Some Observations on Music Lexicography

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Bibliography is a field in which one should expect a high level of accuracy and precision. It is, or should be, the province of specialists in the organization of information. Yet bibliographical terms in common usage are subject to an uncommon degree of confusion. We speak of a "catalogue" when we have an "index" in mind; or refer to an "index" when we actually mean an "inventory". Reference to "the literature of the flute", for example, may suggest to one person a listing of flute music, while to another it implies a bibliography of writings about the instrument.

Music dictionaries and encyclopedias are not exempt from such ambiguities. They exist in a wide variety of types and are subject to as many different interpretations. A dictionary may emphasize some particular subdivision of the field: church music, theater music, musical instruments, etc. It may be directed toward a particular level of musical interest, projecting a reader image of the research scholar, of the untrained "listener"; or it may be an attempt to satisfy both. It may be designed to serve as a handbook of musical facts for ready reference, or as a multi-volume repository of musical knowledge. Whatever its intended scope or format may be, every musical dictionary represents some kind of adjustment to the totality of musical information existing within a given cultural epoch. This is why music dictionaries furnish prime evidence of the musical mentality of a past era.

The ideal of information control exerts a profound attraction on the human mind. It is an ideal that can never be attained, yet it lurks in the background of nearly every lexicographical effort. When Sebastian de Brossard compiled his modest Dictionnaire de musique in 1701, he conceived it as but one facet of a comprehensive plan that would bring all musical information under his command. Needless to say, he did not live to achieve his goal. The editors of MMG may like to think of their work as a synthesis of all present-day knowledge about music, yet the degree to which they have fallen short of that objective has been pointed out by numerous reviewers since 1949, when the first fascicle made its appearance. The separation between the ideal and the actual can be exemplified on a far lower level of lexicography in a potpourri of musical fact and myth that appeared in the 1950's.1 I quote from the compiler's preface:

In editing and compiling this entirely new work I have kept before me three primary aims: first, to cover the subject in its widest possible range, so that the listener as well as the professional musician will find his own particular interest dealt with; second, to avoid repeating the usual dry comments of standard text books or parading my own views, and instead to gather material from original sources; and finally, to produce a really beautiful book, lavishly illustrated and luxuriously bound—a book which every music lover will be proud to have in his home.

This program, innocent enough on the surface, is so full of non sequiturs that it cries out for correction. To begin with, no dictionary can be described as an "entirely new work" unless it is in a position to document the musical practices of an "entirely new planet". Dictionaries are among the most tradition-ridden of all publications. Further, any attempt to treat the subject matter "in its widest possible range" is foredoomed to failure. At least one must recognize that width in range can be accomplished only at the expense of depth in coverage. This particular editor is not the first to attempt to make bedfellows of the "professional musician" and the "listener". It is an arrangement that appeals to publishers for various commercial reasons, but it seldom makes either party very happy. Nor can we place much credence in his promise to avoid repeating "the usual dry comments of standard text books." Dryness itself is not a very useful criterion for exclusion. After all, one man's desert may be another man's flower garden. Finally, the effort to rely on original source material rather than on personal or second-hand views is an admirable procedure, but here again one must be practical. Any dictionary compiler who attempted to confine himself to primary sources for his facts would never get beyond the first two or three letters of the alphabet. This leaves us with our editor's promise to produce "a really beautiful book, lavishly illustrated and luxuriously bound," a worthy aim but quite gratuitous as far as information storage is concerned.

A simple way of classifying music dictionaries for purposes of discussion is to separate those which deal with terms from those which are concerned with biography. A dictionary may be devoted exclusively to terms, or it may stress biographical entries, or it may embrace both kinds of information within its province. Historical examples of term coverage go back at least as far as Tinctoris's Terminorum musicae diffinitorium the late 15th century. The modern tradition, however, dates from Brossard (mentioned above) or Rousseau's famous Dictionnaire de musique (1768). The first self-contained dictionary of musical biography, apart from Mattheson's Grundlage einer Ehrenpforte (1740), is Gerber's Historisch-biographisches Lexicon, publication of which extended over more than two decades (1790-1814). The most noteworthy 19th-century example is, of course, Fétis's Biographie universelle (1535-44). The work that served as prototype for dictionaries with combined biographical and terminological entries is Walther's Musikalisches Lexicon (1732).

But this classification provides only a rough screening of the varied shapes and forms that music dictionaries may take. Within the realm of terms alone it is possible to isolate a dozen or more different approaches. No single work may be expected to utilize them all, anymore than the following list may be said to exhaust all possibilities. It is offered as a device for analysing and evaluating several recent contributions to music lexicography.

