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.

Even if the three examples from Il Trovatore were correct, they would be of no interest. Why would anyone want to know how Verdi gets to D flat major, unless it was as an illustration of some larger point about Verdi’s harmony?2 As Porter himself writes later: “Verdi’s predecessors all made notable departures from the standard form. So did he. It need only be remarked what is particularly individual about his practices.” None of Porter’s observations reveals anything about Verdi’s technique that could not be duplicated earlier in Rossini, Meyerbeer, or Donizetti. In any case, Porter’s analysis of each one of the three examples contains a vital error.

The first one is the most foolish: the Act I trio does not go from the relative minor (i.e., B flat minor) to D flat major, but is in D flat all the time. It goes from D flat minor to D flat major, and there is no change of key, but only a change of mode.

In the second example, the baritone scena “Il balen,” the crucial step in the harmonic movement which makes the structure intelligible has been omitted. After the end of the aria in B flat, there is a jump from that key into F minor. This key is the relative minor of A flat major, and Verdi has already modulated to A flat major by the time the chromatic sequence on E flat has begun. It is the leap into F minor which therefore provides the fundamental preparation for the move to D flat major through its dominant A flat. (The chromatic sequence mentioned by Porter is subsidiary, and confirms an action which is largely accomplished.)

It is the third example which reveals the most misleading confusion. The series F minor, A flat, F flat, A flat, and D flat is a set of objects of different orders of magnitude rather like “Afghanistan, Schenectady, and Times Square.” F minor, the first A flat, and the D flat are keys, the second established as a secondary related tonality. The second A flat is only a chord, and F flat is the prolongation of a chord into a phrase. Neither has been established as a key. Here, once again, Porter has left out a crucial step, one which explains the F flat. There is a change of mode from A flat major to A flat minor, and the F flat is merely a harmony in the minor mode prolonged through several measures. Unless this hierarchy is understood, no account of tonal relations makes any sense: it would seem as if the great D.F. Tovey had written in vain.

Perhaps I should say at once that I do not consider this form of analysis (by tonal area and harmonic roots) particularly interesting or of much value in itself until it is combined with other considerations; I would agree with many schools of analysis (like that of Schenker) that it touches only the surface of the music. However, if it is to be done at all, it should be done with professional competence.

In the paragraph that follows the examples from Il Trovatore, we find the following analysis of the duet “Sì, pel ciel,” for Othello and Iago, from the end of the second act of Otello:

Othello begins this duet in A; his line descends to a low mediant, which is treated as a C sharp tonic, and three bars later to a high mediant in the new key, to which the orchestra supplies F major harmony. Othello ends his strophe in F, but with his voice on the mediant, A, which Iago and the orchestra at once take up in an A major cadence, completing the chain of 3rd moves. Iago then sings the bass line that had accompanied Othello, but harmonized now with an effect of 6-4 on its recurrent A.

This does not make pleasant reading even if one has the score or knows the passage by heart. The only point of such writing is a display of technical expertise—an expertise gravely compromised by the final observation “but harmonized now with an effect of 6-4 on its recurrent A.” Porter has not noticed that the duet starts with a 6-4 chord, and that every important harmonic change is in the 6-4 position. We can therefore make Porter’s two points about mediant relationships and 6-4 chords more clearly and more accurately, and replace all of his clotted prose with the following simple sentence:

The melody is conceived on a large scale as a series of rising mediants (A, C sharp, F natural, A), each step emphasized by a 6-4 chord.

This would be understandable even without a score.3

To lay bare such errors is harsh. After all, conductors give false cues, oboists crack at expressive moments, and pianists hit wrong notes. In an opera catalogue, I once listed a cello as a trombone, a mistake more comic than anything in Porter. But Porter’s mistakes are systematic, and they concern the elementary principles of harmonic relations. And all of these mistakes occur in a single column of the entry. The few pages of analysis that follow are not much more impressive. The most interesting observations are derived from Julian Budden’s book on Verdi, acknowledged by Porter. The recurrent themes that Porter finds in some of the operas are, for the most part, nothing but stock phrases which recur in all Italian operas of the period. When Porter writes:

A recurrent motif in many operas (and in the “Lacrimosa” of the Requiem) is the come un lamento figure (ex. 8), usually syncopated, piercing the texture like a cry of grief [ex. 8 is a simple acciaccatura, or short grace note, from below to a longer note],

he would have done better to quote Julian Budden’s warning that this motif does not always have a pathetic significance, and is often completely neutral. Come un lamento is not, as Porter implies, a characterization of the motif, but a direction to the performer.

The later operas from Simon Boccanegra on are treated chronologically and individually. Porter’s treatment of the revisions of several of the operas and Verdi’s work with the librettists is informative and enlightening. His account of these late years is well done, in an entertaining journalistic style that sets it apart from the other contributions to the New Grove. As long as Porter’s remarks on the music are unspecific, he is on safe ground: he evidently feels Verdi’s power deeply.

