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The Gadfly in the Grove 

Wednesday, Mar 28 2001
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George Grove, lighthouse builder

Precious words abide. In 1986, I turned up in one of the Grove dictionaries as “an unpredictable gadfly”; now, in the latest Grove, I still am. At least they spelled my name right, both times.

The latest arrival is the second edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (hereafter NewGroveII). In the 21 years since NewGroveI the noble and time-honored lexicon has proliferated; the family now includes AmeriGrove, OperaGrove, JazzGrove and SheGrove (women composers). In its print version, NewGroveII consists of 29 volumes (up from the 20 of NewGroveI ); there‘s an index volume, for the first time since 1890; there are 29,000 articles, for a total of 25 million words (their count, not mine); nearly 9,000 of the articles are newly commissioned; 2,000 articles are on world music, compared to a mere 1,000 in NewGroveI. There is also an online edition, already available if still making its way toward completion; you get a few messages about such-and-such a file still being “under development.” The accompanying literature promises updates four times a year. At the moment, however, making your way through NewGroveII.com is a little like taking a hard-hat tour. The asking price is $4,850 for the print edition, and $295 per year for the online version. You could always wait for the movie.

Perhaps I shouldn’t strike so lightheaded a note about the most prestigious publication in any field of the arts, for this latest Grove, like every one of its predecessors, is exactly that. Few publications in any language challenge its awesome inclusiveness. Take an overview of the way the Grove editors have defined “inclusiveness” in every succeeding edition and you end up with a fascinating map with consistently expanding borders, a study in the evolution of musical taste. Take just one example, comparing the content of NewGroveI and NewGroveII: In the 1980 edition the alphabetical sequence went from “Raoux” to “Rapeguero”; in the NewGroveII the sequence is “Raoux” to “Rap” to “Rapeguero,” with David Toop‘s piece on rap decked out with an impressive bibliography.

George Grove (1820--1900) was the kind of dedicated connoisseur the English have always been particularly good at breeding. His father was a fishmonger at Charing Cross; young George studied engineering, and built cast-iron lighthouses in Jamaica and Bermuda. Somehow he got from there to a secretaryship at London’s Crystal Palace, where he wrote program notes for concerts. An admiring George Bernard Shaw noted that Grove “fed on Beethoven‘s symphonies as the gods in Das Rheingold fed on the apples of Freia.” With his friend Arthur Sullivan (of “Gilbert-and-” fame) he played a huge role in unearthing Schubert manuscripts that had been scattered among collections all over Europe. In 1873 he joined the publishing firm of Macmillan to edit their new Dictionary of Music and Musicians; the first of four volumes appeared in 1879. His own articles on Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn were included in the first three editions, although their content of passion extended them far out of proportion to other articles -- 57 pages for Mendelssohn against 12 for Bach. (Grove’s three articles were eventually dropped, and published in a separate volume in 1951 -- worth the search.)

Bach and Mendelssohn had regained their proper size long before NewGroveII, but something of Grove himself persists. Along with such later avatars as England‘s Donald Tovey and our own Nicolas Slonimsky, Grove was a special breed of compiler, clearly descended from the archetypal Samuel Johnson, with his own Dictionary of 100 years before. Unlike the straight-arrow collaborators on Germany’s Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart -- the only effort comparable in size and splendor -- Grove‘s people always seem to emulate the master in dispensing incontestable information with one hand and an unmistakable passion for their subjects with the other. Whether you land at Toop’s well-documented pieces on rap, gangsta and hip-hop, or Robert Winters‘ new Schubert study, with all the recently discovered and re-evaluated big works in proper perspective, the old sense I’ve always gotten from Grove -- the strange but lovable mix of deep research and deep feeling -- remains in place in this new edition. (I did find it disheartening, though, to discover in the Schubert article two song titles misspelled on the same line: “Liebesbotschat” for “Liebesbotschaft” and “Standcher” for “Standchen.”)

There are, of course, other nits to pick, as in any 25-million-word undertaking. We are reminded once again that our overseas colleagues still haven‘t accepted the notion of cultural possibilities this far from Big Ben; this shows up in an ongoing tendency to allot Los Angeles -- and everything else west of the Alleghenies -- only the shortest of shrift. The first version of the current Los Angeles article appeared in 1980, returned in the 1986 AmeriGrove, expanded ever so slightly for the 1992 OperaGrove and now has shrunk back for its current incarnation. It is the work of the venerable UCLA scholar Robert Stevenson. It takes the Los Angeles Opera (under its former, now-obsolete title) up to its 1986 opening night and no further, ignores entirely any new-music developments and, in short, writes off as unimportant the nearly two decades of growth that have defined this area.

Okay, it’s a small matter -- if not as small as Dr. Stevenson and his editors would have the world believe. Here is something of greater concern. In considering with awe and admiration this new blockbuster compilation of everything in music worth knowing, you may stop to wonder where it all fits in the currently troubled world of serious musical thinking. Will all that knowledge -- about Schubert, or hip-hop, or Duke Ellington (with Andre Hodeir‘s original article eloquently expanded by Gunther Schuller) -- create a new generation of music consumer adept in the use of ears and in processing the information they harvest?

Several weeks ago one of our serious-music radio stations, one without commercials and therefore, you want to believe, free to explore interesting cultural byways, canceled a popular weekly program devoted to music before Bach. When confronted with complaints, an executive explained that the station preferred to concentrate on “significant” composers -- thus relegating to “insignificance” such nonentities as Purcell, Monteverdi, Palestrina, Dufay, Machaut or Hildegard von Bingen. I don’t know what musical treatises grace the bookshelves of KUSC‘s Brenda Barnes, if any, but if you had to guess which -- the 29 volumes of NewGroveII or one of the dozens of current sleazeball tomes with names like Mozart for Idiots and Who’s Afraid of Classical Music? -- you wouldn‘t need my help. Whatever its greatness, the indispensible new Grove just might become, against today’s cultural realities, an insignificant other.

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