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On Early Music

From: The Oxford History of Western Music. Vol. 1, The Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, p. 1

Our story begins, as it must, in the middle of things. The beginning of music writing in the West — which not only made history possible, but in large part determined its course — coincided with no musical event. Still less did it mark the origin of music, or of any musical repertory.

Something over a thousand years ago music in the West stopped being (with negligible exceptions) an exclusively oral tradition and became a partly literate one. This was, from our perspective, an enormously important change. The beginning of music writing gives us access through actual musical documents to the repertories of the past and suddenly raises the curtain, so to speak, on developments that had been going on for centuries. All at once we are witnesses of a sort, able to trace the evolution of music with our own eyes and ears. The development of musical literacy also made possible all kinds of new ideas about music. Music became visual as well as aural. It could occupy space as well as time. All of this had a decisive impact on the styles and forms music would later assume. It would be hard for us to imagine a greater watershed in musical development.


From: Antoine Busnoys, Collected Works. Part 3, The Latin-Texted Works: Commentary, ed. by Richard Taruskin, p. 4-5

In short, there is no compelling reason to assume that any other L’homme armé Mass is earlier than Busnoys’s, and there are some good reasons to agree with Strunk’s suggestion that Busnoys’s was indeed the first. Even though Dufay was the oldest composer to write a Missa L’homme armé, and certainly unmatched in prestige, it may nevertheless be doubted whether his Mass ushered in the series. It seems unlikely that the earliest Missa L’homme armé should have been one that did not carry a major-prolation signature (denoting augmentation) in the tenor part. Dufay, who was old enough to have used major prolation in its original meaning (i.e., minim equivalence with minor prolation), seems not to have employed it after the mid-1430s, and never in the augmentational sense that became the vogue in the Masses of composers of the younger generation. (In more general ways, too, Dufay’s super-complex and extremely lengthy Mass, in which the cantus firmus is often heavily embellished, has all the earmarks of an emulation rather than a model.) The notation of the cantus firmus was Besseler’s reason for speculating that Ockeghem’s Mass, which does use the major-prolation notation, was earlier than Dufay’s. But Busnoys’s Mass uses it too, and what is more, Busnoys (unlike Ockeghem) used the signature only in its augmentational sense.


On 17th- to 19th-Century Music

From: The Oxford History of Western Music. Vol. 2, The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, p. 13-14

All the earliest favole in musica were fashioned to adorn the same kind of north Italian court festivities, flattering the assemblages of ‘renounced heroes, blood royal of kings’ who were privileged to hear them, potentates ‘of whom Fame tells glorious deeds, though falling short of truth,’ as La Musica herself puts it in the prologue to Monteverdi’s Orfeo — first performed during the carnival season of 1607 to fête Francesco Gonzaga, the hereditary prince of Mantua, where the composer was employed. The words were written by the prince’s secretary, Alessandro Striggio (the son of a famous Mantuan madrigalist of the same name), and the whole occasion had a panegyric (prince-praising) subtext.

Thus the revived musical drama — the invention, after all, of a coterie of Florentine nobles — reflected (and was meant to reflect) the recovered grandeur and glory of antiquity on the princes who were its patrons. Like most music that has left remains for historians to discuss, it was the product and the expression of an elite culture, the topmost echelons of contemporary society. To put it that way is uncontroversial. But what if it were said that the early musical plays were the product and the expression of a tyrannical class — a product and an expression, moreover, that were only made possible by the despotic exploitation of other classes? That would direct perhaps unwelcome attention at the social costs of artistic greatness. Such awareness follows inescapably from an emphasis on the ‘esthesic,’ however; and that is perhaps one additional reason why the ‘poietic’ side has claimed so vast a preponderance of scholarly investigation.

One scholar who did not flinch from the social consequences of the untrammeled pursuit of artistic excellence was Manfred Bukofzer, in a still unsurpassed essay, ‘The Sociology of Baroque Music,’ first published in 1947. Bukofzer characterized the early musical plays, of which Monteverdi’s Orfeo was the crowning stroke, as the capital artistic expression of the twin triumphs of political absolutism and economic mercantilism, an expression that brought to its pinnacle the traditional exploitations of the arts ‘as a means of representing power.’ It was precisely this exploitation that, in Bukofzer’s view, brought about the stylistic metamorphosis… that, following the terminology of his time, he called the metamorphosis from ‘Renaissance’ to ‘Baroque.’


