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Richard Taruskin, 1945-2022

Dear friends of the Berkeley Department of Music,

We were saddened to learn this morning of the sudden passing of Professor Emeritus Richard Taruskin at the age of 77. The cause of death was esophageal cancer.

Richard was a beloved and deeply engaged member of the Berkeley faculty from 1987 until his retirement in 2014. In retirement he retained a strong connection to the department, regularly attending the colloquia in both musicology and composition and meeting often with colleagues and former students on his famous walks at Point Isabel.

Richard’s teaching and research inspired generations of students and transformed the field of musicology. He approached the history of music from an almost unique perspective, as a scholar who played cello and viola da gamba professionally and whose ambition and training as an undergraduate were in music composition. Among the many Taruskinian phrases that have become mantras for students and colleagues, perhaps none is as resonant as “the historian’s trick is to shift the question from ‘What does it mean?’ to ‘What has it meant?'” In his path-breaking publications on topics ranging from early music performance to Stravinsky and John Adams, as well as in his six-volume Oxford History of Western Music, Richard wrote histories that focused on what music did for and to its audiences and on how musical expression was entwined with political and rhetorical power.

In his famous courses in the history of European music, Richard taught students how to recognize musical signs and track harmonic process, features he treated not as ends in themselves but as a language for directing listener expectations and contesting existing styles. For the graduate students he advised, he offered a sharp sense of what topics were worth researching, an eye for clear writing and argumentation, and a steadfast focus on the stakes of their research–whose stories needed to be told and how they could challenge the status quo through their work. His colleagues will remember him as a generous and perceptive reader of work-in-progress, a passionate advocate for the success of the program and its students, an ever-engaged and ever-challenging interlocutor at talks and conferences–and, simply, as a very dear friend.

We offer our deepest condolences to Cathy, Paul, and Tessa, and to all who loved Richard. The Department will host a celebration of Richard’s life and work in the fall; details to follow.

with deep sadness,

David Milnes