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…

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