness and depth of meaning through their connection with all other areas of human life.
Richard Taruskin combined analytical sharpness of detail with a broad interest in cultural and social history, scientific rigor with a desire to argue, academic discipline with the ability to write, which was also accessible to laypeople.
He died in Oakland on the morning of July 1 from complications from cancer.
He was 77 years old.Keywords: