Shelf Life: How Musical Reference Materials Treat American Composers

Shelf Life: How Musical Reference Materials Treat American Composers

Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Centennial Edition (ninth). Laura Kuhn, classical editor. Schirmer Books, 2001.

The only thing left of Theodore Baker on this enduring reference work is his name. Baker’s First Edition, a bit more than a century ago, was a modest 653 pages fitting comfortably in the hand, adorned with thumbnail portraits and padded with bios of obscure players in the Boston Symphony—friends of the editor. From the Fifth Edition, issued in 1958, the dictionary’s dominant, impish personality was editor-composer-musicologist-gadfly Nicolas Slonimsky, whose silhouette now adorns the cover of each oversized volume—it’s suddenly swollen to six, thanks partly to what the new editor, Laura Kuhn, calls a “massive influx of nearly 2,000 completely new entries on popular and jazz musicians.” More than 1,000 new classical entries have also been added since Slonimsky’s valedictory eighth edition of 1992, but a few entries have slipped away for no good reason—does Jack Beeson really deserve to fall into obscurity so soon?

We are almost scolded in the introduction that Baker’s is “no longer the voice of a single, singular man,” but this edition wisely reprints all Slonimsky’s prefaces. It’s great fun to read of his delight in compiling a world necrology of more than 600 musicians in a list he labeled “Stiffs”; snicker at his fake entry on a nonexistent Czech composer who wrote, among other atrocities, something called Macho for “large secular organ”; and follow his investigation into the truth about Mozart’s funeral.

But most people will bypass the front matter on the way to quick information on an individual figure. Here, the lack of Slonimsky’s “single, singular” voice is cause for both regret and relief. Slonimsky had sparked at least one flash of wit on every page, but the new entries by a variety of contributors are written in a consistently even-handed, flat style. Some of Slonimsky’s own contributions do remain in updated form, and it’s interesting to note that his commentary on living composers was either approving, silent, or buried in technobabble and thesaurus-speak. He never had an unpleasant thing to say about any 20th-century American composer. Perhaps that’s a comforting thing, but it would be helpful to have some idea of how a composer’s works have been received by the public, press, and academy, particularly if the reaction were strong in one direction or the other.

Baker’s nationality index lists entries on nearly 4,000 Americans, but these include jazz and rock figures—though not bands. On the subject of rock bands, it’s distressing not that such ensembles are included but that classical ensembles are entirely excluded from Baker’s. This is a strange double standard, and if you want information on groups such as the Kronos Quartet that are heavily involved in contemporary music, you have to know the names of the members and hope they’ve been blessed with individual entries, which is not always the case.

As for American composers, Baker’s standard operating procedure is to offer a bit of eye-blearingly gray curriculum vita, maybe a sentence describing the composer’s style or importance, and a substantial though not necessarily complete work list. Indeed, some of the work lists are curiously out of date. Annie Gosfield gets nearly a column listing her compositions, all the way up to 2000. But Daniel Asia‘s stops with his 1997 Cello Concerto, and Robert Muczynski‘s peters out in 1985, Ben Johnston‘s in 1988.

The descriptions of the composers’ styles tend to be apt, as far as they go. To say that Asia’s music “belies a variety of American influences, ranging from Copland and Bernstein to John Adams and Druckman” captures it perfectly, except for the fact that “belies” means “misrepresents,” not “reveals” or “hints at.”

“Muczynski is a particularly fine composer of chamber music and piano pieces, whose output reflects the influence of Bartók and Barber, among others.” Can’t argue with that, except it would be even more helpful to throw in the name Walter Piston as a reference point for the chamber and orchestral music. On the other hand, Baker’s offers about the best statement you can possibly make on George Perle‘s work in two sentences: “Perle was one of the earliest American serialists, and one of the most innovative. He developed a highly personal and distinctive ’12-tone tonality,’ one made notable by expert craftsmanship.”

Space devoted to American figures is not lavish, but mostly appropriate in the context of an all-inclusive reference work. Copland, described up at the top as a “greatly distinguished and exceptionally gifted American composer,” is awarded a column and a half for biographical material, and two columns for a work list. Oddly, the entry for Griffes (“outstanding American composer”), whose oeuvre is rather small, devotes twice as much space (nearly a column) to an itemization of his works as it does to narrative on his life and stylistic evolution. Yet this is typical for what musical lexicographers might indelicately call “lesser figures,” which would include nearly every composer now living; it’s safest just to copy the material from the publisher’s catalog, and not stir up trouble with anything evaluative.

From Shelf Life: How Musical Reference Materials Treat American Composers
By James Reel
© 2002 NewMusicBox

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.