There is, finally, in this exceptionally long article on Verdi no convincing assessment of Verdi’s relation to his contemporaries. An instance of this failure is the treatment of the “patriotic” element in Verdi’s music. Porter speaks eloquently of the “power of Verdi’s melodies and strong, slow-surging rhythms to generate mass emotion.” Nowhere does he mention that this power to generate mass emotion is a characteristic of nineteenth-century grand opera from the Napoleonic period on. Influenced by the cantatas composed for the fêtes of the French Revolution, opera became the chief vehicle for the stirring march rhythms that are presumed to incite jingoism. Auber’s La Muette de Portici is even said to have caused a revolution in Belgium. Rossini (with William Tell) and Meyerbeer were the composers from whom Verdi learned most for this aspect of his musical technique. The political significance of operas like Un Ballo in Maschera and Simon Boccanegra does not interest Porter. The ferocious anti-clericalism expressed in Aida (by musical as well as verbal means) is only relevant for him as revealing Verdi’s personal belief. We learn more about the politics of Verdi’s career from earlier editions of Grove’s.

Other contributors to the New Grove were either less adventurous or more expert. Many of them prudently offer no technical information at all. The entry on Prokofiev goes into enormous detail about the life but barely mentions the works beyond giving titles and dates; you would never know from Grove that Prokofiev had ever changed his style, or even that he had one. Some composers were divided up between two contributors: it would perhaps have been wiser to treat Verdi like Beethoven, for whom Alan Tyson wrote the biographical, Joseph Kerman the musical, sections—but it must be added that Tyson is incapable of the kind of mistake that one finds in Porter.

Donizetti” was divided up, with Julian Budden taking the purely musical section: he enables us to trace his composer’s progress with great clarity, and his technical comments are always judicious, unpretentious, and illuminating. Friedrich Lippman wrote “Bellini”: there are unfortunately no musical examples, but many specific references to the music, all of which I found to be exact on consulting the score, as one would naturally expect from Lippman.

The disaster of the late Maurice Brown’s “Schubert” is a much graver matter: it arises not from imperfect competence or ambition but from a perversity in no way individual but professional. After recounting the life in much detail, Brown reaches the music. Amazingly and absurdly, there is no discussion of the significance of Schubert’s song cycles. I went over the article several times before believing that this could be so. Die Schöne Mullerin is not mentioned at all except for its date in the biographical section—and the new tragic tone of the individual songs of Die Winterreise is briefly discussed under “Mature Instrumental Music”!

Nowhere does the entry tell us what a Schubert song cycle is, and how it differs from Beethoven’s (and you are not going to find out from the inadequate article on “Song Cycles” either). Nowhere is the nature of what might be considered Schubert’s greatest achievement set out for the curious reader. The choral music gets even shorter shrift: in the section on the music, the beautiful series of works for male chorus and the masterpiece that is the A flat major Mass are wholly ignored. The famous problem of Schubert’s omission of part of the text of the “Credo” did not catch Brown’s attention.

On the other hand, we find two and a half columns on Schubert’s operas, which are of little interest to anyone except to a writer seeking to attract attention by exploring a wasteland where few have ventured before—and with good reason. (Not that there are not some good pages in some of the operas—how could there not be somewhere in a five-act opera by Schubert?) These columns are preceded by revealing sentences:

Nowadays the last of the sonatas in B flat (D 960), is frequently played and has taken its place with foremost examples of the classical sonata. His operas still await discovery, and thus need to be discussed in more detail.


The editorial standard of the New Grove is very high. A certain amount of foolishness is bound to creep into an enormous undertaking but there are no other such major blunders in the articles on composers. (I have read all the longer biographical entries, and hundreds of the shorter ones as well.) Before turning again to celebrate the triumphs of the New Grove, it may be asked how “Schubert” and “Verdi” could have been printed in their present state. There were numerous subeditors; much busy checking of facts and theories went on during the long gestation period. Some articles indeed were almost withdrawn by their authors because of subeditorial rewriting. To see how these mistakes could slip by is to realize how the New Grove is in many ways the mirror of contemporary musicology. The extreme case often reveals what is hidden at the center.

The preference for the unknown and the imperfectly appreciated is natural in a profession devoted to the production of doctoral theses and research papers. No other biographical article in the New Grove throws overboard the most important works to make room for the author’s narrow specialty as “Schubert” does, but many give disproportionate emphasis to the little-known. This is, in fact, not at all something to be deplored, but a good thing—provided that what is most important is given at least adequate treatment.

No one could object to the lengthy paragraphs on Mendelssohn’s Singspiel if the Songs Without Words—perhaps his most influential works for many decades—had been accorded more than two sentences (and not very interesting ones). The generous space given to Gesualdo’s religious works or to Rossini’s piano music are welcome because the madrigals of the former and the operas of the latter are so satisfyingly presented. Given the professional bias, it is surprising but not really incomprehensible that after Brown’s death in 1975 his article was not given to someone else for a necessary expansion. (The article is, in fact, a revision of the one in the previous edition of Grove’s. Brown never discussed the song cycles, but he did treat the choral music—could this section have been dropped by accident in the revision?)

