by Anne Midgette and Greg Sandow
DICTIONARY: Officially known as the "The New Grove Dictionary
of Music and Musicians, 2nd Edition," the work under review, published
earlier this year, is in fact the seventh revision of a colossus that
now encompasses 29 volumes -- some 25 million words -- and is accepted,
though not always with delight, as the standard English-language reference
work on classical music. Since its last iteration in 1980, Grove has
expanded its horizons to include articles (much touted, at least in
its own advertising) on world music, pop and jazz. It has extensively
overhauled previous entries to reflect current scholarship; added more
than 5,500 new ones; and created an online version that's easier for
subscribers to search and also allows immediate updates -- which is
fortunate, since the new edition has many mistakes and inconsistencies.
The online version also has a definite edge in price; subscriptions
are $295 for one year (or $30 for a single month), while the print edition
retails for $4,850.
CONTRIBUTORS: More than 6,000 leading authorities are responsible
for the entries in the dictionary, at least one of whom (see Sandow,
Greg) was unaware of his contribution. So vast are the current volumes
that Mr. Sandow perused them for months before discovering, quite by
chance, that a few short entries he had updated for one of Grove's many
spinoffs, "The New Grove Dictionary of American Music" (1986), had been
carried over into the new, comprehensive edition without anyone telling
him -- including the editors, with whom he carried on extensive discussions
while collaborating with Ms. Midgette on this review.
VOICE: As a musical instrument, the human voice is a second-class
citizen in the Grove republic. Even in the "New Grove Dictionary of
Opera" (1994), most major opera singers were treated in one or two brief
paragraphs, listing little more than roles sung and opera houses performed
in, capped with a one-line description of the singer's instrument (Franco
Corelli: "large and stentorian"). But when the full Grove takes over
many of these entries, they look even mingier, contrasted with the far
longer descriptions of instrumentalists and conductors that surround
them. In his 9-inch entry, Murray Perahia gets a whole paragraph discussing
his particular approach to the piano; while the 3-inch biography of
Mirella Freni, one of the greatest sopranos of our time, describes her
distinguishing characteristics simply as "purity, fullness and even
focus." This doesn't differentiate her from far more minor sopranos,
such as Ashley Putnam, whose voice is "flexible, silver-toned," and
whose entry is exactly the same length.
contrasts also characterize the narrative voices of the various contributors,
who seem to have been only lightly edited, if at all. It's natural that
some entries are better than others, but it's less natural that no guiding
hand has balanced the various entries with each other. Of the great
Metropolitan Opera baritone Lawrence Tibbett, we read that his "dark,
pliant voice and matinee-idol appearance made him popular in films as
well as light opera," while Robert Weede -- remembered mainly for singing
the lead role of "The Most Happy Fella" on Broadway -- is praised
as "one of the finest American baritones of the century." Taken at face
value, these assertions would give an uninformed reader an entirely
reversed idea of which singer was more important.
the New Grove took pains to revamp some of its biographical entries,
to allow frank discussions of once-taboo subjects -- such as Tchaikovsky's
homosexuality -- some of its biographies still remain protectively uninformative.
"The 'accusations' leveled against him always took the form of rumours,"
writes Balint Vazsonyi of the 20th-century Hungarian composer Erno von
Dohnanyi; but he shields his compatriot by not explaining what the "accusations"
were (other than that they "were launched on political premises" and
came "either from the left or from the right"), which doesn't make his
entry fully useful in a work of reference. (Here it can be told: Dohnanyi
was falsely accused of Nazi sympathies, by, among others, the Hungarian
Communist government, which wanted to punish him for his anti-Soviet
on the "posthumous reputation" of the famous Czech composer Bedrich
Smetana, John Tyrrell forthrightly declares that "syphilis, which resulted
in his deafness, madness, and death, is not generally acknowledged by
Czech sources." This statement is clearly true, since one such Czech
source, Marta Ottlova, wrote the bulk of the Smetana biography preceding
Mr. Tyrrell's section and omits any mention whatsoever of the disease.
