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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. To read again that Beethoven introduced the trombone into symphonic music (to say nothing of the triangle and the big drum) should excite more sympathy than censure, and the idea that Schoenberg actually intended his Music for a film sequence as part of the repertoire for silent films, like the pieces labeled “Help, Help,” is too ludicrous to mislead, and too engaging to wish corrected.

The biggest howler of the first edition is left unaltered: on page 4, perhaps the most famous phrase that Mozart ever wrote, the opening of the G Minor Symphony, is quoted to exemplify a combination of agogic accent with an irregular dynamic accent: only that is not what Mozart really wrote. His phrase, of course, has neither a dynamic accent (even the editors sense this as they put it in parentheses) nor an agogic accent: the B flat is short and followed by a rest. The reviser must have left this error because of its grandeur.

Methodical errors, however, are more damaging than comic mistakes, 8va can only be omitted by a slapdash approach to listing musical abbreviations, and con abbandono can be translated “unconstrained” in a musical dictionary by someone who has before him only an Italian dictionary and not a single instance of the use of the term in a musical work—one, say, by Liszt. That is why the opening page of this dictionary is disquieting; it seems to be the work of a committee that never asked itself why anybody would look up a given entry. In the rest of the dictionary, the separate entries are largely composed as if specific musical considerations did not exist. They are brilliantly crammed with information, and often dangerously misleading.

How a correct and informative article can deceive the ingenuous may be seen from Swell:

In organs, mechanism for obtaining a gradation of sound, crescendo and diminuendo. It consists of a large room (swell box) built around one or more divisions of the pipes and provided with shutters similar to Venetian blinds, whence comes the name Venetian swell (G. Jalousieschweller). The chief enclosed division is called swell organ, a name that also applies to the manual from which it is played. The swell box is opened and closed by a swell pedal, operated by the feet. The first practical swell mechanism, invented in 1769 by Shudi, was used in harpsichords before it was adopted for the organ.

Leaving aside the minor irritant of a “pedal operated by the feet,” let us affirm at once that the information is absolutely accurate. The article, however, implies that the swell was little used before 1769; yet Burney, when he visited Europe in the early 1770s, was astonished to find only one swell mechanism in all the organs in Germany because, as he said, they had had them in England already for half a century. No doubt the English mechanism was not a “practical” one, but it existed and this may have its importance for Handel’s organ concertos. Most students and music-lovers will look up swell to find out when and where they were used, and the Harvard Dictionary will only fool them; the entry is useful chiefly for people who want to settle a bet about Shudi and the date of his invention.

This kind of lexicography is corrupting in an odd way; it gives the reader who happens to know better and can avoid the traps innocently set for him the pleasant sense of knowing more than the team of musicologists, many of them distinguished, who compiled the dictionary. This agreeable glow of self-satisfaction is unwarranted. The Harvard Dictionary knows perfectly well that English organs had swell mechanisms early in the eighteenth century. It does not relay Burney’s comment, nor is there any reason why it should, but it does inform the reader in the entry under Organ about the English swell. It does not, however, add a cross-reference to the entry under Swell because it is content to get things abstractly right without thinking of the reader or indeed of the musical reasons for consulting its pages.

For this reason, the praise that must be accorded the Harvard Dictionary with one hand must often be withdrawn with the other. The article on Swell is not an isolated instance, but the reflection of a fundamental irresponsibility. A Positive organ, for example, is indeed “a medium-sized medieval organ,” but the “very small positive” mentioned two sentences later existed during the eighteenth century. Under Rückpositif we are referred to Positif but not to Positive organ, and the complete entry for Positif reads “choir organ” with an asterisk referring the reader there. Why Rückpositif sends one only indirectly to Choir organ, and not at all to Positive organ is not easily explained, at least not charitably, and one must add that Choir organ sends one to Organ part III, and Rückpositif to Organ parts II, VII, and XII, II being here evidently an unchecked error.

Digging information out of this dictionary can therefore be a major excavation problem, and at the end one might still be forgiven for assuming that a small positive was exclusively medieval. Mit Andacht is thoughtfully and ridiculously indexed under both M and A, but I cannot see that the definition “with devotion” will enlighten anyone who does not already know that a religious context is meant. Luftpause is defined only as “breathing rest,” but not as a slight pause that is not indicated except by a comma, and which forms no part of the regular rhythmic structure.

If one wants to know why the finale of Mozart’s Entführung is called a vaudeville, he will not find here a definition of the form: a song for which the whole cast lines up, while each one separately sings a verse (this is sometimes called a vaudeville finale, but more often simply a vaudeville). Anyone puzzled by the eighteenth-century use of the term modulation will not be told that it meant voice-leading. The examples of typical rhythms of ars nova and ars antiqua are oddly chosen: the purpose of ars nova notation was to accommodate easily a wider and more complex range of rhythm, and the ars nova example is both simpler and more limited than the one of ars antiqua. This is another case where a correct presentation can misrepresent the essential musical point.

The failure to observe the fundamental courtesies of a dictionary makes a hash of the simplest musical concepts. Are the words and phrases, following Samuel Johnson, to be interpreted “with brevity, fulness and perspicuity”? Let us take as elementary an article as Answer, with its definition at once verbose, incomplete, and obscure (I quote the entire entry):

In fugal writing, the answer is the second (or fourth) statement of the subject, so called because of its relationship to the first (or third) statement. Hence, the succession of statements is subject-answer-subject-answer. See M. Zulauf, in ZMW vi. See Fugue; Tonal and real; Antecedent and consequent.

What is this mysterious relationship from which the veil is not to be torn? Simply that the answer is on the dominant or more rarely after 1700, on the subdominant, or—in the case of counterfugues inverted on the tonic. The further references will not help much: in Fugue, one must plow through a page of turgid, badly organized prose before finding that an answer is on the dominant—and the matter is left at that. Tonal and real makes no further advance on this, and Antecedent and consequent is even more reticent, and contains, besides, a misprint in the musical example doubly unfortunate because it is just plausible. In any case, why is there no reference to Dux, comes, which would at least give students a chance to display some unnecessary erudition? The editors of the Harvard Dictionary know all about answers at the subdominant (see Imitation) and at the inversion (see Counterfugue) but they do not know how to tell anyone that they know.

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