The errors in musical analysis in “Verdi” probably went uncorrected for a different reason. Scholars of Western music are divided by and large into two groups: historians and analysts. They do not much like or trust each other. Historians who have mastered analytical techniques are rare (although there are more than there used to be); analysts with a sense of history are perhaps even rarer. I should imagine that the subeditors of the biographical entries were historians even less equipped to deal with music theory than the authors they were checking. At any rate, such matters evidently did not lie close to their hearts.

This rift in musicological ranks is detectable throughout the New Grove. In many of the theoretical articles there is a lack of historical perspective. In most of the historical and biographical entries the theory is fairly primitive, and does not provide considerations of much interest, even where no gross errors have crept in. There are some grand exceptions to this opposition, however, and they provide the glories of the new edition. And it must be further admitted that there are cases where the mastery of one part of the musicological discipline is so fine that it would be ungracious to complain about what is missing.

Many of the biographical articles cannot be too highly praised. The “Haydn” of Jens Peter Larsen repeats what he has been saying for years but it is good to have it in English at last. The “Beethoven” of Tyson and Kerman is now the best available summary of recent thought and research on his life and work, and contains much that is original as well. Everything of importance is covered, and it is all readable. The summary of Beethoven’s place in history could not be bettered.

Kerman’s “Byrd” is equally fine and even more beautifully written. The “Handel,” “Bizet,” and last sections of “Gluck” are by Winton Dean. They are informative, provocative, and entertaining.^4

The “Rossini” of Philip Gosset is a dazzling model of its genre: the relation of Rossini to his time, the nature of his originality, his contributions to new formal structures, the details of his career—all this is set out with clarity and wit. A good deal of the history of the nineteenth-century Italian opera is illuminated in this one entry. The “Frescobaldi” of Antony Newcomb is also very fine and continuously interesting. Lewis Lockwood did the “Palestrina” with great elegance (as well as the excellent articles on “Renaissance” and on “Ferrara”): one wishes only that it were longer. His contribution to “Musica Ficta” and his “Cantus Firmus” are so good that one would like them expanded to twice their length as well.

The “Mozart” by Stanley Sadre, editor-in-chief, is clear, readable, judicious, and embodies much of the latest research. The biographical section of “Wagner” is by someone called Curt von Westernhagen (he was not distinguished enough to get an entry in the New Grove so I do not know where they found him, although the bibliography indicates that he has been working on Wagner since the 1950s). It is enlivened by a spirited defense of Wagner’s anti-Semitism which I do not much appreciate; the sections on Wagner’s music by Carl Dahlhaus are brilliant and original, as one would expect from this great scholar. He dismisses Rienzi with two sentences of no comment (I was amused to note that he, too, cannot bring himself to look at that score again—“the worst opera that Meyerbeer ever wrote” is how I think it should be known), but the pages on Tristan and Die Meistersinger are remarkable (particularly the insistence on the implicit chromatic background to the diatonicism of the latter work).

Nicholas Temperley’s essay on the music of Chopin is a great improvement over earlier efforts in Grove’s and over other reference works as well, but the article as a whole is an ill-sewn crazy quilt. The biography is the old one by Arthur Hedley tinkered with by Maurice Brown and a subeditor (only a subeditor desperate to justify his existence would have made the kind of niggling stylistic changes which neither improve nor worsen the original). They have left standing Hedley’s foolish denial of George Sand’s claim that Chopin revised and then went back to the original version, although an examination of the manuscripts will show that this was indeed sometimes the case; and they have added:

For Schumann, to whom Chopin owed the doubtful honor of being placed with Pantaloon and Columbine in the musical charade of Carnaval, he had little respect.

Chopin’s place in Carnaval is not with Pantaloon and Columbine, but between “Chiarina” and “Estrella,” that is, between the musical portraits of Clara Wieck and Ernestine von Fricken, the two women that Schumann loved.

Temperley claims the Préludes of Chopin represent “the art of ‘preluding’…used in the type of salon concert than Chopin occasionally gave.” That type of preluding, however, was modulatory—to get pianists from a piece in B, say, to one in F. I used to hear elderly pianists (like Moritz Rosenthal and Josef Hoffmann) do that when I was a child, and it has little to do with Chopin’s Préludes.

