Old Grove and New Grovers

Denis Arnold

  • George Grove by Percy Young
    Macmillan, 344 pp, £12.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 333 19602 3

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.

It is a far cry from the picture painted by Percy Young of an Eminent Victorian who set to work on a two-volume dictionary in the 1870s, recruited a couple of younger men to help in producing something ‘from which an intelligent inquirer can learn, in small compass, and in language which he can understand, what is meant by a Symphony or Sonata, a Fugue, a Stretto, a Coda, or any other of the technical terms which necessarily occur in every description or analysis of a concert or a piece of music; or from which he can gain a readable and succinct account of the history of the various branches of the art, or of the use and progress of the pianoforte, and other instruments, or the main facts and characteristics of the lives of eminent musicians’. The wish to instruct the ‘intelligent inquirer’, rather than the professional musician (let alone the ‘musicologist’, who then existed not at all in name and rarely in fact), no doubt came naturally to a man who might, misleadingly, be called an amateur in the field.

Grove had trained as an engineer. He had been in charge of erecting a lighthouse in Jamaica and helped in putting the Britannia Bridge across the Menai Straits to Anglesey. Though he left for what would today doubtless be called a job in ‘Arts Administration’ (the secretaryship of the Society of Arts) when he was 30, his apprenticeship left its mark. He would not have learned the precision (or had the breadth of interests) necessary to plan a grand encyclopedia if he had gone through what was then the conventional musical education – nor, indeed, would he have if he had read Classics at one of the universities. In Germany, he might have gained more insight into historical method by attending a university, but there too, in the mid-century, musical scholarship was in the hands of amateurs – men such as Winterfeld and Ambros.

With such amateurs, who has need of professionals? Grove soon moved on, appropriately for an engineer, to manage the Crystal Palace, that monument to the new technology which, somewhat fortuitously, now became a palace for music. Grove the amateur had already begun to go where few professionals ever trod: the Reading Room of the British Museum. He copied works by composers of the 16th and 17th centuries, then coming to light in the publications of the Musical Antiquarian Society, and began to take an interest in the Bach revival which Mendelssohn had made fashionable. It was natural for Grove to start writing on music, sometimes in literary journals, sometimes in the form of analytical programme-notes. Like any Eminent Victorian, he took his tasks seriously. Enlightenment for the masses was never a trivial matter. His analytical notes became models of their genre.

There are those who would call Grove’s learned programme-notes a disaster for English musical scholarship. Certainly programme-notes of this kind have taken up too much of the energies of men who might have provided England with a musicology equal in depth to that of the Germans: notably, Donald Francis Tovey, who left no great historical study to match his gifts, but, instead, a readable and often perceptive set of notes for the orchestra’s basic classical repertoire. Modern analysts do not esteem such notes (the article on analysis in The New Grove may well repudiate the method). They are deliberately superficial. As they are to be read at concerts, too great a detail would get in the way. The sadness is that many biographies of composers, and some studies of historical epochs, adopt the approach.

This is one English disease. Another, which may also be laid partly at Grove’s door, is the worship of great men. Grove, manager of the Crystal Palace concerts, was keen on centenaries. Mozart received his due in a concert enterprising enough to include some great rarities (it also butchered the great E flat Symphony and D minor Piano Concerto by not playing them complete). Beethoven was provided for much more amply with a grand festival that also contained some lesser-known pieces. These were admirable occasions, but the attitude which inspired them, transferred to scholarship, had disadvantages. The time of Grove’s emergence as a scholar was also the time when the Germans were beginning to see musical history in terms of stylistic development, a principle which informs Ambros’s great Geschichte der Musik. England was to wait a long time before there was anything in the same mould in its own musicology.

But then the Germans had to wait for the equivalent of Grove’s great dictionary. Grove virtually invented a new genre. Dictionaries of music up to that time had been largely filled with explanations of technical terms. It is a necessary task, since musical terminology is polyglot: we commonly – and inaccurately – use Italian and German, and the inaccuracies, because of their specific musical connotations, need explanation. But to combine philosophical articles of the kind Rousseau had contributed to the great Encyclopedia of Diderot and D’Alembert with a biographical dictionary of musicians was to create a new attitude to scholarship.

