Denis Arnold

Denis Arnold is Professor of Music at Oxford.

Mrs Schumann’s Profession

Denis Arnold, 22 May 1986

English musicology has always embraced the Big Bang theory, which is to say that musical history is the story of great composers. Tovey’s remark that there are Great Composers and there are Interesting Historical Figures sums it up quite well. The German school has for the most part believed in principles and (since its discipline was born in the times of Darwin) the development of the species – whether symphony, harmonic idiom or orchestration. No doubt these differences have something to do with national temperament. They are also to do with institutions. German musicology always was a thing of university professors. English musicology has been largely a branch of journalism. It has been frankly popularist: it thrives in music appreciation classes and broadcasts, in programme notes telling the audience about form, in books about composers – for human interest is easily assimilated by the non-musician. It may be considered more useful than German (and hence American) scholarship, but it can hardly be denied that it does not make for good historical writing.’


Denis Arnold, 19 September 1985

Even those of us who believe that the European Music Year is an invention of Saatchi and Saatchi can hardly deny that la generazione dell’ottantacinque was a formidable crew. How J.S. Bach, Handel and Domenico Scarlatti all came to be born in 1685 must be ascribed to chance; no juggling with the facts of cultural history can possibly account for it. Indeed, the common factor between them is precisely that they were all outsiders in one way or another: Bach because he was a Kantor, Handel because he worked in England, Scarlatti both because he lived in Spain and because he remained a very specialised keyboard player and composer. The insider would have been an Italian opera composer playing the European market. He would have been unlikely to be a virtuoso player. That was to come in Mozart’s time with the invention of the pianoforte.

State Aid

Denis Arnold, 22 December 1983

Do not believe the title. This book is scarcely a history, in the meaningful sense of that word, because although it is a collection of facts arranged in chronological order, it makes little attempt to assess them. Nor does it really treat of English opera, although there is ample information about theatres, librettists and composers. It is an obvious example of Hamlet without the Prince: in this case, music. Mr White is clearly more at home with literary sources than with musical style, and on the few occasions when he does embark on comment about the music, he shows no great grasp (his comments about Handel’s operas on page 169 are crashingly beside the point).

Old Grove and New Grovers

Denis Arnold, 16 October 1980

The machine grinds on and on. The sixth edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians will come out next winter, all 20 volumes, 18,000 pages, 22,500 articles, 7,500 cross-references, over three thousand illustrations, over two thousand five hundred music-type examples – if the dust-cover of Percy Young’s biography of its founder is to be believed. The New Grove, as it is called, is not really the product of a machine (though rumours of its adventures with computer setting have sometimes made it seem so), but its editorial set-up has tended to give that impression to contributors. Off would go an article in the post; back would come a list of inquiries from some studious editor. Were dates accurate, in the light of the latest research? Later, proofs would arrive, rewritten to fit in with house-style (as laid down in the Little Brown Book, constantly revised), sometimes to an infuriating extent. Were your changes really necessary, oh editors? Time will tell.


Nicholas Spice, 22 December 1983

Inevitably, as time passes, the art of Otto Klemperer is identified in the memories of those who heard him with caricatures of the qualities that happened to distinguish it at the end of his...

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