Musical giants downsized

The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians
March 31, 2000

"Concise" is often a warning word in the title of a reference book. The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians is the result of boiling down two lengthier and rather more successful Harvard volumes, The New Harvard Dictionary of Music and The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music , and its conciseness is a dominating editorial principle and the cause of much of its woe.

In a prefatory note, editor Don Michael Randel explains his method: "I conciseness continues to be prized. I have avoided evaluative and emotive language thatI is likely to be either misleading or merely superfluous". There are many ways of being misleading, and conciseness is one of them. Economy with the truth is, after all, not a synonym for honesty.

Randel is, of course, being a little disingenuous. Where space is at such a premium, the mention of a particular piece of music or a composer and the exclusion of another constitute de facto evaluation. One's only hope is that the selection is done with intelligence and knowledge of a musician's work, which here is not always the case.

The problem is most obvious in connection with another of the book's guiding principles - the inclusion of non-classical musicians (Elton John, Buddy Holly, Ali Akbar Khan, etc). In the spirit of non-evaluation, these are discussed in the same manner as classical musicians, and Quincy Jones has the same space as Manuel de Falla, for instance; but what are we told about them?

Under "McCartney, (John) Paul" (that John should be James), for example, after a passing reference to the Beatles, one reads that McCartney "recorded a duet with Stevie Wonder, 'Ebony and Ivory'". Many would think it perverse in a 101-word entry to highlight a record that did more to damage than to burnish the reputation of both artists and certainly offered no clues as to why they acquired a reputation in the first place.

The book's mission of inclusivity is undermined by such inadequacies. To summon musicians from popular genres only to dismiss them with cursory entries abounding in false emphases is more patronising than leaving them out altogether. It is not that one doubts the artistry of Bill Evans, James Brown or a multitude of others, but lumping everyone together like this is not the way to prove the point. No one interested in pop music (or jazz, soul, blues, etc) will come here to find out about it, and the musicians would be better served in their own volume with sufficient space to give credit to their achievements.

Conciseness is also responsible for unfortunate distortions. In the larger Biographical Dictionary of Music , Puccini, for example, is given reasonable coverage with a bibliographical list for those minded to find out more; here he is lopped to slightly less than the size of John Tavener, and considerably less than Arthur Sullivan.

The Harvard Concise Dictionary 's principal rival in the single-volume market is Michael Kennedy's Oxford Dictionary of Music . The latter concentrates squarely on the western classical tradition and therefore has more space for the musicians it covers. Most usefully, and what is keenly missed in the Harvard volume, the Oxford volume offers comprehensive work lists for composers. Its entry for Janáček, and he is one among many, is five times as long as Harvard's and 20 times as useful.

On a positive note, the Harvard volume's mini-essays on music structure and theory are detailed and clear, and it offers a coverage of American composers with little or no profile in this country that a domestic publisher would be unlikely to match. But conciseness bedevils it, and in this case less is definitely less.

Christopher Wood writes for BBC Music Magazine .

The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians

Editor - Don Michael Randel
ISBN - 0 674 00084 6
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £21.95
Pages - 758

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