Temperley has many fine things to say about Chopin, but his understanding of Chopin’s polyphony is not very profound. Chopin’s transformation of what he learned from Bach was complex, and the relation of inner voices to melody is extraordinary. Temperley also misinterprets Chopin’s phrase structure.5 Nevertheless, his discussion is on a high level, it dispels most of the more banal misapprehensions of Chopin’s work, and treats Chopin’s historical position excellently and succintly.6

Contemporary composers have been bravely tackled. The “Berg” of George Perle and the “Bartok” of Vera Lampert and Laszlö Somfai are both outstanding (although the latter unfortunately does not mention Bartok’s experiments with quarter tones or discuss the extraordinary rhythmic experiment of the third piano etude); and Bayan Northcott’s article on Elliot Carter is excellent. The article on Roger Sessions is absurdly inadequate—indeed, incredibly so, and it took two authors to produce this mouse; except for the part that comes from Who’s Who, there are only a couple of columns of text (and two examples). The entry on Leonard Bernstein is equally unsatisfactory, with no real assessment of his achievement as composer, conductor, and educator. The article on George Antheil does not say anything much about the music, but at least it tells us that he collaborated with Hedy Lamarr in inventing a torpedo.

Most important living composers have found satisfactory advocates in the New Grove, and you would hardly guess from their defenders that any of them had ever provoked hostile criticism. Admiration is the order of the day, and the articles on twentieth-century music turn out somewhat bland. I suppose this was inevitable, and it is better than having a series of hostile entries, like the ones on Schoenberg and Stravinsky that were such a disgrace in the earlier editions of Grove’s.

The only modern composer who gets the knife in the new edition is Carl Orff. Since I have always detested the music of Orff, I have no personal objection, but it does abstractly seem a little unfair when others of equally low merits receive their meed of praise. Hanspeter Krellman writes: “Having discovered his technique in Carmina Burana Orff has continued to use the same means, though his later works are distinguished by a diminishing musical content and increasing metaphysical pretensions.” A little later he ends by giving his subject the coup de grâce: “Orff’s success has been in proving the potency of barbarism, and its limitations.” The editors add a long assessment of Orff’s educational work and print a big picture of a stage set for Carmina Burana, but I cannot think this will appease admirers of Orff. A great deal more of this kind of writing would have made the New Grove a livelier and even a better dictionary, but that would have meant the editors’ sticking their necks out, and no one likes to fear that he will look a fool in a couple of decades.

There seems to have been no consistent policy about musical examples. Why should there be several for Domenico Scarlatti (in an excellent entry by Joel Shevelove) and none for Clément Jannequin, the greatest French composer of the first half of the sixteenth century, too briefly treated by Howard Mayer Brown? Bibliographical policy was equally erratic. Modern editions of Wagenseil are not mentioned (at least for the concertos), while for other composers we can find out what has recently been made available.

I have certainly forgotten to cite some of the finest articles on composers, as well as a very large number that are merely completely satisfactory (that “merely” seems churlish, but what else is there to say about good entries printed alongside those which are incomparably better?). However, when we are faced with a monument like the New Grove, some problems of editorial policy should be mentioned. The difficulty of their solution is instructive about the state of musicology today.


Contributors were, to a certain extent, given their head—by and large, a good thing. Some treated life and works together, some separated them, some alternated them decade by decade or period by period. In general, this worked well. Yet there are certain aspects of every composer’s work that need to be taken up in a work of reference such as Grove: the influences on his work, his relation to his contemporaries, and, finally, Rezeptionsgeschichte—that is, the history of a composer after his death, the publication of his works (including the state of the text), his influence on posterity, his reputation and his place in concert life including the performances of the present day. Some contributors cover all of these, most leave out something or other.

The most influential composer in the history of music is J. S. Bach. The article on “Bach,” started by Walter Emery and finished by Christoph Wolf, is one of the finest in the New Grove. It stops short with Bach’s death in 1750. This is not Professor Wolf’s fault. He was evidently told that someone else was to cover the history of Bach’s music after his death. There is, indeed, an article called “The Bach Revival” by Nicholas Temperley. It does not fill the gap, or rather the yawning gulf, in the New Grove. The treatment of Bach’s reputation in the latter half of the eighteenth century is deeply inadequate. Temperley does not think it interesting enough to mention that the thirteen-year-old Beethoven knew the Well-Tempered Clavier by heart. (And why does Temperley think that with the works of the last years Bach “turned his back on what remained of his public” when his final work, The Art of Fugue, was prepared, for publication almost at once by the composer?) “The Bach Revival” has only two sections: 1, Germany and Austria; and 2, England. I can see that Italy was not interested in Bach, but what happened to France?

Nor does the article treat the influence of Bach’s music on composers of the first half of the nineteenth century—Mendelssohn, Chopin, and so forth. This information is scattered elsewhere (and sometimes even simply forgotten)—but there are no cross-references and no index. Temperley’s history of English performances of Bach before 1850 is interesting. After 1850, however, all is silence. The Bach Revival had been accomplished. The role of Bach’s music as the most important in music education that we have known; the extraordinary changes in the performance of Bach’s music in the past century; the totally unfounded theories of the early twentieth century that the Art of Fugue was for some unspecified ensemble instead of for two hands at the keyboard as everyone had known until then; the gradual entry of the “Goldberg” variations into the public consciousness largely through recordings—all this does not, for the New Grove, belong to the history of music.