From: The Oxford History of Western Music. Vol. 2, The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, p. 381-382

Bach was well aware of the special place the St. Matthew Passion occupied within his vast output. He regarded it, too, as a testamentary work. He prepared a lavish calligraphic score of the work, replete with inks of different colors, to preserve it at a time when most music, including his, was composed for specific occasions, to be used and thereafter discarded. That fair copy passed into Carl Friedrich Zelter’s possession and provided the vehicle for Bach’s rediscovery and canonization as a musical Founding Father when the twenty-year-old Felix Mendelssohn, a pupil of Zelter who would have a distinguished career as composer in his own right, conducted a performance of the St. Matthew Passion at the Berlin Singakademie on 11 March 1829, a little over a century after its first performance in Leipzig.

This was an event of immense cultural significance. It placed Bach in a new context, one in which the very aspects of his style that had led to his temporary eclipse — its complexity, its conservatism, its uncompromising religiosity, its very asperity, which caused it to be dismissed by some critics even during his lifetime as showing an ‘excess of art’ and a ‘turgid and confused style’ — could now be prized and held up as a model for emulation. The conditions that brought about this change in Bach’s status had a great deal to do with the burgeoning of Romanticism ….


From: The Oxford History of Western Music. Vol. 2, The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, p. 381-382

There is no hard evidence to support the view that Mozart’s music contains a Romantic emotional self-portrait; there is just the widespread opinion of his contemporaries, and the supposition that the composer, late in life, may have subscribed to what was fast becoming a conventional code.

The supposition is often supported by citing the virtually operatic first movement of the G-minor Symphony, with its atmosphere of pathos, so unlike the traditional affect of what was still regarded in Vienna as party (or at least as festive) music. That atmosphere is conjured up by two highly contrasted, lyrical themes, a wealth of melting chromaticism, and a high level of rhythmic agitation. As with Haydn’s extraordinary concision, Mozart’s lyrical profusion is perhaps his most conspicuous feature. And yet it would be a pity to overlook in our fascination with Mozart’s prodigal outpouring of seemingly spontaneous emotion, the high technical craft with which a motive derived from the first three notes of the first theme — exactly as in Haydn’s ‘Joke’ Quartet — is made to pervade the whole musical fabric, turning up in all kinds of shrewd variations and contrapuntal combinations. It is the balance between ingenious calculation and (seemingly) ingenuous spontaneity, and the way in which the former serves to engineer the latter, that can so astonish listeners in Mozart’s instrumental music.

Mozart Listening Samples


From: The Oxford History of Western Music. Vol. 2, The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, p. 654-655

[Beethoven’s] deafness caused him to disappear physically from the musical scene. It removed him, so far as the musical world was concerned from the ‘real time,’ the time frame in which musical daily business was conducted. His creative activities now took place in an unimaginable transcendent space to which no one but he had access. The copious sketches he made for his compositions beginning in the late 1790s (and, somewhat bizarrely, kept in his possession throughout his life) have precisely for this reason exercised an enormous fascination — and not only on musicians or musicologists — as a lofty record of esthetic achievement, but also as an ethically and morally charged human document of Kampf und Sieg (struggle and victory).

The creative and performing functions were in Beethoven gradually but irrevocably severed, leaving only the first. And that sole survivor, the creative function, was now invested with a heroic import that cast the split — again, just as romantic theory would have it — in ethical, quasi-religious terms. Never again would the performing virtuoso composer, on the Mozartean model, be considered the ideal. The composer — the creator — became a truly Olympian being, far removed from the ephemeral transactions of everyday musical life — improvisations, cadenzas, performances in general — and yet a public figure withal, whose pronouncements were regarded as public events of the first magnitude. That was the difference between Beethoven and such earlier nonperforming composers as Haydn. Haydn passed most of his creative life in the closed-off, private world of aristocratic patronage, while Beethoven, even after his social alienation, spoke to the mass public….


From: The Oxford History of Western Music. Vol. 2, The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, p. 670-671

To read Beethoven’s music as a metaphor of the universal world spirit was as seductive a notion as it was perilous.