1. The polyglot approach providing verbal equivalents for musical terms in various modern or ancient languages is one of the oldest. It was the starting point for Brossard who attempted to give une explication des termes grecs, latins, italiens & francois les plus usitez dans la musique. Several modern examples in this category can be cited: W.J. Smith's Dictionary of musical terms in four languages (1961), René Vannes's Essai de terminologie musical (1925), and a similar work by Tom Wotton.2 The chief purpose of such works is not to define but rather to provide a key to the tower of Babel in which musicians live and work. As the web of musical information spreads throughout western culture and beyond it, new polyglot dictionaries must be compiled. One of the latest has been projected by a committee of the international Association of Music Libraries headed by Horst Leuchtmann.3 Publication is expected in the near future.

2. The treatment of technical terms related to musical structures and practices represents the basic substance of which dictionaries of musical terms are made. Entries may vary in scope and detail from one work to another, but they rest on a reasonably stable body of factual information (e.g. "Cadence", "Clef", "Sonata", "Ricercar", "Fugue", etc.).

3. Terms derived from theoretical systems are less subject to objective control. It is obvious that entries for terms such as "Harmony", "Counterpoint", "Analysis", "Musica", cannot be treated as simple facts. They represent configurations of ideas and are subject to a variety of interpretations.

4. The same is true of terms or topics related to historical periods, schools, or styles (e.g. "Renaissance music", "Gregorian chant", "Jazz"). Entries of this kind are determined by concepts of historical continuity, by views of periodization that are all too frequently unacknowledged or unrecognized by the compiler himself.

5. There is a special group of terms related to aesthetic or philosophical concepts: "Classicism", "Musical criticism", "Affektenlehre", "Music and literature". Such terms, together with those suggested under (3) and (4) above, belong in the category of what Arthur Mendel has called "thick" facts, humanistic facts loaded with meaning of a kind quite different from that pursued by the natural scientist.

6. Another variety of terms and topics is that related to places: cities, regions, countries. Place entries are perhaps more characteristic of an encyclopedia than of a dictionary. The geographical entries in MGG, for example, are a rich source of information pertaining to the musical life of "Berlin", "Frankreich", "Florenz", "Wien", and elsewhere.

7. Some dictionaries provide long directory-type listings of bibliographical or sociological information, articles devoted to "Periodicals", "Editions", "Sources before 1500", etc. Entries of this kind are extra-musical in content but they add much to the strength of the dictionary as a reference tool.

8. Further entries in the realm of sociology are articles on such topics as "Degrees in music", "Music printing and publishing", "Libraries", "Conservatories", "Festivals of music".

9. There is one type of entry that seems to occupy a rather dubious place in dictionaries of musical terms. Such entries consist of titles of specific musical works, followed by plot summaries in the case of opera, or descriptive accounts identifying such titles as "Moonlight Sonata", or "Goldberg Variations". The question as to whether or not such entries belong in a dictionary of musical terms is a legitimate one. In my view they are more appropriate to listener's guides than to music lexica. Professor Apel thinks otherwise; we shall return to this question.

10. Finally, there is an approach which can be said to occupy the center of scholarly music lexicography; namely, the historical analysis of terms according to their inherent relationships, their family groupings. Ever since Walther's Lexicon in 1732, certain compilers have devoted attention to word origins, but their work has been unsystematic, more speculation than fact. One of the few music dictionaries to employ a consistent etymological approach is Rowland Wright's Dictionnaire des instruments de musique (1941), which traces the terminology of musical instruments in French literature from the middle ages to the end of the 19th century. A similar historically-oriented work, more specialized in coverage, is Henry Carter's Dictionary of Middle English musical terms (1961). But there is a new and highly promising development foreshadowed in the Handwörterbuch der musikalischen Terminologie scheduled for publication during the current year. The editor is Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht of the University of Freiburg in Breisgau, but the impetus for the project came from the late Professor Wilibald Gurlitt who recognized that "every term, every group of terms, implies a specific and strictly circumscribed musical reality". The pursuit of the musical reality embodied in the language of the art as it has developed over the centuries was a major preoccupation of Gurlitt's research. His interest was an outgrowth of his work with Hugo Riemann on the 8th edition of the latter's Musik-Lexikon. Eggebrecht, who was Gurlitt's assistant, inherited the project and has carried it to fruition. Until the first issue of the Handwörterbuch makes its appearance, readers will be required to form their opinion of its scope and method by referring to two preliminary studies that have been printed in the Archiv für Musikwissenschaft.4 These articles offer a number of sample entries; for example, a detailed analysis by Wolf Frobenius of the constellation of terms related to the central concept "Cantus firmus", a concept that has accumulated accretions of meaning over a period of more than 700 years. A similar demonstration is given in Fritz Reckow's discussion of "Clavis", or the complex of ideas allied to the terms "Rondellus/Rondeau—Rota".