One might almost infer something shameful about the history of Bach performance. The article on Busoni hurriedly dismisses his arrangement of Bach’s organ works in two sentences, and stays mum about his extraordinary and influential edition of Bach. When one reaches “Liszt,” Humphrey Searle writes only that “Liszt’s arrangements [of Bach’s organ preludes and fugues] are simple and straightforward and quite in keeping with the spirit of the music.” Six of them are, but the seventh is not. And why is a simple and straightforward arrangement in keeping with the spirit of Bach’s music? His own arrangements were sufficiently extravagant.

Wolf’s completion of the little that Emery had been able to write on Bach is so grandly satisfying and so clear that another lack goes almost unperceived: a discussion of recent theories on symbolism or numerology in Bach. (You will not find anything about symbolism in the music of Bach if you look at the article on Albert Schweitzer either.) I presume that Wolf considers most of these theories silly, and so do I, but the nonsense inspired by a composer’s music is often an important part of history. In a dictionary of this scope, the nonsense should have been sympathetically presented and then refuted. There should at least have been a cross-reference to “Cryptography,” which lists the studies of numerology in its bibliography.

The problems of editing music do not in general seem to interest most of the contributors to the New Grove, perhaps because the day when you could get a Ph.D. in music history just by making an edition of an unpublished piece of ancient music is fast disappearing. (Some of those doctoral editions were more useful and a lot more interesting than the theses that have replaced them.) In any case, the article on Brahms does not bother to tell us that he edited Couperin, the Chopin mazurkas, the Schubert symphonies, and the Mozart Requiem, and realized the figured bass for some of the volumes of Handel (and the bibliography lists none of his editorial work). The article “Editing,” by Howard Mayer Brown becomes very perfunctory in the last section, entitled “Music from 1750 to the Present Day”: most composers after Beethoven, he tells us,

followed his example by preparing their scores in so detailed a way that virtually every decision about performance was set down in writing, leaving performers merely to follow their instructions.

The naïveté of this is particularly staggering in so sophisticated a writer as Professor Brown. It actually represents, however, a considerable progress in musicological thought. In the 1969 edition of the Harvard Dictionary of Music under “Performance Practice,” we read,

In the period after Bach the problems of performance practice largely disappear, owing to the more specific directions of composers for clearly indicating their intentions.

The awareness of the subject has now been pushed up a half century from Bach to Beethoven. With a little effort we can get it up to Boulez.

The state of the text for each composer is sometimes dealt with well: by Dean for Handel, and by Karela Johnson Snyder for Buxtehude, for example. By others, it is brushed aside without comment. In his revision of his old article on Schumann, Gerald Abrahams passes over in silence the grave problems of all editions of Schumann’s music, including the most recent.


There is no article on “Music” in the New Grove. No doubt the editors think that they and everybody else know what music is and what “music” means. From a purely modern point of view they are quite right, and such historical innocence is disarming. The word music and its earlier equivalents (gmgogugdgigkgh musica) have signified very different things from the Greeks to our time: present-day readers would not even suspect some of these meanings. What has been accepted as music by different cultures at different times has varied widely.

Would Mozart have considered Stockhausen, or even Harold Arlen, music? (Which reminds me, the article on Arlen, whom many consider to be the finest writer of popular songs along with Gershwin, is grossly inadequate.) Schumann thought the last movement of Chopin’s B-flat minor sonata was not music, and Chopin felt the same of Schumann’s Carnaval. Surely an article that made us understand what they could have meant would have been a credit to the New Grove.

A little more skepticism would help our study of music in every way. A little less confidence that scholars know what music is, or even what a piece of music is, a little more uncertainty about what the history of music is and how it is to be approached, a larger suspicion that the way to arrive at an adequate idea of performance is never simple and absolutely never straightforward—this is what we all, musicologists, critics, and performers, need to acquire. In other arts and sciences the most common and fundamental axioms of the different disciplines are being questioned, but not in musicology—at least not in the New Grove. The self-confidence is sometimes appalling: we are told in “Word Painting” that the art of expressing an individual word by music ceased after the Renaissance and the Baroque, except for the rare composer like Haydn and Brahms! “History is what you remember” may have a certain subjective grandeur, but “history is what belongs to my narrow specialty” is only comically petty.

The blinkered sense of history that one finds in such a large body of the profession—I am not of course speaking of the dozens that transcend those limitations, but of the thousands who are happily unaware of them—made the article “Historiography” a kind of complacent bibliographical survey which raises few of the problems of writing felt so keenly in other fields—and for more than a century. “Wie es eigentlich gewesen war“—to reconstruct the past “the way it really was”—often seems to be the naïve ambition of the average music scholar. Those who stand a little aside are treated discourteously. The summary of the musicologist Leo Treitler’s historiographical views is mistaken, and the article on Theodore Wiesengrund Adorno, about a quarter of the length it ought to be, is a travesty of his thought. I deeply dislike the work of Adorno, but he is the most important and influential writer of our time on the sociology of music, and no responsible historiographer would have treated him as the New Grove does.

