From Hittites to the hit parade

May 18, 2001

The latest edition of the Grove music dictionary contains much more on pop and non-western music as well as an online version. Hugh Wood assesses the traditional parts, while Christopher Wood examines the trendier bits.

For 120 years, music lovers have been looking it up in Grove, and generations of the lazier sort of university student have been raiding its volumes to copy out only too recognisable chunks for their weekly essay. Like so many of the best English institutions, the original initiative came from one man. It is worth remembering George Grove: an admirably Victorian figure, energy and industry personified, in whom optimism translated itself into action, the late survivor of a breed of 17th-century polymath with a questing finger in every intellectual pie, to whom the concept of specialisation was unknown. An Atlas of Ancient Geography was followed by a Dictionary of Music , planned as a couple of volumes, immediately becoming three and ending up as four. Even before Sir George's death, the relentless process of growth had begun.

The question of size has now reached crisis - or even perhaps a terminal stage. Eric Blom's disastrous fifth edition of 1954 was a low point - but even then it had swollen to nine volumes. Time for a fresh start: The New Grove of 1980 ran to 20 volumes, its scope and approach followed in the second edition appearing 20 years later and having to cater for the interests of a new generation. The editor of both editions is Stanley Sadie; he has now presided over the assemblage of 29 volumes of some 25 million words.

Sir George's original aim was to satisfy the wants of intelligent music lovers: they still exist, and the wish to include everybody remains a worthwhile one: Seid umschlungen Millionen . The wish to include everything is a different matter. Grove has also established its status as an authority: the claims of the multifarious specialist reader and a huge diversity of professional scholars must be recognised, and their needs satisfied. Athwart such aspirations stands first of all the price: £2,950 confines the private market to the distinctly well off: the sheer length and weight of these 29 volumes are most happily accommodated on public library shelves. Internet access provides the modern answer: its problems and virtues are treated below.

The dilemma begins here. Others have already said that the day of this kind of universal work of reference is over. One reviewer suggested it was essentially a 19th-century creation, like the department store. George Grove's little corner shop has certainly now been replaced by a huge, gleaming, multi-storey block, with all its impersonality. The specialist clientele in particular will never stop niggling about the quality of the merchandise. How paradoxical it is that a great shop has been created that by definition cannot please all its customers. It is better to survey it as a browser - the general reader who turns over the pages at random - the music lover, in short.

Nevertheless: why is it so big? Like most branches of knowledge (although not of understanding), the musical world has grown exponentially. Grove's first preface read: "The limit of the history has been fixed at AD1450, as the most remote date to which the rise of modern music can be carried back." Declare that today, and you would at a stroke rob well over half the present-day musicological profession of their livelihoods. Admittedly, the Grove of 1894 has seven rather vague pages on Plain Song ( sic ). But try looking up "Anatolia" in Grove 2001 and there you will find 14 pages discussing the music of Asian Turkey under the Hittites, covering a period from 8000-546BC.

That entry demonstrates that the Grove's expansion has been geographical and cultural, as well as temporal. In the 1894 edition you can, enchantingly, read that Brahms "appears as the climax of modern musical thought", while exotic modernists such as Glinka and Tchaikovsky are only glimpsed on the distant Russian horizon. Africa was then still known as the Dark Continent: its musical culture and all other extra-European ones were still plunged in the profound gloom of terra incognita . In today's Grove , you can browse happily through 20 pages on the music of Africa, fascinating for those (like me) who know nothing whatsoever about it. If you feel strong enough, you can tackle the 125 pages devoted to India or the 96 to Indonesia. Among the biographies, the trawl of 20th-century Chinese composers is peculiarly rich.

It is easy to choke on a surfeit of biographies. There are statistics somewhere about the hundreds of thousands of tons of garbage produced annually by every civilised country. Another form of waste product is surplus composers. Grove 2001 deals diligently with them, too - dead, alive and half-alive. Page follows page of completely unknown names and some very obscure musical dynasties. But the big names are on the whole well served: research progress over the past 20 years has led to the partial or total rewriting of many of their entries. The replacement of Maurice J. E. Brown's distinguished article on Schubert has been criticised elsewhere. Sure enough, the new attempt by Robert Winter, although much longer, is marred by a recital of much of the trendy rubbish that is circulating about Schubert at present. Stephen Walsh writes brilliantly about Stravinsky and makes one all the more impatient for the completion of his Stravinsky biography. Oliver Neighbour's Schoenberg article, extensively updated, is simply an inspiring joy to read.

Composers on the whole get more generous treatment than performers. The thought seems to have been that performance art is ephemeral, and that its evaluation for posterity must necessarily rely too heavily on hearsay. Singers in particular seem only to rate a standard paragraph, however distinguished their careers. And a pianist with such an interesting ambiance as Ricardo Vi$es surely deserves more extended treatment. The vivid and thoughtful profile by David Cairns of Furtwangler stands out in excellence. The all-inclusive policy has reached out to scene designers (Adolphe Appia, Edward Gordon Craig, Alfred Roller), novelists, poets, philosophers (Thomas Mann, Nietzsche, D'Annunzio, Heine), all of whom have contributed at least something to the musical world. There is even Napoleon, who like a lot of other tyrants - Nero, Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler - was fond of music. He gets two and a half pages (there is no entry for Mussolini).