Typically, it was more scientific than Germanic ‘style history’. Ambros and later Riemann, the next of the great music historians, had to create patterns, which they did by imposing various shibboleths on music. Thus were born the national musical characteristics: the intellectual Northerners, the colouristic Italians – concepts which appealed to musicologists because they followed the paths of art historians. Riemann wanted to make medieval music conform to modern principles of phrasing, in spite of considerable evidence that it could not. A dictionary imposes more discipline. For instance, all composers must be considered rather than an arbitrary selection; and if Grove could not quite succeed in doing that even in four ample volumes, he went some way towards this ideal. The history and practice of instruments is something historians tend to ignore, at least in considering older music, largely because musical notation can convey everything but sound quality: Grove’s training as an engineer was very useful to him here. He was almost ideally qualified for the task. His visits to the British Museum Reading Room had given him knowledge of ‘old music’. His stay in Jamaica had shown him that Europe was not the world. In the 1860s, he visited the Middle East to further Biblical and archaeological studies which were now among his major interests: he was one of the editors of a proposed Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, with responsibility for ‘Sacred Places, Art and Furniture AD 50-850’. Riemann, who produced a Musik-Lexicon shortly after the first edition of Grove appeared, could match neither the breadth of Grove’s education nor the breadth of his vision.

The paradox is that in the end it was less the scientific method than Grove’s devotion to great men and the music they created that gave his dictionary its individuality. Riemann’s Musik-Lexicon was invaluable. Its assembly of facts represents a great achievement: but no one would read it for pleasure. This still applies to the latest edition, now up to half a dozen volumes, thoroughly revised and excellently brought up to date. One looks up facts and checks bibliographies. Grove, on the other hand, fascinates: one browses. This is almost entirely a matter of their different personalities. Grove liked men and places. When he became interested in Schubert, off he went to Vienna with his friend Sullivan, visited the graves of the great, talked to people who had known his heroes and in doing so discovered lost treasures, among them the music for Rosamunde. It was a just reward. His articles on composers reflect his interest in the men. For his article on Beethoven he required to know the effect on the composer’s finances of the Austrian Finance Act of 1811. He tells us that Schubert ‘was a true Viennese, born in the lowest ranks, without either the art or the taste for “imposing” on the aristocracy (Beethoven’s favourite phrase) that Beethoven had’.

No doubt such things will have disappeared in The New Grove. It is easy to scoff at some of them: but where else at that date would one have found a discussion of Hard and Soft Hexachords, or an ample discussion of the development of the Scherzo? ‘Sketches, Sketch-books, Sketching, the practice of’ inspired one of Grove’s collaborators, W. S. Rockstro, to a massive and fascinating discussion of how composers work; other editors would no doubt either not have thought of it, or pruned it drastically. The more the browser is lost in the first edition of Grove, the more likely he is to begin to see music and music history in a different way. The facts may sometimes be wrong, the presentation of the material seems dated. But Grove’s own understanding of music as the earnest product of men (rather than of mankind) is the more convincing for its present unfashionability. The sheer scale of his achievement is equally admirable; and the four volumes display a sense of the unity of the subject now lost in the wake of the PhD revolution.

Dr Young sees his biographical brief rather narrowly, recording Grove’s dealings with Macmillan and his relationships with his associates. He fails to grasp the achievement which the dictionary represented, largely because he does not place it against the musicological background of the epoch. He is stronger on Grove’s subsequent life as director of the Royal College of Music, and on his liking for women students, especially a young lady who evidently became a musical power in Dublin, a pianist called Edith Oldham.

The virtue-laden mutton-chop whiskers of Victorian photographs offer a great temptation to debunk. Grove had an unhappy marriage. His wife, he claimed, was cold and, worse, took little interest in his work. Her obituary in the Times suggests that she ‘dispensed hospitality’ to his friends, and helped him in his early Biblical studies. It was not enough for a man to whom music and musicology became increasingly an obsession. So he turned to his women students for consolation – but not, so it seems, for sex. Although Dr Young finds this a weakness in an Eminent Victorian, we may not. If a teacher is not at least to some extent involved emotionally with his students, he is worth little. If the students are women and he is a male, the affection may extend beyond the bounds of a common interest in the object of study. Only if the results are bad should we censure. With Grove, the results were far from bad. The correspondence with Edith Oldham reveals a kind of love affair, but a very innocent kind. She enjoyed a useful life in musical Dublin, married well and lived long. The other students with whom Grove had similar, if less emotional ties were nursed into profitable employment and constantly encouraged in their métier. It was all very natural, especially to a man who had lost both a daughter and a happy married life.

