Former campus professor wins Kyoto Prize for music

Italian Madrigal Conference, UC Berkeley

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Former campus professor Richard Taruskin has been awarded the Kyoto Prize in the Arts and Philosophy category, making him the first music scholar to receive this prestigious award.

Three winners of this international award have been recognized each year since 1985. Given by the Inamori Foundation, the Kyoto Prize honors fields not traditionally recognized by the Nobel Prize. The Kyoto Prize is intended for “those who have contributed significantly to the scientific, cultural and spiritual betterment of mankind,” according to the foundation’s website.

As previous winners of the music category have all been performers or composers, such as John Cage and Cecil Taylor, this year’s award is significant not only for Taruskin, but also for the field of musicology as a whole.

“Music scholarship is not thought of as music — it’s thought of in terms of history or cultural theory,” Taruskin said. “But to be given this award alongside composers meant a lot to me, because it meant musicology was getting recognition.”

Taruskin’s contributions to musicology are extensive. He specializes in Russian music, and published a study on Igor Stravinsky in 1996. One of his most ambitious chef-d’oeuvres was the six-volume textbook “The Oxford History of Western Music,” an extensive, narrative history from the early days of Western music to the late 20th century. He has also written for the New York Times and the New Republic, connecting social and political issues to music.

“(Taruskin) is very controversial,” said former colleague and campus music professor Bonnie Wade. “There are many — particularly American — scholars who really disagree with his opinions and perceptions about things.”

In reference to this controversy, Mary Ann Smart, another professor in the campus music department, spoke about an article Taruskin wrote for the New York Times shortly after the September 11 attacks, titled “Music’s Dangers and the Case for Control.”

The article defended not showing certain art during a sensitive time, for “censorship is always deplorable, but the exercise of forbearance can be noble,” he wrote.

“He is kind of unique among scholars who write about music in having such a clear ethical sense that’s consistent across his career,” Smart said. Smart added that she admires Taruskin for his narrative style in writing about music history that tells the story of the people behind it, as well as his dedication to making experimental music accessible to the masses.

According to the foundation’s website, winning the award means a cash prize of 50 million yen (about $450,000) for Taruskin, as well as the opportunity to speak at the award ceremony in Kyoto, Japan, in November. This is just the next step in his busy schedule of traveling and writing since retiring from teaching in 2014.

“It’s a very full life and very rewarding. I’m not settling down,” Taruskin said.

Contact Madeline Wells at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @madwellsdc.