Magazine article The Spectator

The Passionate Polymath

Magazine article The Spectator

The Passionate Polymath

Article excerpt

As centenary celebration, a recent concert at the Royal College of Music was a comparatively ordinary affair for an absolutely extraordinary figure. In the concert hall, one of London's hidden musical glories, the RCM was hosting the event to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of its founding director, Sir George Grove, a man whose life was astonishing - even by the standards of all those other high achievers of Victorian times.

Most famously, he created and gave his name to the internationally respected Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. The first of the four volumes in that first edition was published in 1879 by Macmillan. Later this year, Macmillan publishes the seventh edition, although it is now called (a sign of the times) the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. He would be hugely proud of this 29-volume descendant which will be available electronically on the Internet as well. Grove has become a multimillion-pound industry for Macmillan.

For someone who created such an impressive work, his academic beginnings were unpromising. He grew up in a comfortable middle-class family in Clapham, then a village on the outskirts of London. He left school at 15 to start a civil engineering apprenticeship. Towards the end of his life, Grove looked back over those early years regretting both the curtailed schooling and the limited musical experience.

`I began music,' he wrote, by my mother playing the Messiah to us out of an old vocal score (voices and figured bass). Then came Bach's 48 and the Sacred Harmonic Society Concerts to which we used to walk from home, returning on our feet! But neither I nor my brother could ever play more than a `psalm tune quick' like Punch's Italian. We were to be engineers and get too soon into the world.

Grove worked for 15 years on a series of projects which had nothing to do with music. He had graduated at the Institution of Civil Engineers. He built lighthouses in Jamaica and Bermuda and then worked on the burgeoning railway system in Britain. By the time he had returned from the West Indies in 1848, Britain was involved in a huge rail-building programme to which the government had committed 500 million. He joined Robert Stephenson, who, with his father George, had built the famous locomotive `Rocket' for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the prototype for all future steam locomotives.

They built Chester General Station where he was the supervising site engineer, and the massive Britannia tubular bridge across the Menai Straits in Wales. Strangely, it was this episode in his career which got him into print for the first time, in the pages of an illustrious magazine called The Spectator!

The bridge had been difficult to erect and involved floating four huge wroughtiron tubes into position. Two attempts in June, 1849, had failed very publicly in front of crowds of sightseers. The third was successful and, of course, The Spectator was on top of events. The story had the modest sub-heading: `A correspondent supplies us with the following as a strictly accurate account of this interesting operation.'

At this point in his career, Grove knew his life had to change. His love of culture, of literature and poetry, and especially of music had begun to dominate his thinking. Throughout his engineering years, he had spent all his spare time going to concerts, reading, sitting in the British library or Novello's music shop in Soho, copying music into his own notebooks: Handel, Pergolesi, Palestrina, Mozart, Bach. He had joined a new group called the Musical Antiquarian Society. …

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