Grove: Sees Trees But Not Forest

The contributors seem to have been lightly edited, if at all.

by Anne Midgette and Greg Sandow

DICTIONARY: Officially known as the "The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd Edition," the work under review, published earlier this year, is in fact the seventh revision of a colossus that now encompasses 29 volumes -- some 25 million words -- and is accepted, though not always with delight, as the standard English-language reference work on classical music. Since its last iteration in 1980, Grove has expanded its horizons to include articles (much touted, at least in its own advertising) on world music, pop and jazz. It has extensively overhauled previous entries to reflect current scholarship; added more than 5,500 new ones; and created an online version that's easier for subscribers to search and also allows immediate updates -- which is fortunate, since the new edition has many mistakes and inconsistencies. The online version also has a definite edge in price; subscriptions are $295 for one year (or $30 for a single month), while the print edition retails for $4,850.

CONTRIBUTORS: More than 6,000 leading authorities are responsible for the entries in the dictionary, at least one of whom (see Sandow, Greg) was unaware of his contribution. So vast are the current volumes that Mr. Sandow perused them for months before discovering, quite by chance, that a few short entries he had updated for one of Grove's many spinoffs, "The New Grove Dictionary of American Music" (1986), had been carried over into the new, comprehensive edition without anyone telling him -- including the editors, with whom he carried on extensive discussions while collaborating with Ms. Midgette on this review.

VOICE: As a musical instrument, the human voice is a second-class citizen in the Grove republic. Even in the "New Grove Dictionary of Opera" (1994), most major opera singers were treated in one or two brief paragraphs, listing little more than roles sung and opera houses performed in, capped with a one-line description of the singer's instrument (Franco Corelli: "large and stentorian"). But when the full Grove takes over many of these entries, they look even mingier, contrasted with the far longer descriptions of instrumentalists and conductors that surround them. In his 9-inch entry, Murray Perahia gets a whole paragraph discussing his particular approach to the piano; while the 3-inch biography of Mirella Freni, one of the greatest sopranos of our time, describes her distinguishing characteristics simply as "purity, fullness and even focus." This doesn't differentiate her from far more minor sopranos, such as Ashley Putnam, whose voice is "flexible, silver-toned," and whose entry is exactly the same length.
Such jarring contrasts also characterize the narrative voices of the various contributors, who seem to have been only lightly edited, if at all. It's natural that some entries are better than others, but it's less natural that no guiding hand has balanced the various entries with each other. Of the great Metropolitan Opera baritone Lawrence Tibbett, we read that his "dark, pliant voice and matinee-idol appearance made him popular in films as well as light opera," while Robert Weede -- remembered mainly for singing the lead role of "The Most Happy Fella" on Broadway -- is praised as "one of the finest American baritones of the century." Taken at face value, these assertions would give an uninformed reader an entirely reversed idea of which singer was more important.
And while the New Grove took pains to revamp some of its biographical entries, to allow frank discussions of once-taboo subjects -- such as Tchaikovsky's homosexuality -- some of its biographies still remain protectively uninformative. "The 'accusations' leveled against him always took the form of rumours," writes Balint Vazsonyi of the 20th-century Hungarian composer Erno von Dohnanyi; but he shields his compatriot by not explaining what the "accusations" were (other than that they "were launched on political premises" and came "either from the left or from the right"), which doesn't make his entry fully useful in a work of reference. (Here it can be told: Dohnanyi was falsely accused of Nazi sympathies, by, among others, the Hungarian Communist government, which wanted to punish him for his anti-Soviet stance.)
Writing on the "posthumous reputation" of the famous Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, John Tyrrell forthrightly declares that "syphilis, which resulted in his deafness, madness, and death, is not generally acknowledged by Czech sources." This statement is clearly true, since one such Czech source, Marta Ottlova, wrote the bulk of the Smetana biography preceding Mr. Tyrrell's section and omits any mention whatsoever of the disease. (Mr. Tyrrell -- perhaps incredibly, given this editorial lapse -- was executive editor of the New Grove.)
Thanks to idiosyncrasies like these, getting information out of the dictionary can be like piecing together a mosaic. Some of the most enlightening information about some subjects appears in articles other than those explicitly devoted to them. Richard Taruskin's "Nationalism" entry, for instance, is a stimulating supplement to (among much else) the biography of Dvorak, himself an avid Czech nationalist. And for all of the dictionary's commendable openness about Tchaikovsky's homosexuality, Philip Brett and Elizabeth Wood's provocative sally on "Gay and Lesbian Music," the only New Grove entry we found that has what pop culture calls "attitude," discusses gay aspects of some notable musicians -- including Handel, Saint-Saens and the famously gay British pop group The Pet Shop Boys -- that go unmentioned in their main biographies. (They're also not cross-referenced in the online version.)

ROCK 'N' ROLL: In its marketing, the New Grove bills itself as "the premier authority," not just on the classics, but, apparently, on all forms of music. This is not even approximately accurate. We hadn't had the book a week before we discovered an embarrassing gaffe -- "classic rock" is defined as "the incorporation of classical music referents into some rock," when in fact the term means rock from the late '60s through the '70s. (This mistake still has not been corrected online, even though Grove's editors acknowledged it to us months ago.) It's hard to imagine that Grove would so drastically misdefine anything in classical music, nor is it a surprise to discover that classical music still dominates the dictionary, even sometimes in entries not specifically devoted to it.
Take the "Improvisation" article, which starts by acknowledging the obvious -- that improvisation happens much less in classical music than in world music or jazz -- and then carries on busily about classical music for 20 pages, after which world and jazz improvisation get just four pages each. For an even clearer view of Grove's priorities, consider that the Ferrabosco family of Baroque musicians, known only to specialists, gets 15 pages, the music of Tajikistan five, Louis Armstrong just two; and Madonna and Bruce Springsteen (whom scholars elsewhere have treated with respect) only four and two paragraphs. Classical music comes first, and world music gets reasonable space, but jazz comes off as an unimportant afterthought -- and pop, no matter what Grove's intentions might have been, doesn't seem to be taken seriously at all.
In order to be as authoritative in jazz and pop as it now is for classical music, Grove would have to treat those fields according to standards already set by the best pop and jazz scholars, which would mean dramatic expansion. The "Improvisation" entry alone could triple in size. Louis Armstrong, accorded the same musical and biographical deference as the greatest classical composers, might get 30 pages; pop and jazz discographies, now conspicuous in their absence, would be added to balance the complete lists of classical composers' works.
It's open to question, however, whether anyone would buy a 60-volume Grove, even if Grove's editors, already clearly challenged by a mere 29 volumes, were up to the task of creating one. And if the dictionary compensated by cutting down on its classical coverage, the classical-music world would lose a reference that, for all of its problems, is clearly irreplaceable (especially for anyone looking up the Ferraboscos).
Some have suggested that none of this matters, because the dictionary -- easier to use, easier to revise, infinitely expandable online -- will only be updated in its electronic format. "I hope not," is the quiet response of outgoing editor Stanley Sadie. But one solution might be to follow the promise of both media. Grove's editors could update and expand the online version to become a continuing, growing record of all facets of music, while eliminating all nonclassical entries from a new print version and renaming it to fit what most people, not incorrectly, perceive it to be: "The New Grove Dictionary of Classical Music."

Anne Midgette is my wife, and a music critic for the New York Times, as well as a freelance writer for many other publications. This was our first published collaboration, and in all ways a happy experience. On this site you can hear a string quartet I wrote for her birthday, and see one of our wedding pictures.

Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2001