Renowned music historian Richard Taruskin dies at age 77

The performing arts world was saddened last week to learn of the death of renowned music historian and author of The Oxford History of Western Music, Richard Taruskin, who passed away at the age of 77, as the New York Times reports.

Taruskin’s demise was confirmed by his wife, Cathy Roebuck Taruskin, who said that the cause of death was esophageal cancer, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Born in New York City in 1945, Taruskin was a student of Russian and music at Columbia University, and after spending time in Moscow as a Fulbright Scholar, he joined the faculty at his alma mater before eventually leaving to teach at the University of California at Berkeley.

In addition to the Oxford History, Taruskin was well-known for publications such as Music in the Western World, Text and Act, and no fewer than four studies dedicated solely to Russian music, including Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works through Mavra, according to the Chronicle.

As James Oestreich of the Times notes, Taruskin was considered by his colleagues in the music world to be a “force of nature” and an “historian of towering intellect and erudition,” though he was also known for his sometimes harsh critiques of fellow critics and writers he believed were guilty of “errors or inanities.”

Oestreich remembered Taruskin as having “the most nimble and retentive mind I’ve ever worked with closely over time,” adding that “it was almost scary to hear him quote from memory a paragraph of something he had read a decade or two before virtually verbatim.”

Mark DeVoto of the Boston Musical Intelligencer was equally effusive in his praise of Taruskin, writing that he was “known to everyone in the profession as a peerless expert on Western music through ten centuries, but also as the most vivid and penetrating writer on music of his time, indeed, of the past half-century.”

“Some would call Richard a merely peevish critic,” DeVoto noted, adding, “[r]ather, he was a sharp-tongued professional, who never hesitated to argue when he could also demonstrate, and his critical strifes and storm, were always warm and even warm-hearted, and always a pleasure to read.”

Left to mourn Taruskin are his wife, son Paul, daughter Tessa, a sister, a brother, and two grandchildren, not to mention the legions of music scholars, performers, and critics whose careers were profoundly and positively influenced by his decades of work.