Shelf Life: How Musical Reference Materials Treat American Composers

Shelf Life: How Musical Reference Materials Treat American Composers

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Stanley Sadie, editor. Macmillan Publishers Limited, 2001.

Just as James VI of Scotland became James I when he ascended to the English throne in 1603, this counts as the seventh edition of Grove’s, but only the second edition of The New Grove. It’s certainly the King James Bible of music, held as the highest authority even though hobbled by a quaint English attitude toward things—that attitude being that England is the center of the universe. Although the New Grove claims to be “encyclopedic and universal,” its 29,000 articles show a definite taste for marginal English figures. As always, the English cultural Mafia is protecting its territory at the expense of outsiders. There’s not a word on Robert Muczynski, for example, but in his place we find several forgettable old English composers named Mudd—unperformed, unrecorded, uninteresting—as well as American bluesman Muddy Waters. And the last entry in what should be the Muczynski volume is for the grunge band Nirvana.

The editor crows that the new New Grove covers 5,000 20th-century composers, rather than the 3,000 of the previous edition, and, in general, “our express intention [is] to spread the net more widely and to trawl more deeply.” But the result is that they’ve dredged up more bottom-feeders like Nirvana. Ephemeral pop composers and performers are allotted space that would be better devoted to admittedly secondary living composers who, even so, are more likely to hold our research interest across this edition’s probable 20-year lifespan. There are already pop-music reference books and Web sites that address the topic far more comprehensively; Grove should leave most of that to the specialists, and focus on art (and, yes, ethnic) music that isn’t covered in adequate depth by other sources.

Perhaps too young to make it into this edition are Annie Gosfield and Dan Coleman (the much older Cy Coleman, composer of the song “Witchcraft” and the musical Sweet Charity, does merit space). But the American composers who do make it into the New Grove tend to fare well. Aaron Copland gets the royal treatment, with six pages of text and musical examples and two more listing compositions and bibliography. Howard Pollack’s article, when it comments on Copland’s works and styles or quotes other opinions, is either positive or, more often, benevolently neutral. George Perle gets three pages, including a big photo. The article, written by his collaborator Paul Lansky, manages to describe Perle’s very personal approach to serialism with as much directness and clarity as is possible for a system that can collapse under the weight of its abstruse, specialized terminology. Charles Wuorinen receives more than two pages, nearly half of which is a selective work list and bibliography. Here, writer Louis Karchin provides the smoothest incorporation of CV into readable running prose I’ve found in these reference books. Karchin is a Wuorinen enthusiast, and ends with the declaration that “Wuorinen’s most important contribution may be the development of a highly sophisticated 20th-century musical language that responds to the grand musical visions of centuries of musical predecessors.” If that doesn’t give him a high, polished pedestal in the pantheon of immortals, nothing will.

Daniel Asia gets nearly a full column. Unfortunately, this amounts to only a work list, a basic CV, plus two evaluative and somewhat misleading sentences: “Asia’s music of the 1970s…experiments with vernacular influences [but this is hardly their most salient feature]. Later works, especially the symphonies and the Piano Concerto, are more indebted to the music of Barber, Bernstein, and Copland.” Barber? Change that to Druckman, and we’re getting warm. The work list stops dead at the 1997 Cello Concerto. It’s nice to see an Asia entry here, but one can’t help wondering if he made the cut because he spent a couple of years in England. Perhaps as a corollary to their insufferable boosterism, the Brits have always remained loyal to foreigners who take up residence with their happy few. (As one small example, Gramophone has long been the world headquarters of the Karajan cult.)

Is it British reserve or simply the contributors’ respect for their subjects’ privacy that leaves certain big biographical questions unanswered? The fine, if brief, Ben Johnston entry, although it lists no works later than 1996, offers an effective survey of Johnston’s complicated mélange of interests, including just intonation, neoclassicism, humor, serialism, indeterminacy, and improvisation. But then the last paragraph asserts that “The 1960s were years of personal crisis” without elaboration, aside from noting that a couple of scores were dominated by “violent contrasts and personality changes.” One wishes they’d either spill the beans or not mention the crisis in the first place.

On the subject of leaving things unsaid, Donna K. Anderson contributes a detailed essay nicely summing up the life and styles of Charles Tomlinson Griffes. Yet although she describes his “delightful sense of humour,” his interest in “delicately conceived watercolours,” and his fascination with the “colour and excitement of a circus or parade,” she neglects to mention his discreet preference for the company of boys and men in uniform. Isn’t one’s sexual orientation, especially in Griffes’ conservative environs, as important a biographical element as loving a parade? One might think so after having discovered Grove‘s extensive article on “gay and lesbian music,” falling in with the controversial queer-studies dictum that homosexuality does, indeed, “come out” in scores.

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

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