by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, July 11, 2001.
At the Grammy Awards earlier this year, Madonna offered not only an energetic performance of her latest hit single but also a working definition of the art. "Music makes the people come together," she sang. The morning after the broadcast, Regis Philbin, the co-host of "Live with Regis and Kelly," wanted to know what song Madonna had performed. "She sang ‘Music,’" Kelly Ripa explained. Philbin gave the audience a mournful, blank stare, and the audience burst out laughing. Music makes the people come together, but not all at once.
Madonna gets four paragraphs in the recently published second edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, a reference work in twenty-nine volumes. Near her, in Volume XV ("Liturgy to Martinu˚"), are Geoffrey Douglas Madge, an Australian pianist who has performed Kaikhosru Sorabji’s four-hour-long "Opus Clavicembalisticum"; the eighteenth-century organist and composer Nonnosus Madlseder, said to have been "highly regarded"; and the band Madness, here described as "mordant." In the kingdom of the Grove, the great and the small, the transient and the ancient, the boring and the weird lie side by side. Names glow like hieroglyphs on the wall of a tomb: "Paulus Spongopoeus Gistebnicenus … arguably the most prolific Bohemian composer of his time." Page after page is an Ozymandian landscape in which grand ambitions rest at the edge of oblivion. Look, ye Mighty, on the works of August Bungert, floruit 1900, the composer of four Homeric operas and the symphonic poem "Genius Triumphans: Zeppelin’s First Great Flight."
What single definition could make sense of all this racket? Webster’s calls music "the science or art of incorporating pleasing, expressive, or intelligible combinations of vocal or instrumental tones," which is pretty vague, and fails to explain Limp Bizkit. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia dubbed music "a specific variant of the sound made by people." The theorist Ernst Kurth claimed to hear "the erupted radiations of far more powerful fundamental processes whose energies revolve in the inaudible." The Grove, with a resigned smile, defines music as "the principal subject of the publication at hand": Beethoven plus Bungert, Madonna plus Madlseder. The article on "Music" arrives at this weak-sounding but secretly potent conclusion: "There is little doubt that each reader of this work believes firmly in the existence of music and subscribes to a specific conception of it, yet one ventures to assert that there is none who can imagine life without it." A good aphorism hides in the Germanic thicket—an extension of Nietzsche’s "Without music, life would be a mistake." Music is often treated as cultural décor, but if it were dispensable then we ought to be able to imagine life without it, and we cannot. The beginning of Wagner’s "Ring," in which a chord grows from a tone that seems to have been sounding forever, suggests that music is the basic noise of life.
For the most part, this is a dictionary of classical music. People in the business fondly talk about "going to the Grove," as if they were about to camp out in a comfortable patch of woods. Each edition—the original was completed in 1889, with major revisions appearing in 1904, 1927, 1940, 1954, and 1980—has served as an approximate summa of the state of musical knowledge. This one is different on two counts. First, it is joined by an online version, which will be updated on an almost continuous basis. Second, it offers vastly expanded coverage of twentieth-century music, avant-garde music, world music, jazz, and pop. What was once a conservative institution is now eclectic to the max. With the expansion, however, has come a fluctuation of standards. For considerable stretches, the Grove seems to be comprehending the entirety of musical experience, but then it stumbles into areas where it has only limited competence. It is bigger than ever, but it is no longer infallible. It is a monument and a mess—not unlike the medium that it covers.
Sir George Grove, the dictionary’s founding editor, lived from 1820 to 1900. He was an engineer of bridges and lighthouses, a scholar of the Bible, and a fanatical, self-taught music lover. He was among the first to pay serious attention to Franz Schubert, and his researches helped inspire the dictionary’s meticulous work lists, which now go on for dozens of pages, or, in the case of Franz Liszt, nearly a hundred. Grove was not a career academic, in contrast to most of those who carry on his legacy today. The early editions were notable not only for the intensity of their scholarship but also for the bully-pulpit grandeur of their language. Here is a sam-ple: "Bach created an entirely new vocal style based on instrumental principles, carried it to the summit of perfection, and there left it." Let us pray. The first edition, in four plump volumes, is full of errors and prejudices, but it speaks with conviction. Libraries should think twice before casting it aside.