What made it perilous was the tendency it encouraged to cast one’s own cherished values as ‘universal’ values, good (and therefore binding) for all. To see all music that did not conform to the heroic Beethovenian model as deficient to the extent of the difference was to discriminate invidiously against other possible musical aims, uses, and styles. To the extent, for example, that the Beethovenian ideal was identified with virility, or with at times violently expressed ‘manly’ ideals of strength and greatness, it invited or reinforced prejudice against women as composers, even as social agents. To the extent that it sanctioned neglect of the audience’s pleasure, it could serve to underwrite gratuitous obscurity or difficulty. To the extent that it exalted the representation of violence, whether of Kampf (struggle) or Sieg (victory), it could serve as justification for aggressive or even militaristic action. To the extent that it was identified with German national aspirations or (as we will very shortly see) with a concept of German ‘national character,’ it encouraged chauvinism. To the extent that it was identified with middle-class norms of behavior, it paradoxically thwarted the expression of other, equally ‘romantic’ forms of creative individualism.

That these unwarranted and undesirable side effects have at various times emerged from the Beethoven myth is a matter of historical fact. Whether they are implicit (or, to speak medically, ‘latent’) in it is a matter for continued, and possibly unsettleable, debate.


From: The Oxford History of Western Music. Vol. 3, The Nineteenth Century, p. 479-480

So emblematic is Wagner of his time and his country, in their most glorious as well as their most horrible aspects, that he has become a figure of furious and apparently unendable debate. ‘Suffering and great as that nineteenth century whose complete expression he is, the mental image of Richard Wagner stands before my eyes,’ wrote the thoroughly haunted German novelist Thomas Mann in 1933 (‘not, I confess, without misgivings’), right before going into temporary exile from a Germany whose violent and rancorous new leaders saw themselves as Wagner’s heirs. Yet Mann saw himself as Wagner’s heir, too; and so willy-nilly, have all twentieth-century Germans, and all European and Euro-American musicians regardless of nationality.

And not only Germans, and not only musicians. Wagner’s influence has been so great that the intellectual historian Jacques Barzun — in a once widely read book called Darwin, Marx, Wagner — cast him as one of the three pivotal figures of the mid- to late nineteenth century who ushered in the agonizing modern age, the age of the godless and materialistic twentieth century. The threat to Christianity posed by Darwinism, with its rival history of creation, and by Marxism, with its rival theory of social justice, is obvious. The nature of Wagnerism is more difficult to pin down, and not only because Wagner worked in a nonverbal medium (for he wrote words, too, well-nigh graphomaniacally). Clearly he was no materialist in the sense that Darwin and Marx were materialists. He even wrote a couple of ostensibly Christian dramas about knights of the Holy Grail: the already-mentioned Lohengrin (1848) and Parsifal (1882), his last work, whose title character was Lohengrin’s father. Wagner was in an important sense a religious thinker in his own right. That is why Wagner’s name — uniquely among artists — has become an ‘ism.’


On Stravinsky & Russian Music

From: Opera and Drama in Russia: As Preached and Practiced in the 1860s, p. 427

‘Between Glinka and his “grandsons”,’ wrote Asafiev, ‘stood three: Dargomyzhsky, Cui and Serov.’ But his characterization of this middle generation — the musical vanguard of the 1860s — is disconcertingly negative. Dargomyzhsky is ‘helpless and, compared with Glinka, a veritable beggar.’ Cui is ‘an outsider and an alien, who created a world of lyrical moods, utterly isolated.’ And as for Serov, the most important of them, he ‘traveled a true path, but as if blind and deaf.’ The period they dominated is viewed as one of ‘pathlessness,’ of ‘indirection’ (bezdorozh’e), during which Russian music, and Russian opera in particular, chased its own tail, until at last the generation of grandsons found its way back to Glinka’s legacy and inaugurated the classical period of Russian opera.

We would like to think that no one who has read this book will entertain such a judgment of the middle generation. If Glinka was the undisputed grandsire and Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Musorgsky and Borodin (to cite Asafiev’s list in his order) the undisputed generation of heirs, that still leaves open a number of interpretations of the admittedly ambiguous role of the men who came in between. Neither the inherent qualities of their work nor their relationship to the classical repertoire can justify viewing them with Asafiev merely as prodigal sons. They were fathers, too.

