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Within a Budding Grove

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Second Edition

edited by Stanley Sadie
Grove, 29 volumes, $4,850.00; on-line subscriptions at grovemusic.com for $295.00 per year, with other pricing plans available

The bibliophile and founding father of French Romanticism, Charles Nodier—or, rather, his invented alter ego, the bibliomaniac Théodore—walking in Paris along the quais of the Seine lined for several miles with secondhand booksellers, was appalled at the vast quantity of recent books remaindered and exposed to the rain and the urban dust, “the inept scraps of modern literature never to be ancient literature…. The quais henceforth are only the morgue of contemporary celebrities!”1 The miles of dead literature arranged in rows were, and still are, terrifying to behold.

Contemplating the development of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians from Sir George Grove’s personal and almost intimate four volumes of the nineteenth century into the double columns of the twenty tomes of The New Grove of 1980 and the twenty-nine of the present revision published in the year 2001 invokes a comparable despair and terror as well as considerable admiration. There are many splendid new articles that delight as well as instruct, but the spectacle of so many thousands of musicians and musicologists of the present and the past whose modicum of interest has either long since evaporated or will soon disappear in a few years or even months is awe-inspiring in its breadth. This is heightened by the ambition of the new edition to be up to date, to include recent trends, so many of them clearly unpromising—but who knows, after all, what posterity may find stimulating? Alongside the ephemeral present, The New Grove rightly preserves the memory of the once fashionable but now insignificant darlings of the past.

Everything in the universe is, I presume, potentially interesting when seized from the right angle, but all too often an encyclopedic dictionary must simply record the data without indicating where any interest might possibly lie. It is unfair, of course, to judge a specialized encyclopedia by riffling through the pages, particularly one that reads in part like a union directory to the present state of the profession of music history. One will properly consult The New Grove from time to time only for a single article, to look up a date, to check a reference. Going through it to see how it has been revised and improved is less like entering into a historical museum of music than into a musicological flea market in which a few treasures are hidden away under immense piles of bric-a-brac. So many articles represent the jetsam washed up by the millennial ocean of music history; and the detritus has only been increased by the new lists and bibliographies, more copious and more useful than before.

Some of the new articles are triumphs. Elaine Sisman’s “Variations” will be the definitive treatment of a major musical form for many years to come; its forty-two large double-column pages amount to a small book (although I think that the Brahms-Handel variations are more indebted to Beethoven’s Eroica variations than to his Diabelli set, as she has it). Andrew Bowie’s contribution on Romantic aesthetics to “Philosophy of Music” is equally satisfying (perhaps Johann Wilhelm Ritter’s Fragments of a Young Physicist should have been mentioned, since his assertion that not only is music the original form of speech, but that everything spoken is accompanied by an inner song, was repeated by E.T.A. Hoffmann in his Kreisleriana, and was therefore known to Schumann). David Fanning’s welcome new version of “Expressionism” is more cogent than the previous one of Arnold Whittal.

James Webster’s “Haydn” is so good that one does not regret the disappearance of the article from the previous edition by the great Jens Peter Larsen. Nicholas Temperley’s “Chopin” of 1980 was already an improvement over the account in earlier editions of Grove’s, but Kornel Michaelowski and Jim Samson’s is still better. John Daverio’s “Schumann” is considerably more satisfying than the earlier accounts, and Anthony Hicks replacement of Winton Deane’s elegant “Handel” is fine throughout, well balanced and critically distinguished, as is Roger Parker’s new “Verdi.” Robert Winter’s “Schubert” is as brilliant as one would expect, although more space should, I think, have been devoted to the song cycles. The new “Brahms,” by George Bozarth and Walter Frisch, is an immense improvement on the old article—but why, in the extensive work list and bibliography, is there still no list of the works of other composers that Brahms edited? The text tells us, for instance, that he edited Chopin, but not that he was responsible for his ballades, sonatas, and mazurkas. Since he was an excellent editor (the mazurkas were the best edition before the new Polish critical edition which just came out last year, since Brahms respected the source he had available), readers should be informed, particularly when one considers the extensive bibliography accorded to so many scholars of lesser competence than Brahms included in The New Grove.

Political correctness has had a beneficial influence in the fuller representation accorded to non-Western musics, one of the most important improvements of the new edition, but it has had an influence as well on the article “Exoticism,” which concentrates almost as much on fashionable theory as, in a way, on the history of the importation of music from exotic climes into European style. I learned from it that Benjamin Britten used gamelan style to “signal homosexual desire.” Did he do so successfully, I wonder—that is, do members of the audience feel or recognize stirrings of homosexual desire when they hear the gamelan style in Britten? “Sex, Sexuality” by Jeffrey Kallberg, and his “Gender” as well, are succinct and persuasive, free from special pleading, and make a case for the importance of these subjects in modern study, and Kallberg is not as defensive as Ruth Solie is in her otherwise excellent “Feminism.” The latter subject is allotted double treatment, as it has made its separate way into the article called “Musicology.”