Theory, with some great and honorable exceptions, seems to exist way above the sublunar, historical sphere. Else how could Roger Bullivant, in an otherwise mediocre article on “Fugue,” write that Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis “is in fact intended, like Bach’s Art of Fugue, for complete performance”? Except for this, Bullivant pays no attention to Bach’s system of classifying fugues in the Art of Fugue, but why does he think Bach intended a complete performance? Under what circumstances? For what audience?

Roger Scruton’s articles on “Expression” and on “Program Music” are among the best written in the New Grove. Although for Scruton the concept of “expression” has a history, the “nature of musical expression” has been platonically withdrawn from the reach of the hand of time. The possibilities of “expression” seem absurdly to be the same for all ages, for Gregorian chant as for the Italian madrigal. Program music, although it has a history, is not related to the history of musical style and to the way music is embedded in the cultures that produced it. This suggests that Scruton, like the editors of the New Grove, thinks there is something eternally fixed and absolutely independent of culture called Music (although revealed in different forms to different peoples)—which is why we do not need an article to tell us what musics are.

In “Absolute Music,” Scruton never suspects for a moment the way the creation of this concept coincides with the rise of public performances of pure instrumental music. It would have been better for Scruton to have considered the purpose for which the idea was invented before examining its coherence or its tenability. A similar isolation from reality characterizes Winton Dean’s graceful and charming revision of his earlier article on “Criticism.” For him, in an elegant, old-fashioned way, criticism is judgment: it concerns only values. The role of the critic in musical life as a whole occurs to him only peripherally.

The critic disseminates information: he conveys professional opinion (advanced or reactionary, depending on his taste) to the lay public. He is necessary to the economy of music. If the article had been called something less highfalutin than “Criticism,” like “Journalism,” perhaps it would have been more cogent. However, when Dean says that critics should be gentle with performers who may be playing below their best, he warms my heart. He must be a very kind man. Nevertheless, Grove could use a whole new set of articles on aesthetics that relates it to the development of musical style, and to the realities of musical life.

Even for some of the historical articles, the static conception dilutes their usefulness. George J. Buelow’s articles on rhetoric and music (a now very fashionable subject) represent a great advance in the study of Baroque music; they are interesting, beautifully documented and solid—indeed, too solid. There is a very long list of rhetorical tropes with references and several musical examples; the references come from books written between 1601 and 1745. The impression given by the article that the use of rhetorical figures was a consistent practice from 1600 to 1750 supported by an unchanging body of doctrine is an illusion. History is much more jumbled than that. Buelow never asks to what extent rhetorical doctrine guided composers and to what extent it was a post-facto justification of things done for quite other reasons, and he never considers whether some of his tropes (like antitheton, a musical contrast) are so general that they could be found in practically any music anywhere any time.

The lack of historical perspective in musicology as reflected by the New Grove arises largely from the naïve but rooted belief that a piece of music is what a composer heard in his head as he wrote it down—or, since this is too speculative and unverifiable an approach, what his contemporaries thought the piece should sound like when they played it. This old-fashioned attitude is beginning to crumble, and there are many musicologists who understand the peculiar metaphysical and ontological assumptions on which it rests, but it appears solid in many quarters.

Both the erosion of the old philosophy and the resistance to change are revealed in one of the most useful and enlightened articles in the New Grove, Robert Donington’s “Ornaments.” At the end of the section on trills, he distinguishes brilliantly between the expressive trill of the Baroque (which is both a harmonic and melodic dissonance) and the modern trill which is a prolongation and coloring device:

The modern trill, which is lowernote and unterminated…, is neither a harmonic ornament nor scarcely a melodic one, rather an ornament of emphasis or a coloration of the texture.

Exactly. Then why does Donington a page earlier write: “Neither is it any more correct…to apply the modern trill to Beethoven than to J.S. Bach…. Hence Beethoven’s trills should begin with the upper note”? It is clear that some of Beethoven’s trills already reveal the modern emphatic and coloristic function while others retain the old expressive one.

Even if Beethoven played all his trills in the old-fashioned way as he was brought up to do, that by no means implies that he was right, but only that he did not see the significance of his own innovations. As a matter of fact, Beethoven vacillated: he began writing the trill at the end of the Waldstein sonata in the modern fashion and then crossed it out and shifted to the old. Was he right? My own practice would be to play Beethoven’s trills inconsistently—bringing out the new functions the modern way, the old ones in Baroque fashion according to the passage and the context. (Perhaps there was no time at the last minute for the editors to enter the lengthy controversy between Robert Winters and W.S. Newman on this matter into Donington’s bibliography.)

