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'A privilege to know': Music professor emeritus Richard Taruskin dies at 77

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Richard Taruskin, pictured here with colleague and longtime friend Bonnie Wade, joined campus faculty in 1987.


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JULY 07, 2022

Richard Taruskin, UC Berkeley music professor emeritus and pioneering musical intellectual, died July 1 at the age of 77.

According to Bonnie Wade, campus ethnomusicology professor emerita and Taruskin’s colleague and longtime friend, Taruskin was “completely honest, forthright and sure-minded,” with a sharp tongue but a “ready” sense of humor. 

He was passionately moral and very devoted to making and writing things that mattered about music, writing about music in ways that would promote fairness and truth,” said Mary Ann Smart, campus music professor. “There was a kind of steadfast loyalty and commitment in him as an intellectual.”

Taruskin joined campus faculty in 1987, at which time he opened up and transformed the teaching of western music history, according to Wade. 

Even after his retirement from campus in 2014, Taruskin continued writing, growing his extensive collection of publications. While Taruskin regularly published music commentary for publications like The New York Times, one of his most notable pieces was the six-volume Oxford History of Western Music, which looked at how musical expression was imbibed with rhetorical and political power, according to a statement from the campus music department.

“He was well read and knew a huge amount of western history, and he knew a gargantuan amount of classical music,” said Rachel Vandagriff, professor and chair of music history and literature at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, in an email. “He read the NY Times every day, sometimes with a pencil in hand.”

Smart added that it is important to acknowledge what Taruskin was like as a mentor. According to her, Taruskin was “steadfast and committed” to encouraging his students in all kinds of career paths.

Some of Smart’s fondest memories of Taruskin come from her times joining him on his famous walks at Point Isabel, she said. Taruskin frequently invited colleagues and students to discuss research and musicology on the shores of El Cerrito.

Additionally, Vandagriff, who was one of Taruskin’s doctoral mentees, noted that Taruskin advised 40 dissertations at UC Berkeley, which she said was “his favorite part of being a professor.”

“He was tough and stringent in helping students develop as scholars and writers. He wanted his students to work to become the best scholars and teachers and pushed them to push themselves,” Vandagriff said in an email. “He was sharp, witty, exacting in his prose, and could harness a large project or framework to make a searing, astute argument.”

Wade recalled that Taruskin was one to ask questions beginning with “why?” as opposed to just questions of “what?” 

Smart added that Taruskin’s impact on the music community was to urge listeners to pay close attention to the “sociology of music.” According to her, one of his most influential ideas is that pieces of music have no single meaning; rather, they hold different meanings to “different listeners in different places and times.”

Taruskin’s profound legacy will be felt within generations to come.

Richard was a very kind man,” Wade said. “He was a very complex individual but a privilege to know.”

Kavya Gupta is a deputy news editor. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @kavyaguptta.

JULY 08, 2022