Authoritative, idiosyncratic and of its time

Beethoven in middle life, a new portrait by Batt (1937) on loan from a private collection to the Royal Academy of Music

Percy Alfred Scholes The Oxford Companion to Music
Oxford University Press 1963 (1955)

The ninth edition of The Oxford Companion to Music, first published in 1955 and still under the control of the original editor, is authoritative, idiosyncratic and certainly of its time. A typical example of Percy Scholes’ writing style can be seen in the Preface to the original edition of 1938:

Following this preface will be found the long list of the many who have tried to save the author from, at least, the faults of his own ignorance or inadvertence, but should the reader chance to discover that the author is anywhere insufficiently saved he should not take it that the blame necessarily falls on those enumerated in the list.

A footnote helpfully tells us that In the present edition this long list, with its many additional names from the seven intervening editions, has been merely summarised. This circumloquacious tendency may appear to explain the nearly twelve hundred pages of this hardback, but in truth they are packed with detailed information and references. The detail includes entries on composers, styles, genres, countries, foreign musical terms, instruments, synopses of operas and much else. Interwoven are close on two hundred monochrome plates illustrating different themes, using old prints, photographs and diagrams.

The text is, naturally for its time, opinionated. The article on Jazz for example, while reasonably well-balanced in its analysis, can still offer displays of prejudice that one hopes would not nowadays appear in an authoritative work of this nature:

There was much that a cultured musician could enjoy in [Swing Music] were it not that the jazz convention still demanded a great deal of deliberate out-of-tune playing and of sour or harsh tone.

While largely superseded by seventy-five years of research and the general availability of internet resources, it’s still useful for its historical take on once-contentious issues, for obscure composers who rarely feature elsewhere now, and for its lovely composer portraits by Oswald Barrett (‘Batt’) of Bach and Schubert, Brahms and Liszt, Mozart and many more. The vigorous portrait of Beethoven ‘in middle life’ which now hangs in the Royal Academy of Music features as a frontispiece, the only one of the pictures in full colour and completed by the artist eight years before his death in 1945 at the early age of 53. When, as a teenager, I was given this volume by my parents the Batt illustrations struck me forcibly, particularly this one of Beethoven: Barrett aimed to research this composer

‘until I filtered out the very essence of the man and arrived at an aspect which must have been some phase of his existence as a human being, without any superimposed romance, legend or imagination. Then on top of this comes psychology…’

A relic of a bygone era when one man (and it usually was a man) could claim to be the repository of all useful information and opinion on any given topic without too much recourse to advisors and committees, the overarching principles of the one-volume ninth edition are to be found in the most recent incarnation of the Companion, according to the most recent editor, Alison Latham: ‘to be wide-ranging, to be complete in itself, and to be intended for a broad spectrum of readers’. However, ‘it become clear’, she says, ‘that one person could not now be expected to command the breadth of knowledge and interest that allowed music historians of an earlier generation to cover the topic as comprehensively as had Scholes.’

At least Scholes’ verbosity had been retained. But it could also be said that the present reviewer, with a corresponding love of verbosity, is also a relic of a bygone era.

Review first published November 28th 2013


9 thoughts on “Authoritative, idiosyncratic and of its time

  1. Lynn Love

    Interesting how times have changed, isn’t it? If writing in a similar style these days, the author would be criticised for being condescending and for not taking a balanced view, for being too opinionated. But such was the attitude in those days, the superior, didactic voice talking to the relatively uneducated. A hangover from Victorian moralising do you think? A great review, though I suspect I won’t be rushing to read this one … 🙂

    1. No, it’s not something to read from cover to cover! It’s a nebulous border, I think, between authoritative and authoritarian, in the sense that too often in the past (less so in publications these days) an expert opinion can shade into a superior don’t-question-me tone. Scholes mostly gets away with things by the odd humorous aside that isn’t cruel or, at best, condescending. Certainly reading the entries here takes me back to a time when I felt I wasn’t cut out to be an academic unless I adopted a slightly sneering know-it-all attitude — especially as I never did know it all!

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