Even though the Grove has become an increasingly international enterprise, with six thousand contributors from ninety-eight countries—I wrote a brief entry on the composer Stephen Hartke—it is still unmistakably English in tone. One of the highlights of my browsing was the discovery of Henry Bishop, the author of "Home, Sweet Home," who, it turns out, was an insanely prolific composer of musical entertainments, the titles of which are reproduced with an implicit donnish chuckle: "The Sedan Chair," "Love in a Tub," "Swedish Patriotism," "Rural Felicity," "Stanfield’s Diorama, in Davy Jones, or Harlequin and Mother Carey’s Chickens." In the text, Nicholas Temperley tracks the ups and downs, or, more accurately, the up and down, of Bishop’s career. "Not only his wife but his public had deserted him," Temperley says of the composer’s final years. "In 1841 he was elected to the Reid Professorship at Edinburgh University, but he resigned in 1843, having given a total of two lectures."
No less droll is the case of Frederick Arthur Gore Ouseley, a Victorian, whose childhood works are said to have shown "as much skill and originality as Mozart’s." Yet "something in his upbringing made Ouseley repress this early vitality of imagination." It happens. Still, the entry goes on for three columns. After a few of these Oxbridgean tours de force, some browsers may begin to feel impatient, especially when more important figures, from other lands, are being given shorter shrift. There is space for such almost famous Englishmen as Malcolm Binns, Barry Wordsworth, and the twenty-five-year-old conductor Daniel Harding, but not for Paul Jacobs, Sanford Sylvan, Osvaldo Golijov, Lauren Flanigan, Bethany Beardslee, the label CRI, the early-music group Pomerium, and Glimmerglass Opera, among many other American musicians and institutions. Likewise, in pop, the Happy Mondays and the Manic Street Preachers make the grade while Ralph Stanley and Beck do not. The distribution of space raises questions, too. Is Peter Maxwell Davies more important than Aaron Copland? Is Harrison Birtwistle a bigger deal than Leonard Bernstein? Time will tell, gentlemen.
When it comes to the central figures of musical history, the Grove gets the proportions right. Beethoven is still champion after all these years, with forty-two double-columned pages of biography and analysis. As in the previous edition, Beethoven’s works are written up flawlessly by Joseph Kerman, the dean of American musicologists. J. S. Bach gets thirty-six pages, Schubert thirty-four, Haydn thirty-three, Handel thirty-one, Mozart twenty-nine. Coming up strong in the modern field are Stravinsky (twenty-eight pages), Britten (twenty-five), and Shostakovich (twenty-one). Many of the twentieth-century entries have been written fresh for this edition, and they tend to be superb. James Hepokoski’s essay on Jean Sibelius, for example, is the most authoritative account of the composer that exists in print. It is inventive in the terms it devises for an idiosyncratic style, and it is also a beautifully shaded evocation of a troubled man. Sibelius is portrayed as a visionary who "had come to regard certain types of sound-image with reverence, as spiritually mappable onto the manifestations of Being concealed behind the visible surface of nature." At the same time, he is shown in all his self-pitying, self-consuming melancholy. The quotations that are culled from his diary are extraordinarily painful to read. "Alcohol, which I gave up, is now my most faithful companion," he wrote in 1923. "Everything and everyone else have largely failed me."
If only certain of the longer nineteenth-century entries spoke with the same kind of immediacy. In the essay on Schubert, the founder’s great love, Robert Winter assembles a vast amount of biographical material and goes through it in approximately chronological sequence, but the effect is to turn the composer into a strange sort of musical business traveller, notable chiefly for his movement from town to town and street to street. The controversy that has bubbled up in recent years over Schubert’s sexual identity is mentioned, but no clear stand is taken. The article proceeds to a description of the music. The methodology is to divide the composer’s output into formal categories, then to attach adjectives to each major work in sequence. Here are some consecutive samples from the section on piano music: "original," "most original," "strikingly original," "bold," "highly individual," "highly dramatic," "highly original," "most original," "extraordinarily bold." It’s all true. But Winter fails to establish what this originality consisted of—what made Schubert different.
