Better Than None

By Phillips, Peter | Musical Times, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview
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Better Than None


Phillips, Peter, Musical Times


Eighteen months after its launch, PETER PHILLIPS assesses the merits of a British publishing institution

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Second Edition Edited by Stanley Sadie & John Tyrell Macmillan (London, 2000); 29 volumes; L2950. ISBN 0333 608003. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Online Version Edited by Laura Macy www.grovemusic.com; one-year access, L19.5. ISBN 0333 913981.

'DICTIONARIES and encyclopedias are, strictly speaking, scarcely reviewable', wrote Carl Dahlhaus in 1981, when confronted with this dictionary's immediate predecessor, The new Grove dictionary of music (NGI). One sympathises. What was then twenty volumes, costing L850, is now twenty-nine volumes and twenty-five million words, costing L2950. It may also be accessed online. But has our knowledge of music grown proportionally in the last twenty years? Evidently not, if one compares, for example, the old and new entries on Beethoven, which resemble each other quite closely: the increase is largely due to the inclusion of new topics, or the considerable expansion of some timidly dealt with before. Now there are hundreds of entries on jazz, popular and world music where, previously, there were but a handful. Eastern European musical studies, for instance, have been transformed by the fall of communism, enabling a free access to writers and information unavailable to NGI. Ethnomusicology holds a more important place than before, with the provision of more detailed entries on many countries, some making their debut. Then there are those subjects which once were thought to lie too far outside the - male - Western classical tradition to warrant inclusion: gay and lesbian studies, women composers and performers, electro-acoustic music, nationalism, orientalism, and postmodernism. Dahlhaus went on to say that he thought something as big as Grove ought not to be reviewed before ten years of shelf life, because by then the dross will have declared itself alongside the gold-dust. All the more so now; and there is the added thought that perhaps in ten years' time this massive project might be a little nearer completion, because neither in its print or online versions is this currently the case.

Grove is a colossal resource, usually accurate, generally easy to consult, unrivalled in its scope. Without it, musicians at every level of commitment would be fumbling with small libraries' worth of alternative material, possibly more upto-date than Grove but certainly more conflicting in their points of view. The advantage of a dictionary of first resource being so detailed while at the same time under one editorial roof cannot be overstated. Not only is there generally a consistent editorial tone and policy of presentation, but that tone and policy have been so influential through the previous editions of Grove that they have gone some way towards shaping the way we expect music to be discussed. The authority of Grove is maintained by these volumes, but it has been a close-run thing.

THE BOOK form of NGII was published in November 2000 - with quite a few errors and omissions. The most celebrated were so serious (Stravinsky's list of works was partly missing from vol.24 and Wagner's bibliography in vol.26 had been taken from NGI) that the publishers had to reprint them and send the improved copies out as free replacements. But these high-profile mistakes were only the beginning. For example, Krenek, being less important than Stravinsky or Wagner, may never have his bibliography in the printed form (and still lacks it in the standard online form, though curiously it has been supplied in The new Grove dictionary of opera entry, now incorporated into NGII online); and the number of misprints are legion. My favourite is the reference to `Wager tubas', where 'Wagner' was meant, which might be thought an encouragement to put your money where your mouth is. It is beginning to become evident that the burden Macmillan have placed on 'a programme of quarterly and annual updates from the Grove Editorial Team' is close to being unsustainable.

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