A Tone-deaf Musical Dictionary

Harvard Dictionary of Music

Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged by Willi Apel
Harvard, 935 pp., $20.00

The conventions of a dictionary are as formal as those of a sestina, a minuet, or the architectural orders. In a preface, Dr. Willi Apel ominously compares the use of his volume to a visit to the dentist, but that, too, has its formalities and its ritual. In this work, revised and enlarged after twenty-five years, the useful is evidently intended to outweigh the sweet. Nevertheless, no literary genre can so easily combine instruction with delight as the dictionary. The majesty of the OED, the intimate charm of the Petit Larousse, depend on the classical sense of propriety that they exemplify, works of art never read as wholes, but whose unity radiates and reveals itself in all their parts. In a dictionary, lack of grace entails a loss of utility.

The Harvard Dictionary of Music offends against decorum on the first column of its first page. It explains con abbandono only as “unrestrained, free” and not as “passionately”: under Abbreviations it gives con 8va (i.e., with octave doubling), but not 8va itself (transpose an octave upward or downward), which is more often used; and it implies that there is only one way to interpret on the piano, when there are two clearly distinct meanings to that notation (the Harvard Dictionary‘s interpretation would simplify a lot of wrist-breaking music, including Schubert’s Erlkönig). Even the initial entry, A, betrays its innocence of the properties of lexicography by listing a 2 as an example without explanation, apparently because it needs none. Yet if there were a cross-reference to A due, which comes up thirteen pages later, the less wary would learn that the meaning of a 2 is very ambiguous indeed.

In many cases, of course, if not in all, the uninstructed will be able to figure out what is intended (just as most anglophones will assume correctly that con abbandono means “with abandon”), but if this is to be the plea, why bother printing anything at all about A due beyond an identification of “due” as the Italian for “two”?—and this could safely be left to Italian-English glossaries. The Harvard Dictionary is cavalier about cross-reference, and even that first article, A, is miserly with the asterisk that indicates a separate entry under the word lucky enough to be starred: partbook and a piacere are among the elect, but antiphon must hope for the enterprise of the individual reader.

Now in none of these opening articles is the information given absolutely false: they contain errors of method rather than of fact. True howlers and misinformation of course abound in all dictionaries, and the Harvard Dictionary of Music is no exception, but they are to be expected and even welcomed; they complement the more serious parts of a work of reference as the satyr-play sets off the tragedy. I am as delighted as the next reader to find Ravel’s Jeux d’eau defined as Water-games, as if it were not the play of fountains but a form of water-polo …

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