Much of the writing in the new Grove is grim, showing a seepage of academic lingo. Bach, for example, no longer climbs to the summit of perfection; instead, he produces "homogeneous language of considerable density." Is it music, or last month’s milk? The essay on Mahler declares that in his Fifth Symphony the composer "opted for a rhetoric that brings to the foreground a constructed musical subjectivity whose task is to control and unify the protean character changes that define its discourse." The word "musical" is the only clue that this sentence is describing a symphony rather than a novel, a film, or a rival academic treatise. The word "sound" plays a similar hold-the-fort role in a bizarrely geological account of the German avant-gardist Johannes Kalitzke: "Explosive force generating from a single focal point often serves to integrate diverse facets of sound, causing both compression and extension to occur within each structural layer." And consider the following descriptions: "His musical structures are designed around the internal organization of related series of sounds"; and "Motifs are often inspired by specific intervals that then pervade the melody, and individual lines are at times composed of a string of related ideas." The first is of the contemporary composer Peter ˇSavli; the second is of the Renaissance composer Pierre de La Rue. But the reverse could easily be true, and either sentence could apply to almost any composer in history.
In a reference work of twenty-five million words, some parts will be better than others, but it is easy to locate a few recurring problems in this edition. One is an abhorrence of biographical color. While it is a dictionary’s role to play it safe, there are cases in which caution becomes concealment. The "hopelessness" of the German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann makes more sense if you know that he committed suicide. Another problem is the erratic coverage of singers and instrumentalists. While entries for musicologists seem to be multiplying, those for musicians seem to be declining. Once upon a time, the Grove celebrated Lillian Evans Blauvelt, a Brooklyn-born singer who sang with the Wagner conductor Anton Seidl. Her voice was said to have been "a pure soprano of exquisite quality, pure, clear, and brilliant, but with fine warmth and intelligence." She is gone. So are Rose Caron, a reigning diva of the Paris Opéra in the eighteen-eighties and nineties, and Giuseppina Pasqua, who pleased the implacable Verdi. I’d hate to think that any of those women were pushed aside by Dr. Alexander Weinmann, the author of twenty-four books on Viennese music publishers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The musicians who do make it in are given variable treatment. Violinists will laugh at the description of Anne-Sophie Mutter as "a solid player." A golf encyclopedia wouldn’t get away with calling Tiger Woods a solid player. Music-making does not seem to be a hot topic in academe these days.
Finally, there are the rock and jazz entries, which range from the excellent to the execrable. It is a delight to read anything by Robert Walser, a rock scholar whose writing is precise and streetwise. (He calls Iggy Pop "an intense and transgressive performer who sometimes went so far as to roll in broken glass or otherwise wound himself.") Ian MacDonald gets the Beatles about right, taking them seriously without piling on the pretensions of highbrow writers past. On the other hand, the article on Miles Davis flirts with gibberish: the jazzman’s music of the sixties is called "chordless." There are no errors in the entry for ABBA, but something is hilariously wrong with it: ABBA’s "prominent characteristics are sensuous combinations of diatonic melody and tonal harmony, often involving harmonic motion alternating between two or three chords." And what about this for Hank Williams: his "strained, mournful singing style, partly a result of addiction to liquor and drugs as well as a troubled marriage, was influenced by Roy Acuff and southern gospel music." The grammar is as bad as the psychology.