Ornaments” is comically restricted to the Baroque era, leaving the Renaissance and the nineteenth century to “Improvisation,” although not all of Renaissance and modern ornamentation is improvised and much is written down. That gives eighty columns for Baroque ornamentation, and six (in “Improvisation”) for everything after 1800 (excluding jazz), a grotesque proportion. No details about Rossini’s or Chopin’s ornamentation are given, for example. But then in “Fingering,” pianistic advance seems to stop with Czerny: none of the innovations of Chopin, Liszt, Ravel, or Stockhausen rates a mention.

Even more astonishing is Donington’s omission of “Rubato” from his article on ornaments, although it was classified as an ornamental technique by eighteenth-century theorists. In his separate, brief, and drastically inadequate article under this heading, he does not quote Mozart’s of Chopin’s definition, or Türk’s (in his Klavierschule, published in 1800, but written years before). Donington’s description would not fit Mozart’s practice (which was to play the melodic notes in the right hand late, after the left, the way Harold Bauer and Paderewski, among many others, used to do). He gives no examples. At least Liszt’s strange system of signs for indicating rubato, invented in the first edition of the Paganini etudes, should be cited (they are also ignored in “Liszt,” “Notation,” and “Tempo and Expression Marks”); and an example of Mozart’s written-out rubato should be printed (the slow movements of the C minor piano sonata, or the late A major violin sonata would provide good ones).

This would have provided some sense of historical continuity between the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century. A feeling for this would have helped the two contributors to the New Grove who say that E.T.A. Hoffmann considered Beethoven the typical Romantic composer, without adding that Haydn and Mozart were Romantic for him, too. And Bach as well. “Romanticism” by John Warrack goes no further than the platitudes of the 1930s and 1940s on this subject. There has been considerable revision of the prevailing ideas on Romanticism in literature and art recently. The platitudes of the 1970s may be no better than the earlier ones, but musicians do not need to be protected from them.

A noble exception to this isolation from non-musical culture is Daniel Heartz, whose articles, “Rococo,” “Classicism,” “Sturm und Drang,” and others show a wide and impressive grasp of recent developments. In my opinion, these articles are also wrong-headed, but I take no particular stock in my own opinion, so why should anybody else? Arguments would be necessary, and I have no more space to argue—only to urge everyone to read Professor Heartz.

The rigid historicism of orthodox musicological thought does not prevent some astounding anachronisms. The greatest composer in England at the end of the fifteenth century was John Browne, about whom nothing is known—understandably, with a name like that, no one can decide which of the possible John Brownes was a composer. The New Grove clearly knows how important he is, since it gives a full page of quotations of his music, an honor accorded to few others. Comments on these quotations are absolutely minimal, nor did the contributor, John Caldwell, think it necessary to list Frank Harrison’s Music in Medieval Britain in the bibliography (he lists nothing at all except the music), although Harrison’s pages on Browne are the only substantial thing written about him.

All that Caldwell finds to say on the third quotation is:

In the penultimate bar a particularly harsh form of false relation between [sic] the first, third and fourth voices is notated quite explicitly and insisted upon in a way which is most unusual in this period (ex. 3). Although the word is “gaudia,” the use of this device perhaps suggests that the joy is not to be easily won.

The “perhaps” of the last clause is an ineffective lightning-conductor: an ironic relation between text and music of this kind was just not possible around 1500. Even a sophisticated madrigalist a century later could not pull off a stunt like that: the appearance of such irony in the eighteenth century was a landmark in music and rare even then. But the comment rests on another anachronistic assumption: that an Englishman of the sixteenth century found false relations “harsh.” “False relations” are a dissonant use of major and minor either simultaneously or one right after the other, and there is good reason to think that the English, in their eccentric way, enjoyed the effect. They certainly seem to have used it more than any other nation and may have thought it expressive but not in the least disagreeable.

Some articles transcend a narrow historicism: Barry Brook places the “Symphonie Concertante” in a large social and historical context and relates its development with great clarity. Howard Mayer Brown’s “Chanson” is equally illuminating, but “Concerto” was written by a committee in a sort of parody of dictionary style—finding out details of the developing form or social function of the concerto is like trying to coax live snails out of their shells.

In “Modulation,” history has wholly deserted theory, leaving it stranded high and dry. The eighteenth-century meaning is nowhere acknowledged (the term used to mean “voice-leading” or even “counterpoint”). The authors (there are two) have not heard that a modulation must be prepared, and that the new tonality should be confirmed. There is no bibliography, not even to mention Max Reger’s famous book on the subject (Alfred Einstein once told me that when he was a student, he and his friends tried to find a modulation that Reger had not thought of: they invented one and sent it to him as a joke, and he printed it). There is no history of modulation. All the authors talk about is pivot chords (i.e., the chord between the old key and the new one). But history has her revenge: their first example of a pivot chord is not a pivot chord, and it does not occur in a modulation.

Characteristic [character-] piece” provides our final bit of evidence to show how the absence of historical imagination can mislead one to the polar opposite of the original meaning:

An early use of the term occurs in Beethoven, who called his Leonora Overture no. 1 a “Characteristic Overture,” by which he must have implied that it was characteristic of operatic overtures and dramatic in style. The two marches by Schubert published posthumously as op. 121 (D968b) were called “Characteristic Marches” by the publisher Diabelli, no doubt to suggest that they were characteristic of Schubert’s marches, many of which had already been published; this was in 1830, when the term was still unusual.