For not only — to recall the premise with which the present study opened — did they bring a conscious ‘high-mindedness’ to Russian opera (think now of Judith, The Stone Guest and William Ratcliff above all), but their work is an enduring monument to the close involvement of music in the realist explorations of the sixties, when for a time it looked as though Russian opera and art song were going to be transformed as thoroughly and permanently as the novel and the short story. If this did not happen — if the generation of the sixties now looks like a generation of extremists, off the mainstream — it does not mean that paths were not broken or that all their experiments were sterile. The generation of grandsons is as unthinkable without the fathers as without the grandfather.


From: “Musorgsky Versus Musorgsky: The Versions of Boris Godunov.” In Musorgsky: Eight Essays and an Epilogue, p. 204; and 19th-Century Music 8, no. 2 (fall 1984): 91-118 (Available online to JSTOR subscribers.)

The thesis that will emerge from this fundamental reexamination will be one that views the second version [of Boris Godunov] as no mere retouching, supplement, or bowdlerization of the first, but a new opera, in many ways opposed, both ideologically and musico-dramatically, to the old. The Imperial Theaters Directorate and its Opera Committee, it will be argued, played an altogether negligible role in determining the nature of the new Boris (though its rejection of the opera may have been the spur that set the revision in motion). A clear understanding of the divergent tendencies represented by the two Borises will perhaps inhibit the rage to conflate. Such inhibition should arise, in any case, not out of any a priori ethical compunction, but out of a better knowledge of Musorgsky, his time and place, his work, its ‘meaning’ and its ‘significance.’


From: Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra, v. 1, p. 956-957

Stravinsky and the Russian Tradition

Thus was born the famous ‘Method,’ whose progress was traced by Edward Cone in his classic article of 1962 and whose origins, according to Cone, were to be found precisely in The Rite [of Spring].1 Henceforth Stravinsky’s music would no longer meet the normative criteria traditionally deemed essential to coherent musical discourse. There would be no harmonic progression, no thematic or motivic development, no smoothly executed transitions. His would be a music not of process but of state, deriving its coherence and its momentum from the calculated interplay of ‘immobile’ uniformities and abrupt discontinuities.

The only process that remained would be that of accumulation, The Rite’s governing principle par excellence. The ballet as a whole is structured on it, each of its two parts beginning quietly and slowly and building to a concluding frenzy. On more local levels, too, accumulation is potent: prime movers in The Rite are the mounting tension caused by the expectation of imminent change after prolonged unmodified activity and the sonic crescendo resulting from the gradual piling-up of individually unaffected elements.

In all other ways state, not process, would be the norm. A chord that in Rimsky-Korsakov could justify its existence only by ‘cunning preparation and resolution,’ by the processes of its becoming and its proceeding, could now simply be. A motif that could justify its myriad repetitions in Chaikovsky or Glazunov by the cleverly shifting harmonic and coloristic environments the composer was able to devise for it now simply added its voice to the chorus of similarly static ingredients. To an extent previously unthinkable in ‘cultured’ music, chord and motif were hypostatized, turned into stone, timbrally and registrally so fixed that even transposition — let alone transformation or transition — were inconceivable.


1. Edward T. Cone, “Stravinsky: The Progress of a Method,” in Perspectives on Schoenberg and Stravinsky, ed. Benjamin Boretz and Edward T. Cone (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), 156-64.



From: “Russian Folk Melodies in The Rite of Spring.Journal of the American Musicological Society 33, no. 3 (Autumn 1980): 501-543 (Available online to JSTOR subscribers.)