Much has been made of the Grove’s transition to the online world—grovemusic.com—but the print edition already has the look of an electronic event: a lot of entries seem to have been zapped from E-mail to the page without anyone’s taking a second glance at them. The word from behind the scenes is that the dictionary was rushed into production despite the objections of its longtime editor, Stanley Sadie, who subsequently handed over the job to John Tyrrell. This explains some of the more obvious problems with the first printing, such as the disappearance of many of Stravinsky’s works and the severe attenuation of the Wagner bibliography. (Alas, it is not true that only one book on Wagner has been written since 1979.) The petty errors, however, will be corrected over time. What matters more is the editorial policy that the Grove sets in place for coming years. Many musicians in these pages are unrecognizable as human beings. Someone needs to draw up a brief memo: Write English. Write about sound and emotion. Write for a curious music lover who finds the Grove in her public library.
The Grove is still a magnificent achievement, and, more than that, it is a work of love. It moves valiantly toward an unattainable goal: music is the vaguest of the arts, and the one that is least likely to be captured between the covers of an encyclopedia. In a way, the Grove’s minutiae are like the rapid murmurings of an anxious lover who is afraid of the feeling in his heart. The writers are not finding the simple words for their love. George Grove understood the art of communication better; he reached for the strong analogy, the telling metaphor. This is how he summed up Beethoven: "As Newton before his death spoke of himself as ‘a child picking up a few shells on the shore while the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before him,’ so does Beethoven ... express himself at the close of his life: ‘I feel as if I had written scarcely more than a few notes.’" Writing on Schubert, he let his affection saturate the page: "Think what the first appearance of these godlike pieces must have been! It was the rising of the Sun!"
The best parts of the new Grove are those in which writers fall into the grip of some kind of intellectual urgency. Richard Taruskin’s essay on musical nationalism suggests, among other things, how classical music came to find itself in ivory-tower isolation. In the nineteenth century, Russian, Czech, and Hungarian composers tried to liberate themselves from the hegemony of German music by incorporating native folklore into their works. In response, German composers, in an astonishing intellectual sleight of hand, defined the national style not in terms of folk sources but in terms of abstract ideals. "One showed oneself a German, not ethnically but spiritually, by putting oneself in humanity’s vanguard," Taruskin writes. This rhetoric became the international jargon of progressive music in the twentieth century, and nationalist composition was rendered unfashionable. The final result, ironically, was a cosmopolitan élite style—what Olivier Messiaen called "the international grey on grey." As Taruskin indicates in his conclusion, composers now face the difficult task of liberating themselves from the snarl of Germanic thought—bits of Hegel, bits of Wagner, sizable chunks of Theodor W. Adorno—that constitutes the ideology of modern music.
Another remarkable effort—in a way, the answer to Taruskin’s tale of arrogance and obsolescence—is J. Peter Burkholder’s essay "Borrowing," which tells of all the ways in which composers, songwriters, and record producers have creatively stolen from each other in order to keep the art alive. It is almost a corollary to the "Music" entry, ranging from Guillaume de Machaut to Grandmaster Flash, taking in Handel, Stravinsky, and the Beatles. When Bob Dylan reused portions of the old song "Lord Randal" in "A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall," he made what medieval scholars called a "contrafactum"; the same process helped generate Bach’s B-Minor Mass and "The Star-Spangled Banner." Here is a definition that holds up: music is incessantly extending, reversing, emulating, mocking, and erasing what’s already there. Grove’s ocean of undiscovered truth, in other words, is music as a whole—which is why Beethoven spent so much time in his final years poring over the manuscripts of his elders, looking for the way back that would lead him forward. Some version of the Grove will persist as long as music is taken seriously as a means of personal expression. The book is like a corridor with a million doors, each opening onto a separate world.
The Grove ends, as did the previous edition, on a suitably obscure, almost mystical note, with an entry for the nineteenth-century Polish piano teacher and composer Wojciech ˙Zywny, who taught Chopin. At the hands of this man, Chopin later said, "the greatest ass would learn." What did ˙Zywny sound like? The Sphinx is silent. "None of his works were published," the Grove intones, "and nearly all are lost." The End. Fine. Das Ende. Wait, where’s ZZ Top?