European notes lost as opus heads west

The Harvard Dictionary of Music
May 14, 2004

The Harvard Dictionary of Music celebrates its 60th birthday this year, and this reminds us that it has been around for the whole of our working lives.

It was the creation of a generation of scholar-musicians who emigrated to the US during the Nazi era, and its first two editions, of 1944 and 1969, were edited by Willi Apel. With its third edition in 1986, it became The New Harvard Dictionary . This fourth edition has built upon and greatly expanded its immediate predecessor, and the centre of editorial operations has moved further west - from Cornell to Chicago.

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2001) was a magnificent achievement, but was so big (and expensive) that it suggested a certain crisis in dictionary-making. Its policy of all-inclusiveness provoked the thought that the world of music had grown too huge and various to be compressed into a single work. Maybe it was to be the last of its line.

To such worries the new Harvard Dictionary returns a positive and strongly conservative answer. It remains a one-volume work - albeit one swollen to 978 pages. Throughout there is evidence of strong and beneficent editorial control. This volume recognises that successful dictionary-making depends on selection and exclusion far more than any vague desire to be all things to all men. It manages, in fact, to live up to a sentence from its own entry on "Dictionaries and encyclopedias": "The success of a dictionary is judged mainly on its factual details, completeness of coverage, and clarity of presentation." On all these counts, this volume scores very highly.

The most prominent negative decision was inherited from previous editions: to exclude all biographies, whether of composers, performers or scholars.

It therefore totters on the edge of anomaly to give entries to individual pieces of music - but only if they have a proper name (often a nickname): the Eroica Symphony, Razor Quartet, Finlandia . This puts a premium on the anecdotal. The decision works in favour of opera and ballet, which are fairly comprehensively covered. They briefly appear with name of composer and librettist, date and place of premiere, and a (usually uninformative) phrase about the "setting" rather than any plot synopsis.

Extremely welcome, however, is the refusal to be swamped by the merely trendy and ephemeral. Current fads are recognised to exist and dealt with fairly. Those passionate about world music will be gratified by well-written and informative articles on the music of "Africa", "South Asia" (meaning chiefly India) and "South-East Asia". Other special interest groups are sufficiently recognised - as the sober tone and critical seriousness of the entry on "Gender in music" adequately testifies.

The primacy of the western tradition as an object of interest is taken for granted, as it should be. This assumption makes possible the chief glory, and certainly the high point of usefulness, of this volume: a series of often-extended essays on big general music topics. If you require a readable survey of "Accompaniment", "Anglican chant", "The blues", "Cadence" or "Canon" (to take a few examples from the beginning of the alphabet), this is the book for you. If, as a non-specialist, you dare to tread in technical areas, and can absorb the physics, the physiology and the mathematics involved, there are entries under "Acoustics", "The brain in music", and on the "Interval", which are fascinating. The essays that survey traditional disciplines -"Counterpoint", "Harmony", "Analysis" - as well as the cognate concepts such as "Modulation", "Tonality" and "Atonality", are all of them so good that the contributor responsible deserves to be named: it is Mark DeVoto.

At only a few moments is one reminded that the US belongs to a different music culture. There are three considerable nits to be picked. The importance - even the name - of Olivier Messiaen seems not to be familiar to some of the contributors. He appears in a list of composers in "French music", just as his St Francis opera appears at the end of "Opera". His Turangalîla-Symphonie gets its entry as a "named" work. But he is absent from the essay on "Twentieth century, Western art music of the", which is admittedly one of the weaker articles. "Modes" and "Modality" are discussed without reference to his well-known modes of limited transpositions theory.

"Rhythm", which discusses rhythmic systems from East and West, omits any acknowledgement of Messiaen's highly original thinking on the subject. In "Colour and music", his notorious blue-orange chords and the rest of his synaesthesia find no place. And under "Quartet", the sentence "Among the few quartets for piano and wind, Messiaen's Quatour pour le Fin du Temps is especially notable" suggests the writer has never heard the work.

Roberto Gerhard is another name from "old Europe" who does not seem to have impinged on US consciousness. His always was the tragic predicament of the emigre: here there is no entry for him under "Spain" (and no entry for Catalonia) but he is then not listed under England either. And Gerhard's operatic masterpiece, The Duenna , is omitted from an entry under the title that includes Thomas Linley's 18th-century setting of Richard Sheridan's play and also Prokofiev's opera on the same subject.

During his later years, Michael Tippett enjoyed great popularity in the US. But in a volume that dutifully lists all Britten's operatic output from Grimes to Death in Venice , Tippett's operas are entirely missing: there is not even a token selection such as Midsummer Marriage, King Priam and The Knot Garden . On the other hand, we can read about Douglas Moore's The Devil and Daniel Webster and his Ballad of Baby Doe , not to mention Samuel Barber's Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra . The Atlantic Ocean is, after all, quite deep.

Hugh Wood is a composer who was formerly lecturer in music, Cambridge University.

The Harvard Dictionary of Music

Editor - Don Michael Randel
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 978
Price - £25.95
ISBN - 0 674 01163 5

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