(Mr. Tyrrell -- perhaps incredibly, given this editorial lapse -- was
executive editor of the New Grove.)
to idiosyncrasies like these, getting information out of the dictionary
can be like piecing together a mosaic. Some of the most enlightening
information about some subjects appears in articles other than those
explicitly devoted to them. Richard Taruskin's "Nationalism" entry,
for instance, is a stimulating supplement to (among much else) the biography
of Dvorak, himself an avid Czech nationalist. And for all of the dictionary's
commendable openness about Tchaikovsky's homosexuality, Philip Brett
and Elizabeth Wood's provocative sally on "Gay and Lesbian Music," the
only New Grove entry we found that has what pop culture calls "attitude,"
discusses gay aspects of some notable musicians -- including Handel,
Saint-Saens and the famously gay British pop group The Pet Shop Boys
-- that go unmentioned in their main biographies. (They're also not
cross-referenced in the online version.)
ROCK 'N' ROLL: In its marketing, the New Grove bills itself
as "the premier authority," not just on the classics, but, apparently,
on all forms of music. This is not even approximately accurate. We hadn't
had the book a week before we discovered an embarrassing gaffe -- "classic
rock" is defined as "the incorporation of classical music referents
into some rock," when in fact the term means rock from the late '60s
through the '70s. (This mistake still has not been corrected online,
even though Grove's editors acknowledged it to us months ago.) It's
hard to imagine that Grove would so drastically misdefine anything in
classical music, nor is it a surprise to discover that classical music
still dominates the dictionary, even sometimes in entries not specifically
devoted to it.
"Improvisation" article, which starts by acknowledging the obvious --
that improvisation happens much less in classical music than in world
music or jazz -- and then carries on busily about classical music for
20 pages, after which world and jazz improvisation get just four pages
each. For an even clearer view of Grove's priorities, consider that
the Ferrabosco family of Baroque musicians, known only to specialists,
gets 15 pages, the music of Tajikistan five, Louis Armstrong just two;
and Madonna and Bruce Springsteen (whom scholars elsewhere have treated
with respect) only four and two paragraphs. Classical music comes first,
and world music gets reasonable space, but jazz comes off as an unimportant
afterthought -- and pop, no matter what Grove's intentions might have
been, doesn't seem to be taken seriously at all.
to be as authoritative in jazz and pop as it now is for classical music,
Grove would have to treat those fields according to standards already
set by the best pop and jazz scholars, which would mean dramatic expansion.
The "Improvisation" entry alone could triple in size. Louis Armstrong,
accorded the same musical and biographical deference as the greatest
classical composers, might get 30 pages; pop and jazz discographies,
now conspicuous in their absence, would be added to balance the complete
lists of classical composers' works.
to question, however, whether anyone would buy a 60-volume Grove, even
if Grove's editors, already clearly challenged by a mere 29 volumes,
were up to the task of creating one. And if the dictionary compensated
by cutting down on its classical coverage, the classical-music world
would lose a reference that, for all of its problems, is clearly irreplaceable
(especially for anyone looking up the Ferraboscos).
suggested that none of this matters, because the dictionary -- easier
to use, easier to revise, infinitely expandable online -- will only
be updated in its electronic format. "I hope not," is the quiet response
of outgoing editor Stanley Sadie. But one solution might be to follow
the promise of both media. Grove's editors could update and expand the
online version to become a continuing, growing record of all facets
of music, while eliminating all nonclassical entries from a new print
version and renaming it to fit what most people, not incorrectly, perceive
it to be: "The New Grove Dictionary of Classical Music."
Anne Midgette is my wife, and a music critic for the New
York Times, as well as a freelance writer for many other publications.
This was our first published collaboration, and in all ways a
happy experience. On this site you can hear a string
quartet I wrote for her birthday, and see one of our wedding
Wall Street Journal, July