Comprehensive histories of an art form are a daunting task, and a history of a major art form like so-called “classical” music in the West—with its long and variegated past—borders on impossibility. When compiled by a single author in five thick volumes (and a sixth for the index)—containing hundreds of musical examples and extended discussions of chosen works—this task assumes staggering, Johnsonian proportions. It is not surprising, however, to find that the musicologist Richard Taruskin, on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, has assumed this burden and, what is more, acquitted himself nobly. But then, Taruskin, a large figure in today’s music world, has rarely shirked either controversy or hard work.

I recall that, when he was teaching at Columbia, he ran on the side an eight-member a cappella choir which performed renaissance music in a church downtown. His notes on...


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