Essays on a wide variety of general subjects attain in some cases the dimensions of a small book. If you want to read about analysis (and this has been greatly updated since 1980) or about notation or fugue or acoustics (55 pages); or learn about the oboe or the organ, or study the musical history of many individual Italian or German cities, Baltic capitals, to say nothing of Vienna, London or San Francisco - then you will find all these monographs in these volumes.

A scandal that saddened a few but amused many more last time round was the tardy discovery of a number of spoof entries. The editor has this time neatly turned the flank of the pranksters by commissioning an entry from David Fallows on this very subject. The piece concludes with the reflection that the extremely unlikely does sometimes turn out to be true. Try looking up accounts of the compositional activities of three contemporaries - George Lopez (b. 1955), Helmut Oehring (b. 1961) and Pauline Oliveros (b. 1932) - and you will see exactly what Fallows means. In silly land the borders of fact and fiction become blurred without the assistance of any practical joker.

There are, though, mercifully few bows towards the more repulsive fashions of the passing day; and only a few shamefaced pinches of incense thrust on the altars of contemporary Molochs. Jeffrey Kallberg's two-and-a-half pages on gender is complete nonsense and not about music at all. Gay and lesbian music is another non-subject that is inflated to 11 pages: some editorial interference should have been exerted here. But there are many other lesser instances in which fine tuning might have been thought desirable. For instance, in 20 years, the exorbitant length and solemn tone of Lord Lloyd-Webber's entry will be thought ridiculous when compared with the sketchy brevity of that of his father, William Lloyd-Webber.

Dr Johnson remains for many of us the great exemplar in the making of dictionaries: that a single, wise, quirky intelligence could inform the making of such a book was an inheritance still remembered by Sir George, with his small group of colleagues and correspondents. This kind of personal tone has since become impossible. Nowadays, the maker of an encyclopedia is more like a great military commander who has to assume control of an immense operation that may be extremely complex and protracted. In the heat of battle, things will go wrong. Contingents go astray or fail to obey orders, or even run away. All this can easily enough be perceived by critics in the comfort of their armchairs. But in the field, the important thing is to win. Stanley Sadie and his executive editor, John Tyrrell, have won.

The world of classical music was not enough. Grove 's massive expansion since its last edition sees it vying for a presence in areas such as world music and pop where previously it was content merely to dip a toe into the water. The acceptance of life beyond the western classical tradition is timely; but does Grove 's authority keep pace with its wordage? Can it be relied on in the new musical areas it has chosen to address?

While the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and other stalwarts of pop and rock were there in 1980, along with the blues singers who made them possible, Grove now showcases pop as never before. Several hundred new entries have been added. Abba records may have been reduced to fodder for 1970s nostalgia nights, but the band is now in Grove , as are the dinosaurs of progressive rock, the major figures of funk and punk and the ephemeral purveyors of Britpop.

The first thing one notices about Grove 's pop entries is an unusually lax approach to consistency. Most performers are given an exact birth date, but the members of the Beach Boys, Genesis and Deep Purple - none of them obscure bands - get just a year, while Massive Attack and the Monkees do not even get that. The 1969 Woodstock festival - when numerical agility was admittedly not at an all-time high, although the audience may have been - is described variously as having an audience of 300,000, 400,000 and half a million. Song titles are by and large in italics, although frequently appear between quote marks. Listings of songs at the end of articles are given for the Beatles, Isaac Hayes and Smokey Robinson, but not for the Rolling Stones. Little Richard, whose songs shaped the repertoire of innumerable 1960s bands, including the Beatles, is credited only with "Tutti Frutti". Many entries also fail to include even the most fundamental information about their subject. The entry on the Byrds lists one album and no song titles; that on Santana has nothing after 1971 and lists no sources of further information. The entry on John McLaughlin fails to mention his 1969 album Extrapolation - a little like Beethoven without the Eroica symphony. Bibliographies could have helped supply these deficiencies, but they are also hit and miss. Many bands get none at all - the Jam, for instance, despite volumes of ink spilt about them in New Musical Express and elsewhere. The more useful entries carry references to articles or books written while the performer was active, but Mike Oldfield has nothing prior to 1992, by which time he was a confirmed fossil, and Janis Joplin gets nothing before 1973, three years after premature death had enveloped her career in the false aura of myth.

The articles that are completely successful are in a sad minority. There is the entry on Stevie Wonder, an admirably compendious summary in just a few hundred words. And on a more extended scale, the Beatles article by Ian MacDonald, new to this edition, is a model of serious writing about pop, brimming with intelligent analysis that eschews both inappropriate technical jargon and the jejune, neologistic rambling that characterises the work of many pop commentators.