In an article in The New York Times of January 21, 2001, James R. Oestrich awoke the indignation of Stanley Sadie, editor of The New Grove, by claiming that my review of the 1980 edition in these pages was responsible for many of the revisions.2 In a letter to the Times, Sadie insisted that what he called my “animadversions” had nothing to do with any of the changes.

It is only fair to set the record straight: Sadie is perfectly right. As far as I can see, my review can have had no effect on the editorial policy of The New Grove. For example, I pointed out twenty years ago that the article “Characteristic [character-]piece” misleads the reader into “the polar opposite of the original meaning.” The term “characteristic” here does not mean typical, as The New Grove thought, but signifies a work of individual and unorthodox character. It is not clear to me whether Sadie was claiming that he paid no attention to criticism in general or just to my criticism, but in any case his proclamation of editorial independence was fully justified. Here in the newly revised New Grove is the article “Characteristic [character-]piece” reprinted in all its glorious idiocy.

In my review I quoted two examples of the various foolish statements in The New Grove. Let me quote another one for its documentary value:

Schumann gave the subtitle 18 Characterstücke to his Davidsbündlertänze op. 6. His use of the term there perhaps refers to the characters of Florestan and Eusebius [the two pseudonyms that Schumann used on the title page in place of his own name]: the pieces bear the initials of one or the other (sometimes both) and are accordingly either passionate or meditative.

The eighteen pieces are called Characterstücke because they each have an individual character, not because they illustrate two sides of Schumann’s personality: they are what the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries traditionally called characteristic music. Schumann’s Sonata in F-sharp Minor is also signed on the title page by Florestan and Eusebius; it is not, however, a characteristic piece, but an orthodox—or semi-orthodox—sonata without a program. (Symphonies and sonatas with a program, like Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony or Les Adieux Sonata, were called characteristic symphonies or sonatas.) The attempt to create a basically unique character and form for each piece was one of the central ideals of the period.3
(Many other small articles, equally mistaken, have been left uncorrected in the new edition.)

Important contributions have not always been newly commissioned, but sometimes only revised—or, on occasion, merely tinkered with—either by the original author or by a second party called in to help. In one case, recourse to a new scholar has resulted in a resounding success. The article on Beethoven by Alan Tyson and Joseph Kerman, one of the most admirable in the 1980 edition, has been brought up to date by the Princeton scholar Scott Burnham (with, I understand, the help of Kerman). More important, Burnham has added a long and brilliant section of nine columns, “Posthumous Influence and Reception,” outlining the creation of the mythical figure of Beethoven, his influence on music and musical thought, and his political reception. This superbly extends the original article.

It also reveals the unfortunate lack of editorial policy. There seems to have been no guiding control about what should go into a biographical article. Some have many musical examples; others have none (the excellent notice of Domenico Scarlatti of 1980 with many musical examples has been replaced by an excellent one with none at all). Some end with an account of the reception of the composer’s work and his influence after his death: others omit any mention of the subject. This is particularly unfortunate in the case of Johann Sebastian Bach, who, perhaps even more than Bee-thoven, is the most influential composer in the history of Western music. The editors may think they have covered the posthumous reception of Bach with the article “Bach Revival,” but this is parochially confined to England, Germany, and Austria, and is concerned only with the history of performance and stops at 1870. The development of the performance of Bach in the twentieth century, crucial to an understanding of serious music in our time, goes absolutely unmentioned.

Even more serious is that the influence of Bach on composers from Mozart to Saint-Saëns to Schoenberg and Stravinsky, basic to the history of music, is only a vacuum in The New Grove.4 The fundamental role of Bach in music education from Beethoven to Boulez does not exist for its editorial board. The interference of the editors with the contributors’ work may have been often exasperating (stories about this are legion), but it seems also to have been capricious, unmotivated by any coherent policy. That is why there is no authoritative voice in The New Grove: what distinction the dictionary has, and it is sometimes considerable, comes almost entirely from the independent individual authors.

There is an excellent new article on Richard Wagner by Barry Millington, replacing a hybrid of 1980 in which the life was written by Curt von Westernhagen and the aesthetics and music were left to the distinguished Carl Dahlhaus, now unfortunately deceased. The new version of the life is very welcome, and Millington’s account of the music is interesting and persuasive. However, the twenty pages of Dahlhaus’s essay on the music were among the half-dozen most distinguished entries in the previous New Grove, and some of the finest writing on music of the past half-century. To give an idea of what is now missing, I quote two extraordinary paragraphs on Die Meistersinger:

  1. 1

    Charles Nodier, “Le Bibliomane,” in L’Amateur de livres, edited by Jean-Luc Steinmetz (Paris: Le Castor Astral, 1993), p. 33.

  2. 2

    The New York Review, May 28, 1981.

  3. 3

    The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, in one volume, gives a longer article on characteristic music than the twenty-nine-volume New Grove, and it is an excellent account that fully recognizes the importance of the subject.

  4. 4

    The article on Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel, ends with two brief paragraphs on his influence, but stops at 1800. The importance of C.P.E. Bach for Heinrich Schenker, one of the most important twentieth-century theorists, goes unremarked, and a revival of interest in his work today is also overlooked.

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