Not that it matters. If ever man and work were one, it was George Grove. He produced his musicological masterpiece and after that there was only one more substantial volume, Beethoven and his Nine Symphonies; there was also journalism, and, above all, the direction of the Royal College of Music. He was a good director. He assembled a distinguished staff, saw the college through a stage of expansion, moved it to Prince Consort Road. His educational principles were sound. Naturally élitist, he would have preferred to confine the college to students with a real musical gift, but saw that there was nowhere for the others to go, so was prepared to do his duty. It was a satisfying life in spite of its sadnesses, and although Dr Young finds Grove’s final years somewhat melancholy, there was always plenty to do, honours to be enjoyed. We have no need to grieve for a man with such wide interests and a natural capacity for friendship, both of which gifts he could exploit until nearly the end.

There has also been the posthumous fame. The subsequent editions of Grove kept it the best of musical encyclopedias, at least until the Germans at last caught up with the magnificent Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (usually known as MGG). Produced under the editorship of a very great scholar, Friedrich Blume, it has so many similarities with Grove that it is difficult not to believe that it was conceived as its German equivalent. MGG came out in fascicles, the first in 1949, the last of the alphabetical series in 1968. Like the first edition of Grove, the early part was deficient in various respects and there have had to be supplementary volumes. Now the work is complete and its editors have every right to say, like Wotan, Vollendet das ewige Werk. Like Grove, it has changed attitudes. The entries sometimes deal with subjects which the histories have never noticed: for instance, in the very first fascicle. ‘Adjuvantenchor’ (boys’ choir), because it deals with media rather than notation, sets the mind speculating about the reasons for the emergence of choral polyphony in the Netherlands and its late arrival in Italy. Music is now defined as a world-wide phenomenon, and if Grove started this movement, MGG has certainly helped to clinch the position of ethnomusicology alongside the musicology of the Western traditions. ‘Style history’ will never be the same again: the 14 volumes of MGG present too much information from all sorts of angles to allow for its erstwhile Darwinism. Species do not die out, but have a habit of lingering on. Northern countries are not ‘intellectual’, Southern ones ‘colourist’: such concepts no longer serve.

It has been fashionable in some New Grove circles to disparage MGG, though the grounds have often been slender enough. ‘Those slabs of prose,’ they say, and truly MGG’s typography has been dreadful: paragraphing was decreed extravagant, so was tabular form for the lists of works; bibliographies are not allowed the luxury of separate lines for separate items. ‘More mistakes than you’d believe,’ they say, in the confidence that the £3 million invested in the new edition will have eliminated most of them – as they might (or might not). ‘We are more professionally and comprehensively planned,’ they say: perhaps that also is not to be denied.

Of more significance than any of this is the question of how far the New Grovers have departed from their founder’s intentions. The slabby prose of MGG is hardly designed for Grove’s ‘intelligent inquirer’. In the German dictionary professionals have written for professionals. Even the ‘geographical’ entries, those on cities and countries, God’s gift to the writer who wishes to involve the general reader, tend to be dour and solidly factual. The basic musical terminology has been neglected, presumably because it can be taken for granted that the reader knows it: there is nothing like the fascinating historical disquisition on the development of the crescendo that Grove allowed. Very often MGG seems to provide the raw material from which music history can be written. Perhaps this is as it should be.

Even so, I hope the same will not be true of The New Grove. MGG was edited by professors: Grove has generally been edited by journalists. The editor of the Fifth Edition, Eric Blom, did the work mainly by himself, idiosyncratically selecting and excluding (Mahler and Bruckner got short shrift), compiling the bibliographies and work lists. The critics said it was an impossible way to do it then, and it is even more so now. Grove would probably have been pleased with the thoroughness and scientific approach brought to the next edition. But the twinkle of the eyes, the kindliness of the smile, in the photograph on the dust-cover of Dr Young’s biography, can be taken to indicate that he would still want flair and humanity in this scrubbing-up of his great monument. Will the stronger, at times ruthless editing of The New Grove have removed some of the personality left by Blom’s friendly annotations in green ink? We shall know soon.