Reading almost all the other pop entries, one becomes convinced that this is alien territory that is ill charted by Grove . Under Carole King's entry there are two mentions of her hit song "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" - without the "Still" that any of the millions who know the song would scream to be inserted between "You" and "Love". Couple this kind of inaccuracy with the overuse of redundant and pretentious phrases such as “expressive timbral nuances”, applied to the playing of Jimi Hendrix, and it is hard to deny the need for an editorial rethink if Grove 's pop coverage is not to be regarded as mere tokenism on a grand scale.

<P class=MsoNormal> Jazz is on the whole better served, with the scholarship of The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz there to be drawn on; but even here there are editorial idiosyncrasies. Bill Evans, for instance, gets a discography, albeit a questionably subjective one; while Miles Davis, with extensive recordings to his name, does not. As a useful entrance point to the sometimes arcane world of jazz, discographies are to be encouraged, preferably by an editorial ruling that all jazz artists active in the recording era should be accorded one.

<P class=MsoNormal> An efficient essay by Mervyn Cooke tackles film music, from the silent era through genres such as cartoons, musicals and film noir , and off into non-American traditions. Composers whom Cooke skates over (such as John Barry, Michel Legrand) often have their own entry. Biggies such as Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman and Alfred Newman all get appropriate coverage. Perhaps Ken Russell's films might have qualified him for an entry: instead, his documentaries about Elgar, Delius and so on are covered under “Television”, while his later feature films about Mahler, Tchaikovsky and others are barely mentioned.

<P class=MsoNormal> Given the noise the Grove publicity machine has made about increased coverage of world music - up from 1 million words to 2 - it was surprising to find parts of the world so close to home as France and Spain suffering neglect. The article on flamenco is typically heavy on history and theory, but mentions almost no practitioners. Paco de Lucía and Paco Peña have articles of their own, but not so singer Camarón de la Isla and guitarist Manitas de Plata. Chanson is another scantily covered area. Edith Piaf has an entry, but there is nothing on Charles Trenet under his own name, or under “France” or “Popular music”. Eventually half a sentence on Trenet turned up under “Cabaret”, but most inquirers would probably have given up before they found it.

<P class=MsoNormal> The key to finding musicians who are not where one expects lies in the most significant innovation of this edition: the online version at Subscribers can search not just entry headings but the entire dictionary in pursuit of a fugitive musician. Trenet turns up in four places: under “Chansonnier”; “Café-concert”; “Pop IV, 2: Europe: Continental Europe”; and “Cabaret”. A click on any of these will take you straight into the article to the point where the word Trenet occurs, highlighted in unmissable red against the black background text. (Unfortunately, you still wonÕt find much about him.) Camar—n is there too, under “Lucía, Paco de”; “Gypsy” music, 7: New developments”; and “Spain, II, 2 (iv): Traditional and popular music: Popular music”. Now why didnÕt I think of looking there in the first place?

<P class=MsoNormal> The search facility is both invaluable for research and the source of hours of amusement. As well as searching the full text, one can locate anyone born in a particular place or on a certain day, or having a particular nationality or occupation. The dictionary contains no farmers or carpenters, I can reveal, but 22 diplomats, 13 astronomers, 13 doctors and one soldier. One person was born in Luton, while 207 saw Naples and died. The one Hawaiian was the queen of those islands, a composer who died in Honolulu in 1917. Links to external websites, Grove promises, will in time supply sound examples, illustrations and organisations - although at the moment “Beethoven” has just four links, and most other words nothing at all. “Browse” and “Explore” facilities allow further hours to be pleasantly idled away.

<P class=MsoNormal> Grove promises to update facts on its online version quarterly, and to review “designated themes” annually. Updating facts might be taken to include correcting mistakes, which occur in the print version in a variety of forms. There is the nonsensical typo (the word “thought” under Chuck Berry), the treachery of the computer spell-checker (“string quarter” under Schubert), and the casualties of faulty typing or scanning (“ Ständcher ” instead of “ Ständchen ”, under Schubert; “combatted” and “osciallation” under Miles Davis). One unfortunate paragraph on Mozart refers to the month of “March 175” and claims Il re pastore was first performed on April 23 1774, corrected in Mozart's worklist to 1775. An email hotline has been set up to enable public-spirited readers to report mistakes ( Rather more serious is the omission of all chamber and instrumental, solo vocal and piano works from Stravinsky's worklist. The Grove team has gone public over this error, along with the mistaken reprinting of the 1980 version of Wagner's bibliography instead of an updated one, and has promised to reprint the relevant volumes and send them out free to purchasers.

<P class=MsoNormal> Complications arising from “data transferral” are to blame, we are told, and accidents will happen, especially in modern book production. Grove 's flirtation with pop music might similarly be seen as an accident, and it is to be hoped that neither this nor the factual errors that have crept into the new edition will seriously dent the musician's confidence in what remains a reference work of prodigious scope and achievement. After all, nowhere else can be found such a fund of information and considered scholarship about so many aspects of music. Grove is still the place you go to look it up.

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<P class=MsoNormal> Hugh Wood is a composer and former lecturer in music, University of Cambridge. Christopher Wood is a freelance writer specialising in music.

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