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!” 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 …

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