The New Grove thinks that “characteristic” like “music” is defined for all time, past and future, by our present use. A characteristic-piece is actually uncharacteristic, untypical—it has an individual character of its own. (The central importance for the nineteenth century of this kind of writing is very briefly but revealingly alluded to by Carl Dahlhaus in “Wagner.”) Far from being still rare in 1830, the term “characteristic” was used frequently in this sense (related to character-actor, caratteristico in Italian) around 1800 with the many “characteristic” sonatas of Vanhal (one of his title pages is illustrated in the New Grove, not with “Vanhal,” but with “Printing”).

Criticisms such as these must be justified, and consequently take a misleading and disproportionate amount of space. I have an enormous ragbag of niggling criticisms left (whatever happened to B.H. Haggin, Doda Conrad, Carlo Gozzi, etc., etc.?) and many major ones (the articles on Vienna, New York, Paris seem to have been written by Chambers of Commerce), but what are they when compared to the virtues of the work? Praise is too quickly achieved: there is little to say about the best articles (like Eric Sams’s “Hanslick”) except “Read Them.” An honest estimate of the New Grove must end with banal praise.

In its new professional form, the New Grove is the greatest musical dictionary ever published. Stanley Sadie and his colleagues have rendered a service to the world of music. Their dictionary far surpasses not only the earlier editions, but the German MGG; it is more readable, more informative, easier to use. The work lists, once you get the hang of them, are wonderfully useful, the bibliographies inconsistent but far-ranging. The New Grove is a magnificent achievement—so good, in fact, that it should be revised without delay.

* * *

Postcript: People who write about music are divided into three classes: those who contributed to the New Grove; those whose contributions were rejected; and those who were never asked. It is therefore hard to find an unbiased reviewer, the resentment of the members of the third class being sometimes the greatest of all. I belong to the second: my article on “Sonata Forms” was rejected, mainly as too speculative, and I rewrote it, quadrupled its size, added all the jokes and examples I had been leaving out, and turned it into a book—which, in fact, beat the New Grove to the press because the editors had a computer which filed articles with foreign accents (like Dvorák) and refused to disgorge them.

When the New Grove arrived, I was delighted to find that I admired the article by James Webster that replaced mine on “Sonata Form”; it is a brilliant, solid, and concise exposition of orthodox doctrine with many original touches of Webster’s own. I was of course secretly pleased to discover a tiny error toward the end: Webster seems to think that Beethoven wrote thirty-four Diabelli variations and brought the theme back at the end. There are only thirty-three and he didn’t. However, Webster is right to think that Beethoven would have brought the theme back if it had only been good enough. Instead, he transformed Diabelli’s waltz into a minuet.


The New Grove’ cont’d. December 3, 1981

An Exchange on the New Grove August 13, 1981

It Can Happen July 16, 1981

  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.”

  2. 2

    The context suggests that Porter is talking about the use of mediant relationships, but I cannot believe that he thinks that the movement from relative minor to major, although a minor third away, can be classified as a mediant relationship.

  3. 3

    If Porter wished to point out that the 6-4 harmonization is somewhat more emphatic at the beginning of the second strophe than at the opening of the first (although not more so than those of the intermediate steps), he would have to add some complex considerations in order to make the point relevant. I suggest the following rewriting: “The 6-4 chord (which places the dominant note of a triad in the bass in dissonant position), often abused by Verdi and his contemporaries in order to add excitement to simple triadic harmony, is amply justified in this duet, as the melody opens in an ungrateful range for the tenor and is played by the winds and the cellos while Othello sings an ostinato on the dominant above them. In the second strophe, Iago now sings the opening measures of the melody, which lie well for the baritone voice, while the orchestra now emphasizes in the bass the dominant sung previously by the tenor.” This, however, would be only niggling detail unless one raised the question of how texture, harmony, and tessitura (vocal range) are related in Verdi’s style, and it should reasonably lead to a still longer and more technical discussion.

  4. 5

    He cites a rare exception from the conventional four-and eight-bar phrase:

    What some consider h$$$reatest melody, that of the Study, op. 10, no. 3,…is built in units fire, three, five and seven and a half bars long.

    Five and three make eight, and the seven and a half is clearly divided by Chopin into three and four and a half. The four and a half is a five, as it ends on the fifth measure and the new phrase begins on an upbeat. The structure is $$$

    In other words, there is an overlapping grid of eight measures. This is very typical of Chopin, who often groups phrases by 7 + 9, and gives a wonderful surface suppleness to a slow, eight-measure beat with an almost hypnotic effect.

  5. 6

    But when he says that “Bach and Mozart were his favorite masters,” we must add Hummel to the list, since his influence extends at least until 1844.