Speaking Volumes

October 27, 1994

Who is, or was K. B. Sandved? I am ashamed to say that I do not know, and doubly ashamed that, until now, it has never occurred to me to ask. Yet that name has been whispered in my memory like some mantra for nearly 40 years, and his book The World of Music: A Treasury for Listener and Viewer has had the greatest impact on me of any of the many books which now cram the shelves of my psyche.

The World of Music was published in 1954 by the Waverley Book Company. It was the first book I bought with my own money. I bought it by mail order, and it arrived during the summer of 1955, the summer of my eighth birthday. It cost me nearly a year's pocket money: 50 shillings, paid by 10 monthly instalments, plus a half-crown postage and packing.

The postage was amply justified when the book arrived. It weighs nearly half a stone. Its 1,120 pages are bound between polished mahogany plywood boards and the spine is quarter calf, blocked in gold with the title and a vignette of naked male and female figures holding a lyre. I can still feel the press of this great volume on my young knees, and smell the binding mingling with the cut grass on my parents lawn, and see the sun glinting off the glossy pages in which was spread out the world of music, alphabetically ordered, from Abicair to Zither.

I was, of course, interested in music. I had not long been learning the piano. My grandfather had been a very accomplished concert-party pianist in the manner of Charlie Kunz. My mother was convinced that I had inherited his talent. I had reached, I suppose, the level of "The Blue Bells of Scotland" in Smallwood's piano tutor, but nothing had prepared me for the impact of The World of Music.

From Donatello's relief of St Cecilia on the fly leaves, to the 2,000 or so photographs of composers, musicians, instruments, buildings, scenes from operas, ballroom dancing diagrams, works of art, the whole book was guaranteed to send the unfiltered sensitivities of an eight-year-old into spasms. Of all the images, that of the flute-playing Hetaera from the throne of Aphrodite most eloquently conveyed the sensuality of music through the mute medium of the printed page.

For years, I read and re-read the biographies of composers, and picked out on the piano the four-bar incipits of arias which are liberally sprinkled among the synopses of all the major operas. And in bed at night, as any small boy does with Wisden or Whittacker's, I committed to memory the birth and death dates of obscure Norwegian composers from national life-charts which are still one of the most useful features of the book.

As a work of reference, The World of Music now has serious deficiencies. There is little early music or ethnomusicology, and no serious analysis. This is music in a strictly narrative, Eurocentric, Romantic, mode. And, inevitably, it is full of composers and artists (Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Benjamin Britten, Charlie Kunz) who have died since 1954 but live on in its pages.

But the book still stands on my shelves alongside the New Oxford and The New Grove and a host of more specialised histories of music. If I have kept it so long, it is perhaps because it symbolises so well the opposing forces of the academic profession: the frustrated attempt to tame profusion and find order in things which will not be ordered language, literature, music, art, the antics of one's own life and those of one's fellows.

"Sign, and you will regain your youth!" says the caption to a particularly melodramatic illustration of the Damnation of Faust. Read, and I regain my own.

B. W. Ife is Cervantes Professor of Spanish and head of the School of Humanities at King's College London.

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