Reader's digest of the ill-chosen few

The Oxford Companion to Music

五月 17, 2002

Hugh Wood puzzles over some unfortunate decisions in a too-slight dictionary.

Long ago, a fat blue volume would be pressed upon a musical 11 or 12-year-old by some kindly aunt or uncle for Christmas or birthday. Its initial attraction was that it was "profusely illustrated", the chief glory being a set of plates by Batt - Schubert strolling across the square, Brahms making his early-morning coffee, the blind Handel smoking his churchwarden, Beethoven glowering amid the ruins of his broken pianoforte, Elgar with his dogs. The other illustrations were enticing too - ranging from The Guidonian Hand to caricatures of Berlioz.

Text and pictures alike bore the stamp of its begetter and sole author: Percy Scholes, his quirky style and opinions later cherished and perpetuated by his assistant John Owen Ward. A child could not be fully aware of just how idiosyncratically personal a volume this was. The Scholes Companion belonged to an admirable tradition of dictionary-making, the great exemplar being Dr Johnson - and, in our field, Sir George Grove, who wrote his first edition practically single-handed, without the benefit of research staff.

Alas the glory (and the illustrations) have long since departed. The latest Grove dictionary now finds it difficult to contain the known musical world in 29 volumes: what hope, then, for a one-volume work such as this? It is necessary first to abandon any ambition that such a dictionary should (as Mahler said of the Symphony) be like the world and embrace everything. A rigorous assessment of the really essential must be performed: a precision of desired aims and scope achieved. More brutally: just who is this book aimed at? And what has got to be cut out?

Certain elements of a grand strategy are apparent - rather conventional and populist in nature. Typographical headlining is used to display a pantheon of great composers. The bestowal of these occasional laurel wreaths more often display a cautious, unexamined conservatism. Brahms, for instance, appears, but not Bruckner; Dvorák but not Elgar. Monteverdi is rightly there; but one reflects that once Palestrina might have had his place. Fifty years ago, Sibelius would have been preferred to Shostakovich - and he still should be. Is this to wring too much significance out of choices that must, in the end, be arbitrary? Many of the unchosen - Bartók, for instance - receive very full attention: some of the chosen ones - from the 20th century Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Messiaen - get woefully routine handling; as if their very admission to the pantheon was quite enough.

Typography also assists in the use of darker panelling (a vulgar habit) for sections dealing with a variety of historical periods (Middle Ages and so on) or specific genres (such as Chamber Music). Some of these essays - Stanley Sadie on the baroque stands out - ingeniously compress a lot of information into small dimensions. But in the end, whether well or ill-done, these tours d'horizon satisfy no one. They fail adequately to nourish the ignorant while managing to irritate the better informed, who are further affronted by the half-truths thrown up by generalisation. We are too near to the world of the Reader's Digest , the Great Books Course, the Best That Has Been Thought and Read.

Is it the same readership that is also being offered an uncontrolled plethora of lesser composers' biographies? Strategy seems to have broken down altogether here, and bees in (sometimes maverick) bonnets have been allowed to buzz unchecked. It is true that the relative importance or value of a composer's work cannot be fully expressed in column inches, but questions of proportion do not seem to have been considered at all. A good cull of the wilder and woollier, more out-of-the-way species would have been in order. Why, for instance, are there quite so many Canadian composers? Have we been missing something all these years? America is a big country, but are there really so many sufficiently talented young US composers? Do marketing considerations perhaps play a part here? Turning to Europe, do we need 20 lines on Blavet, 24 lines on Blodek, 25 lines on Hartmann, 19 lines on Heininen, lines on Jacquet de la Guerre, 35 lines on Karel? A number of tails have been wagging the editorial dog with a vengeance.

Nonentities, like weeds, only crowd out more worthwhile or greater names. Figures as various as Eisler, Enescu or Wolf-Ferrari are none of them properly noticed. (And in articles on both Song and The Lied, neither Pfitzner nor Eisler appear at all: yet between them they, in their different ways, made a valuable contribution to 20th-century song.) On the other hand, there are some pleasant surprises. Some of the biographies of 19th-century French composers - Gounod, Saint-Saëns, Fauré - are beautifully written, models of their kind. The entry on Reger is conspicuously good; as is (intriguingly) the one for Wagner-Régeny.

The nearer home we travel, the worse it gets. Four generations of British composers - beginning with Alan Bush - have every reason to consider themselves scurvily treated by entries that are frankly inadequate, often being tired routine recitals of well-worn material; and not free from omissions or inaccuracies. The usual suspects who wrote them have obviously not been subject to either editorial control - or stimulus. Goehr might perhaps have written a piece with the Nietzschean title of The Death of God : but he did not, and the correct title is The Death of Moses . He also made some distinguished contributions to Music Theatre. These are mentioned neither in the Music Theatre nor the Opera section - although the work of Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies is freely discussed. To descend a little further towards the merely laughable, it is difficult to respect a dictionary of music that can find only nine 1ines for the genius of Ivor Novello (and only nine for Cole Porter too), but devotes 14 lines to the egregious Michael Nyman.

Discussion of the academic elements of music fares little better; only the article on Fugue is fresh and clear. The three authors of a much-revised article on Canon offer a solitary music example. But it is not Canon at all, rather the subject and tonal answer of the D sharp minor fugue from The 48 , Book One: why? One compares the inflated length of the article on Analysis (loomed over by the turnip ghosts of Schenker and the ludicrous Forte) with a starved and lacklustre article on Harmony, which (like others) shows little engagement with, understanding of, or enthusiasm for these most fascinating of musical topics. A burst of inspired writing was called for here.

It is a pity that the pleasures of this volume are so incidental. Among them, Rupert Christiansen's "The novel and music" stands out: it is witty and perceptive, and it is easy to forgive him for omitting Romain Rolland since he includes Jilly Cooper. Elegance of writing takes us back to Dr Johnson and Scholes. Let us never forget that charm is the first requirement of a lexicographer. A good dictionary should be written with zest and verve, and be read with the same sparkling enjoyment as is a comic novel. How one longs for some presiding genius smiling over the whole enterprise.

In a work conspicuously short on laughs, it is at least agreeable to be able to recite out loud the 35 Christian names, some double-barrelled, of the flamboyant 19th-century conductor Jullien. What fun they must have had around the font. But this is not in itself a sufficient reason for a kindly aunt or uncle to give this Companion to their 11 or 12-year-old nephew or niece.

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

The Oxford Companion to Music

Editor - Alison Latham
ISBN - 0 19 866212 2
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 1,398



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