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The Musicological Marvel

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians

edited by Stanley Sadie
Grove’s Dictionaries of Music, Inc. (Washington, DC), 20 volumes pp., $1,900


The makers of dictionaries and encyclopedists in general have mixed, impure motives. The simple alphabetical order of the articles disguises other orders, more complex, less explicit. The editors of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, for example, wished to transform our notions of what was correct speech and to legitimize a whole series of popular American usages. Pierre Bayle’s great Dictionnaire historique et critique of 1695-1720 was a covert attack on religious intolerance. His spiritual descendants, the editors of the famous French Encyclopédie, hoped to transform society and all the traditional institutions of Europe. The first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians of 1877 was an extension of George Grove’s activity as a promoter of concerts at the Crystal Palace in London. It was intended to educate and widen the potential audience, and to confirm its taste for what Grove considered the best classical music.

Grove was, in fact, one of the most important forces in the establishment of Schubert’s reputation in nineteenth-century England. Grove’s Dictionary was meant primarily for the educated layman, for those who hoped to set their appreciation of concert music on a firmer foundation, to correct their taste by knowledge. It went successfully through five editions, each one brought more or less unsuccessfully up to date. In the later editions, of course, what was left of the original stock of articles had often been cut, slashed, and generally disfigured by rewriting.

The arrival in the 1950s of a German rival in fourteen volumes, Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (familiarly called MGG), put the preeminence of Grove’s into question. Musicology had meanwhile become an important and moderately thriving academic discipline, and until the 1930s the Germans had been the leaders in the field. A translation into English of MGG was proposed and, fortunately, rejected. It was decided to redo Grove’s almost from scratch, using practically nothing from previous editions. This was a courageous and a sound decision. Stanley Sadie, critic of the London Times, was appointed editor in chief, and turned the New Grove from the start into an Anglo-American enterprise. Partly because of the influx of exiles from Hitler’s Europe and partly because of the academic explosion of the 1950s and 1960s, during which even musicology became a growth industry, the United States had outstripped Germany in the production of valuable musicological research. The music departments of British universities are few in number and ill-endowed; against what they considered the high-powered, jargon-ridden, and German-influenced work of American musicologists, the British gloried in the native tradition of the gentleman-amateur in music, with his superior taste and his mastery of belle-lettristic style. Nevertheless the New Grove, although still parochially British to some extent, is largely dominated by the Americans, with a good deal of aid from the most distinguished European scholars.

The layman, to whom Sir George Grove addressed his work, has not been completely forgotten in the New Grove, but he takes second place (and a distant second, at that) to the professional. Not the professional musician, mind, but the professional musicologist. The performer and the composer will find a great deal to interest them in these pages, but not often much help—less, in a few instances, than they could find in some shorter musical dictionaries. The New Grove is a monument to presentday musicology, considered as a science or a humanistic discipline, a summa of musicological knowledge, a mirror of the profession.

The priorities may be seen in the listing of performers and musicologists. There are far too many unimportant entries for both, but where every minor musicologist receives a relatively full bibliography of his articles and books, only occasional mention is made of the recordings of a performing musician, and no discography is attempted. In the case of jazz musicians, whose work as composer-performers was rarely written down but often recorded, the omission of even a selective discography shows a lack of common sense, not compensated by a list of books that enables one to guess where a discography might be found.

The entries on individual musicologists generally repeat in large print what can be more exactly deduced from the appended bibliography. The breath of criticism is rarely allowed to ruffle the placid surface of these bland entries, and the New Grove reads like a musical encyclopedia into which a computer has alphabetically intercalated a union directory. One ought not to complain at the wasted space since it is precisely this sense of the dignity of a profession that is responsible for the triumphs of the New Grove.

And there are many triumphs. Foremost among them should come Harold S. Powers’s article on Mode,1 which reads like the brilliant, extensive, and elegant summing-up of a life’s work. I am, of course, incompetent to deal with many sections of this article, which occupies more than 150 columns, and I take much of it on trust, but the pages on modal theory of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries have an unsurpassed clarity and cogency. Powers not only outlines the way the old Gregorian modes were conceived at the time but also discusses the extent to which the theories did or did not play a role in the composition of music. Carl Dahlhaus’s article on Counterpoint after 1600 has a similar brilliance without as much fullness: Dahlhaus, with full justification, mounts an extraordinary polemical attack on the most common views of the relations of harmony and counterpoint.