We have seen that Bartók already recognized that the ‘primitivistic’ device of ostinato as Stravinsky employed it in The Rite of Spring was related to the practices of Russian folk song. But just how concrete that relationship was has, I think, never been fully appreciated, owing to the lack of data, to which Bartók also referred. The epoch-making innovations of Stravinsky’s ballet were given an important impetus by an investigation of the properties of folk music, and by a selection of source melodies that in turn was governed by considerations of ethnological and historical appositeness that bring to mind the best traditions of the ‘kuchka,’ particularly as practiced by Rimsky-Korsakov in May Night, in Snegurochka, in Mlada, and in Christmas Eve. The difference, of course, was that Rimsky-Korsakov sought in the songs of Russian folk ceremonial only thematic material, which he then subjected to a treatment in the style of the mainstream of European art music that became, as his career wore on, increasingly conventional, even academic. Stravinsky, by seeking in folk songs something far more basic to his musical vocabulary and technique, was to use them as part of his self-liberation from that artistic mainstream, and as things turned out, its downright subversion.


On 20th-Century Music

From: The Oxford History of Western Music. Vol. 4, The Early Twentieth Century, p. 3

It is time to state explicitly the implicit paradox that ran through our whole discussion of Wagner and his ‘future-istic’ methods. The most radically innovative composer of the nineteenth century — or at least the man so reputed, however equivocally — was in fact no friend of modernity. On the contrary, the social vision that motivated Wagner’s artistic reforms was one of restored premodern harmony. At least by the time he finished the Ring, Wagner was not a futuristic utopian but the very opposite, a nostalgic (which is to say, a reactionary) one. The nostalgic vision, widely shared in the nineteenth century in direct reaction to the social discombobulations caused by modernization, informed not only Wagner’s spectacular artistry but also his horrid politics. For the very incarnation of modernity in its every threatening aspect was, for Wagner and for every other nostalgic nationalist, the figure of the emancipated, assimilated, urbanized Jew.

And so, inevitably as it might seem, two of the paradigmatic early modernists within the German sphere — two of the leaders in the radical acceleration of stylistic innovation and technological advance that we will now be tracing — are Mahler … and Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), both of them emancipated, urbanized, and assimilated Austrian Jews. Their modernism was widely taken — not only by their enemies, but also by their supporters and even by themselves — as the expression of that social emancipation and racial assimilation. Modernism, for them, was a source of optimism in the face of romanticist gloom. As always, what threatened some promised deliverance to others.

But it also expressed withal (and inevitably) their ineradicable sense of outsiderhood and, eventually — for Schoenberg, especially — of social alienation. And so modernism — like the romanticism it in some ways continued, in others supplanted — has always been an ambiguous and ambivalently regarded phenomenon. There is radicalism of ends and radicalism of means; and as Wagner’s case already makes clear, the two do not necessarily coincide. Not all radicalism should be regarded as modernism. And not all modernism requires radical means of expression.


From: “Scriabin and the Superhuman: A Millennial Essay.”
In Defining Russia Musically: Historical and Hermeneutical Essays, p. 356-357

Jean Delville’s title page for Scriabin’s Promethée (1912): “The fire that blazed in his eyes rivalled the rays of the sun” (Balzac, Séraphîta).

So it is not enough, never enough, to attribute early twentieth-century maximalism — of which the grandiose unfinished, and perhaps unfinishable, eschatological torsos of Schoenberg, Scriabin, and Ives stand as preeminent musical mementos — simply or solely to a ‘pressure within the art.’ The arts are not detached from the rest of existence or experience; they receive and react to pressures from many sources. Not only their contents, but also their forms and procedures — including the procedure of detaching them from the worldly — arise in response to worldly pressures. ‘What form will religious sentiment assume? What will be its new expression?’ asked Balzac in the preface to Le Livre Mystique, of which Séraphîta a part. ‘The answer is a secret of the future.’ That future is now past to us, and the religious sentiment has again become a secret. But it is as a vision of human perfectibility, at the very least, a vision of ‘ascent to a higher and better order,’ that we may look upon, and take inspiration from, the early atonal vision.

