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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in