Both these articles require from the reader a considerable background in musicological literature, and in music as well. The layman will find them impenetrable, the amateur and professional musician difficult. I doubt that many doctoral candidates in musicology will get through them with case. The average student has almost disappeared as a possible audience here: Powers and Dahlhaus are writing for colleagues. No doubt we must say (along with the admirers of Symbolist poetry): so much the worse for the common reader if one can produce writing of such excellence.

There are many articles in the New Grove of similar quality, and from many of these the common reader can benefit. But he is never present for long in the writers’ and editors’ view of their public. For example, about nineteenth and twentieth-century gavottes M.E. Little writes: “While all these share the duple metre of the old dance, none seems to have more than a vague neoclassical association with older music, nor exhibits any of the rhythms characteristic of the Baroque Gavotte.” No doubt the old gavotte was very different from the one Prokofiev wrote in the “Classical” Symphony, but in that case what did Prokofiev—and everybody else in the twentieth century—think a gavotte was? Modern gavottes do have certain rhythmic characteristics in common—at least, the modern gavotte is no more inconsistent than the seventeenth century one was. The readers who expect to find out what most musicians today think a gavotte is are not going to find out from the New Grove. (They could find out quite clearly from Don Randel’s Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music.)

Other examples of this neglect are only too easy to find. Here are two more: In “Donizetti,” we are told about “pertichini” and the reader who thinks they are a little-known form of pasta will not be enlightened anywhere in the New Grove. In “Gossec,” we learn that this composer used “rocket themes.” If the reader looks under R, he will be wasting his time. (I know where “rocket themes” are defined in the New Grove, but I am not going to tell.)


The heart of Grove’s Dictionary was always in the long biographical entries on composers, and the New Grove is no different. It has, in fact, considerably improved on its predecessors and provides perhaps the finest body of articles on composers to be found in any reference work. Many are models of their kind, but before coming to them, I must record two exemplary and instructive misadventures: Maurice Brown’s “Schubert” and Andrew Porter’s “Verdi.”

Porter is brilliant and satisfying on Verdi’s relations with his librettists, and good on Verdi’s life. It is in the section labeled “Composition, Style,” where he comes to the music, that his problems begin. He astonishingly groups all the middle-period operas from Ernani to The Sicilian Vespers together in this section, making a kind of monstrous amalgam about which he produces scattered observations, so that no sense of musical or dramatic growth comes forth. Even the late operas are stirred into the mixture. Verdi’s progress was not all upward in a straight line, of course, but those middle years from 1843 to 1855 were ones of great and interesting development.

An even graver defect is that Porter is able to convey no sense of how Verdi organizes an act. He mentions harmonic organization, and toys with it briefly and helplessly, finding too many contradictions. About the integration of aria, dialogue, scene painting, and action, which is at the center of Verdi’s musical achievement, he has not a word to say. Perhaps for this reason, when he arrives at the late operas, he does not mention the third act of Aida, which has generally been considered the locus classicus of such integration. On such matters, as well as on Verdi’s development of dramatic effect, the reader will learn more from Frank Walker’s jolly and superficial article on Verdi in the previous edition of Grove’s.

Finally, the whole section on Verdi’s music is filled with mistakes of analysis. These mistakes are of so elementary a nature that it is astonishing to find them in a musical encyclopedia of such high standards. I am afraid that I must detail some of them here if I am to be believed, and I hope that readers with no taste for these matters will skip the next few paragraphs.

Porter begins by discussing harmonic movement in Verdi, and writes:

Ex. 1 demonstrates one characteristic way of reaching D-flat major, a key much favoured by Verdi; Il trovatore can provide three others. The Act I trio, the baritone’s scena in Act 2, and the tenor’s aria (not its cabaletta) all end in D flat, though none begins in it. In the trio, Di Luna strikes into the key from its relative minor, by attaching a high F natural, tutta forza after a series of phrases starting with an emphatic F flat. The aria of his scena begins in B flat (“Il balen”); from a cadence in that key, a chromatic sequence settles on E flat, treated as dominant of a little A flat chorus, whose final notes are then reiterated as a dominant to the D flat cabaletta (“Per me l’ora fatale”). Manrico’s “Ah si, ben mio” begins in F minor and then makes 3rd moves to A flat, F flat, then A flat again as dominant to the D flat final section.

  1. 1

    The best definition of a modal system which does not go into technical detail would be “a means of classifying the ranges and types of melody.”

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