The quoted phrase formed the conclusion of Schoenberg’s letter to Slonimsky, describing what Schoenberg saw as the victory of the twelve-tone technique. It could just as well have been a citation from Séraphîta. As Webern revealed, Schoenberg justified his explorations on a specifically Balzacian, occult basis. The surmounting of the major-minor dichotomy was for Schoenberg no mere technical breakthrough but a spiritual ascent — a porïv — to a superhuman condition: ‘Double gender,’ he proclaimed, ‘has given rise to a higher race!’1 No less than Scriabin, then, Schoenberg spoke in the voice of the vatic androgyne, as the text of Die Jakobsleiter and the mesmerizing title page of Promethée (by the Belgian theosophical artist Jean Delville) jointly declare. (‘The fire that blazed in his eyes,’ wrote Balzac of his angelic messenger, ‘rivalled the rays of the sun; he seemed not to receive but to give out light.’)2

The cold war rationalization and academization of dodecaphony caused that voice to grow cold and that face to grow dim. ‘As you read,’ said one of Balzac’s characters of Swedenborg, ‘you must either lose your wits or become a seer.’3 By now we have long since consigned Scriabin to the former estate, that of lost wits, but we have been unwilling to consign Schoenberg to either category. Instead he sulks in positivistic limbo, his methods venerated but his deeds ignored. But it is precisely the academic despiritualization of dodecaphony — more broadly, of atonality — that has led to its widespread, and justified, rejection.


1. Anton Webern (quoting Schoenberg), The Path to the New Music, ed. Willi Reich, trans. Leo Black (Bryn Mawr, Ps.: Theodore Presser, 1963), p. 37

2. Balzac, Séraphîta.

3. Balzac, Séraphîta.



From: The Oxford History of Western Music. Vol. 5, The Late Twentieth Century, p. 527-528

Is the new spirituality, then, just another screen behind which high art engages in its traditional business of reinforcing social division by creating elite occasions? The old questions that bedeviled modernism have not gone away with the advent of postmodernity — which is another reason, perhaps, to doubt whether postmodernism is anything more than the latest modernist phase. Or are such moralizing concerns of dubious benefit to art or to artists, whose task of creating beauty is a constant imperative, transcending the politics (or the ‘political correctness’) of the moment? The debate goes on.

And so we must take our leave of it without resolution. We have observed at least three coexisting if not contending strands of literate musical composition at the end of the twentieth century. There is a thinning faction of traditional modernists, mostly aging but not without new recruits, who maintain the literate tradition at its most essentially and exigently literate. There is a vastly overpopulated stratum of composers, as yet virtually without a nonprofessional audience, who avail themselves of new technologies that presage the dilution and eventual demise of the literate tradition. And there is a small elite of commercially successful caterers to the needs of a newly ascendant class of patrons who currently control the fortunes of the mainstream performance and dissemination media, insofar as these remain open to elite art. All three are energetically active, productive endowed with genuine talent. Which will prevail in the long run?


On Performance Practice

“The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past.” In Authenticity and Early Music, p. 193-194, and reprinted in Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance, p. 140

Text & Act: Essays on Music and Performance

… I hold that discussions of authentistic performance typically proceed from false premises. The split that is usually drawn between ‘modern performance’ on the one hand and ‘historical performance’ on the other is quite topsy-turvy. It is the latter that is truly modern performance — or rather, if you like, the avant-garde wing or cutting edge of modern performance — while the style, inherited from the nineteenth century, one that is fast becoming historical. The difference between the two, as far as I can see, is best couched in terms borrowed from T. E. Hulme: nineteenth-century ‘vital’ versus twentieth-century ‘geometrical.’ In light of this definition, modern performance, in the sense I use the term, can be seen as modernist performance, and its conceptual and aesthetic congruence with other manifestations of musical modernism stand revealed. What Carl Dahlhaus calls the ‘postulate of originality’ and defines as ‘the dominant esthetic of [Wagner’s] day’ is still with us even if Wagner is not, and still decrees that music, both as to the style of its composition and the style of its performance ‘should be novel in order to rank as authentic.’1 When this is understood, it will appear no longer paradoxical but, on the contrary, very much in the nature of things that the same critics who can be counted upon predictably to tout the latterday representatives of High Modernism in music — Carter, Xenakis, Boulez — and who stand ready zealously to define them against the vulgarian incursions of various so-called postmodernist trends, are the very ones most intransigently committed, as we have already observed, to the use of ‘original instruments’ and all the rest of the ‘historical’ paraphernalia. For we have become prevaricators and no longer call novelty by its right name.


1. The New Grove Wagner (London: Macmillan, 1984), 104.


Selections by Jerry McBride,
Head Librarian, Music Library and Archive of Recorded Sound.

Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources ©2008.


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