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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Grove has grown too fat

By Norman Lebrecht / January 10, 2001

The standards of one of the world's most respected works of musical reference are slipping.

THE past two decades have not been an era of blazing musical progress. No comet has risen to replace Britten and Shostakovich, let alone fill the void left by Igor Stravinsky in 1971. Among pop ephemeralities, there has been no creative phenomenon to match the Beatles or Bob Dylan. The epoch's advances amount, on the serious side, to minimalism and, on the commercial, to rap, dance and techno.

It is, therefore, hard to see how the editors of the world's most substantial work of musical reference might justify a 50 per cent bulk increase. The second edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians runs to 29 volumes compared with 20 in 1980, and 25 million words, compared with 16 million.

Had this been a lexicon of genetics or computer science, the new data would have been essential. In music, the engorgement of Grove raises uncomfortable issues of cultural cringe and condescension.

There are two principal growth areas in New Grove. Coverage of what is loosely known as "world" music has been enhanced - usefully, perhaps, since mass tourism has stimulated engagement with remote cultures. The other expansion is into popular music, which receives 1,221 articles (out of a total 29,500).

New Grove's accretion of these extraneous forms is, to my mind, one of two major fault-lines in the magniloquent opus. The other is the very size of the enterprise, which appears to have outstripped human control of consistency and accuracy.

The editors of New Grove are classical musicologists. Stanley Sadie is an elegant Handelian, John Tyrrell a Janacek scholar. Neither speaks with much street-cred on aboriginal or pharmaceutical songs. Expertise in these fields can, of course, be hired, but the ultimate editorial decisions stem from men who look down from Olympian heights on areas that they neither appreciate nor admire. On what basis, for example, can they defend the inclusion of Barry Manilow - and, by comparison, the exclusion of Julio Iglesias?

Such anomalies abound. The Belgian chansonnier Jacques Brel is in, but not the French arch-ironist Georges Brassens. Madonna has made it, but not Sade. The pre-eminent rapsters Eminem and Dr Dre are given glancing mentions in an article on Seattle. Preposterously, Yoko Ono has an entry to herself.

In many otherwise illuminating entries on ethnic music, critical priorities are at odds with the essence of the art. It is inapt, even demeaning, to define qawwali singing as "an ecstatic style performed by hereditary male performers" when its prime impulse is religious fervour and its devotional text is inherent to the music.

New Grove has a problem with exotic and demotic forms. It is all very well to pin a butterfly to the page, but the collector must ensure that the object is displayed within its natural context or risk accusations of patronisation and despoliation.

More troubling is the issue of accuracy. No dictionary is blip-free, but New Grove had a high reputation for checking proofs and upholding consistency. Standards have slipped this time round. In the past two years, under new German ownership, efficiencies were introduced and the editorial process was accelerated.

Sadie made way for Tyrrell, who has in turn been replaced by an on-line editor, Laura Macy. Teams of expert text-editors were supplanted by quicker, cheaper youngsters. The savings are visible.

One mortal error has been spotted by a Montreal music critic, Arthur Kapitanis, who was alarmed to find that the Canadian composer Gilles Tremblay had died, at Tijuana on July 14, 1982. Since Tremblay still answers his phone, and his New Grove worklist runs up to 1999, his premature demise has overtones of psychic mystery.

Minor inaccuracies proliferate. Ilya Musin died in St Petersburg, not in London, and Valery Gergiev does not appear "regularly" with the RPO - he forsook them six years ago. You will not find Gergiev's name on the New Grove website. He is listed as Gergiyev, a ludicrously pedantic transliteration. Many other misspellings are unintended.

Some entries are years out of date. Decca's is one takeover behind the times, while EMI has supposedly merged with Time-Warner, a deal that aborted some months ago.

Most errors will eventually be corrected on the electronic database, which readers can access for £190 a year. But they are permanently imprinted in the bound edition, which goes on sale for £2,900 at the end of the month. To have marred its many marvels for half a year of haste and a ha'porth of savings seems short-sighted, to say the least.

For New Grove is the kind of book that we shall never see again. The information revolution has consigned the future of reference publishing to disc or web and encouraged the kind of browsing that does not discriminate between high and low brows. In the instant-knowledge culture of the internet, the tone of New Grove may well prove too high and dusty for the new culture-crossers, who face a plethora of choice.

23 February 2000: New contender in the battle of the upper shelves

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999