Annotating Taruskin and How It Went

In memoriam

by Anna Zayaruznaya

To use, or not to use? That is the problem. We teachers know what textbooks are and what they aren’t; what they enable and what they preclude. Sometimes we don’t have a choice. But even when we do, it can still be hard to negotiate between our own authority and that of the textbook’s author.

I am a medievalist by training, and therefore it is both my duty and my privilege to teach that earlier part of the survey of Western Art Music. A range of textbooks is available to support this kind of course, including some classics (Richard Hoppin’s Medieval Music and Allan Atlas’s Renaissance Music) and some newer resources (e.g., Margot Fassler’s Music in the Medieval West and Richard Freedman’s Music in the Renaissance).

As a student I was always frustrated by textbooks—I felt like they never told me the things I wanted to know. Or maybe it’s that I had a rough time learning the kinds of things that textbooks privilege. In any case, the first time I taught the Medieval-Renaissance survey for music majors at Yale (in 2015), I didn’t use a textbook. I pulled together a whole bunch of readings from different places and had students buy only the Strunk Source Readings in two volumes (Medieval and Renaissance). The student evaluations were…mixed. Here are some representative excerpts, each from a different evaluator:

  • The course does not use a textbook but instead uses source readings and scholarly articles to bring students as close to actual historical evidence as possible. It chooses complicated patterns over easy narratives by getting to the heart of historiographical issues.
  • I especially loved the Strunk readings, and I thought the various sources from which the readings came was really cool, as it was possible to see so many different perspectives.
  • I am fine with the lack of textbook—I liked most of the musicological readings—but I would sometimes leave lecture confused as to what century we were talking about.
  • I know that Professor Z is opposed to using a textbook, because she thinks they are full of untruths, but I’m not sure that the solution is to read scholarly articles. Often, these articles take for granted a lot of basic information that we, as new learners, just don’t have a handle on yet. These articles are written by experts, for experts.
  • I would have really appreciated having a textbook for the class. Since one textbook would likely craft a story that is biased or not entirely true, perhaps a compromise would be to use 2 or 3 textbooks for the whole semester (instead of 15+ different sources for the readings).

Oops. Clearly the decision not to use a textbook worked for some students but left others confused. And as a lecturer I did not do a good job connecting the dots for them.

When teaching the class again three years later in 2018, I decided to use the separately-published first volume of Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. I chose it in part because it gave me Medieval and Renaissance in one volume, and was relatively inexpensive—indeed it was available to my students for free as part of Oxford Music Online. (Also, the senior colleague teaching the other two semesters of our then-survey was likewise using the Taruskin series.) Of course I would pick and choose what my students read, but I figured Taruskin would give me a lot to pick and choose from. The reviews were better overall (I think I got better at lecturing too…). But now I had some people complaining about the textbook and its relevance to the lectures:

  • It is entirely possible to do well and not read any of the textbook whatsoever (although I did read the primary sources, which were interesting). If I had read the textbook, it would have been an incredibly high and perhaps unsustainable workload.
  • Lectures were definitely a strength of the course, and I would consider the textbook a weakness, only because I often felt like the important information was present in lectures, and much of the information in the textbook was interesting but less pertinent.
  • I didn’t feel that the assigned textbook readings added much to the class. The most valuable parts of the reading were the musical analysis of excerpts from our listening list, but these were fairly sparsely sprinkled in the Taruskin.

Evidently the textbook was still a point of contention. And it probably didn’t help in lecture I was frequently disagreeing with its author.

Things got especially confusing for us all when we got into the fourteenth century. I’m told that this is a generally difficult era for anyone teaching music history (motets! polytextuality! isorhythm! color and talea! formes fixes! Machaut and his million books! And what’s going on with Jacques de Liège?). And for us specialists, it’s even more of a minefield due to a series of recent developments and debates: some of us don’t like the term “isorhythm” anymore (Bent 2008); I personally think that “color” and “talea” meant the same thing for medieval theorists and we’re using “color” wrong (Zayaruznaya 2018); Jacques isn’t “de Liège” anymore (Bent 2015), or maybe he is? (Wegman 2016); and the ars nova treatise possibly never existed (Fuller 1985) or may be lost, but in any case was an Ars vetus et nova (Desmond 2015)…

But I digress. Which is exactly the problem. I know that I’m hardly the only person who has more trouble teaching “my own stuff” than I do teaching other people’s stuff. Not only can it be hard to see the forest for the trees, but the map of the forest is completely different in my head than the one provided in the textbook. And that’s as it should be: I’ve been thinking critically about the ars nova for twenty years. If I didn’t disagree with the textbooks, something would be wrong.

But where do you correct textbooks? If you try to do it in your publications, Reviewer 2 will inevitably point out that it’s a textbook and not worth arguing with. By the time a textbook is old and if it can be shown to have been influential (think Apel’s Notation) then we can engage with it when we are doing historiography. But as for current textbooks—they are in a funny grey area. Not peer-reviewed and not open to much correction, they adopt authoritative tones and say the darndest things.

So, what to do?

In Winter 2020 I got tenure. With tenure came the chance to focus a little more time on my teaching, and also the possibility, which I’d frankly never before considered, of writing things and then not publishing them. What if I wrote something specifically for my students to read? I decided to turn the spotlight onto my own intellectual struggles with the textbook, not in the diffuse way of asides during lectures (which can no doubt feel passive-aggressive), but in a focused, mindful way. Specifically, I decided to excerpt the part of the textbook that lived closest to my own research and annotate it richly in order to demonstrate the relationship between textbooks and their authoritative voices on the one hand, and the fragility and nuance of the underlying facts on the other.

Once I got going, it was actually really fun. I allowed myself to be playful in my writing—after all, it wasn’t going to Reviewer 2. I did some spirited disagreeing and added context. I got creative with page layout, added color pictures, and supplemented with figures I had made for talks. If the original goal behind the annotations was to correct some glaring errors and update some dates and other facts that had changed within the scholarly landscape, I found there was a lot more to say. After all, Taruskin’s book is noteworthy in part for the authoritative voice in which its author made his at-times-contentious assertions. Many of my annotations illuminated how fragile the information which the textbook presents as “facts” really is. I also found myself taking opportunities to draw attention to Taruskin’s rhetorical moves and the relationship between the details and the grand narratives that they ostensibly support (for instance, how a phrase like “it is hardly a coincidence” can in fact introduce something that may well be a coincidence).

Toward the end I took the opportunity to reflect on the outcome of the exercise: to remind my students that that the work of historians—music historians included—is never done because our understanding of the past and its cultural products is always contingent, and that knowledge about history gets old and outdated, just like other kinds of knowl­edge. It had only been sixteen years since the publication of this chapter, and yet look how much has changed in the meantime!

I ended up covering 23 pages of Taruskin’s Chapter 8 in a 21-page 11×17 PDF (for the most part, there was one scanned page of Taruskin per 11×17, occasionally there were two). A few screenshots of the pages are below, and you can download the whole thing at the end of this post.

An annotated page from chapter 8 of Taruskin's book.
The first page of my annotated Taruskin; on the left, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, p. 247.
An annotated page from Taruskin, with an image of a primary source in the right margin.
At left: Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, p. 258; annotations at right include an excerpt from the same manuscript pages reproduced in the textbook, but in color from the digitized version on Gallica (here).
An annotated page from Taruskin, with images of primary sources in the left and right margins.
That’s Taruskin’s p. 260 in the middle. Here my annotations got pretty technical.

Once I was done with it (exactly ten minutes before I needed to be), I distributed my Annotated Taruskin Excerpt to the students of my Fall 2021 survey. I explained a bit about the motivation behind the assignment and flagged that we would devote a significant portion of the next class to a group discussion.

The conversation was wide-ranging and lively, and went on for a good forty minutes. Many students had questions, some about the material itself, some about the field’s various takes on it. Not everyone was riveted: the annotations were too much detail for some. But what worked well is that it was very clear how this reading might be engaged with on multiple levels. One could simply read the textbook pages and ignore the commentary—at least it’s clear which is which. Or one can read the commentary selectively when it pertains to issues of interest. Or one can dive fully into the minutiae. The page layout does its work to keep clear boundaries between the textbook author and their own teacher.

By modeling my scholarly ways of disagreeing and pointing out the tendency of broad rhetorical claims to hide a lot of messy details, I believe that the activity helped my students think critically about information in general. Afterwards several of them told me that this experience changed their approach to reading the textbook, and to reading in general. And yes, the teaching evals got better. If my students can learn to be less credulous, more critical readers, then no textbook can hurt them.

If my students can learn to be less credulous, more critical readers, then no textbook can hurt them.

If my very biased take on Taruskin’s very biased take on the ars nova is of any use to anyone else teaching a survey, please by all means feel free to use it. But also, mutatis mutandis, this activity is generalizable. Most of the people who teach music history surveys are expert in some periods of it. Certainly I would love to know how my colleagues relate to the kinds of broad claims that textbooks make about their corners of the field. And I bet that at least some of their students would also like to know.

It doesn’t have to be The Oxford History of Western Music—there are plenty of other texts to disagree with. But I like to think that Richard, who often disagreed so publicly, so vehemently, and so polemically with other voices in the field, would have grudgingly approved of my approach. I also trust that the links between my page layouts and those of biblical and Talmudic commentaries would not have been lost on him. I did not get a chance to show him my PDF. I share it now in a spirit of friendly homage. After all, to disagree is to engage, and it is engagement that drives our scholarly pursuits. Any of us would be lucky to leave behind us so a large a body work with which others find it so rewarding to disagree.

Anna Zayaruznaya, Yale University

You may access the full PDF of Taruskin’s ars nova chapter with my annotations below.

A note about technology: My annotated Taruskin was made in Adobe InDesign. I’m happy to share the original file with anyone who would like to use it as a template., free for educators, would probably also work well. But I can imagine many ways to do this that do not involve proprietary software. Honestly it might have been even cooler as a hand-annotated scanned page. Also, since the full text of the textbook is online, annotations could easily be done entirely in Word, either in tables (e.g., original text in one column and commentary in another) or with commentary in footnotes.