The prospect displayed by this kind of analysis of the vocabulary of musicianship is breathtaking in its scope; it promises to add a new dimension to the study of music lexicography. But it must be admitted that the Handwörterbuch will provide far more information about musical terms than the ordinary reader will require. It is a scholar's tool, destined to be as important for the musicologist as the New Oxford English Dictionary is for the literary historian. Most music dictionaries have more limited horizons. They are intended for quick reference use—to verify a date, to clarify a vaguely-remembered fact, or to serve as a starting point for further investigation. For the proper evaluation of such working reference tools it is necessary to take into account certain features that have not been covered in the preceding remarks. Among these features are the presence or absence of bibliographical references in the entries, the kind and quality of illustrative material used, guides to pronunciation, the use of cross references, abbreviations, etc. With these and other criteria in mind, I propose to direct attention to three recent works in the field of music lexicography: (1) the second edition of the Harvard Dictionary of Music, 1969, (2) the "Sachteil" volume of the twelfth edition of the Riemann Musiklexikon, 1967, and (3) the tenth edition of the Oxford Companion to Music, 1970.

It will be obvious to anyone who has used them that none of these works needs to justify its existence; all have won established places on the music reference shelves. What may appear to be their strengths and weaknesses are, in part, a reflection of the kinds of readers their editors had in mind in compiling them.

The Harvard Dictionary invites attention as the major American representative among dictionaries of musical terms. First published in 1944, its second edition has met with something less than enthusiasm from any of its reviewers. The reason for this reaction may be traceable to the high expectations generated by the success of the first edition some twenty-five years ago. At that time Professor Apel's efforts set a high standard for America music lexicography. More than any other single work, the Harvard Dictionary served to bridge the gap between the newly-created discipline of musicology in this country and the established tradition of musical scholarship in Europe. But American musicology has made rapid strides since 1944 and the general feeling is that the dictionary does not fully represent that growth. This may be a subjective reaction but it can be supported by a number of instances of poorly revised entries. A considerable number of polyglot entries are included, but the greatest emphasis is given to English equivalents for German terms. In general, the technical information is pitched at a high level of learning, and most of the major articles are supported by bibliographical references. It is to be regretted, however, that all of the bibliographies have not been updated for the second edition. Entries under place names are brief but effective. There is evidence of careful selection on the editor's part to keep the entries within the scope appropriate to a one-volume reference tool, but space is at such a premium in works of this kind that it is hard to understand why so much of it is devoted to entries for named compositions. The selection of entries in this category is bound to be arbitrary. It would be better to treat title entries or opera synopses in an appendix, or in a separate reference work rather than interfile them with terms and topics. But in spite of the reservations one might hold on this or other points, the Harvard Dictionary is a work of demonstrable utility, worthy of a high place on the scale of lexicographical values.

The difference between Harvard and the Riemann "Sachteil" volume is one of degree not of kind. The two works are comparable for the first time since all of the previous editions of Riemann treated terms and biography in one alphabet. Now the terms stand alone as the third volume of a three-volume set. There is a long tradition behind the Riemann Lexikon extending back through eleven editions to 1882. That tradition has been strengthened since Riemann's time by the contributions of Alfred Einstein, Wilibald Gurlitt, and its present editor, Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that Riemann holds the edge over the Harvard Dictionary in the thoroughness of its coverage, the timeliness of its bibliographies, and in its general response to new developments in musical learning. This is a truly substantial work. Although it bears the impress of many minds, it somehow conveys the spirit of an integrated, individual mentality. The bibliographical and directory-type articles are masterpieces of organization; see the entries under "Bibliotheken", "Denkmäler", "Konservatorium", "Lexika", "Quellen", "Zeitschriften", etc. The technical entries are quite specific in content, and this specificity has its disadvantages since anyone looking for material on "Notation", for example, must search out the information under a variety of headings: "Mensural Notation", "Modal-notation", "Neumen", "Notenschrift", "Orthographie", etc. In at least one respect the volume is a disappointment. Entries for places, except for the major European countries, are reduced to skeletal bibliographies with no commentary or summary. The work makes liberal use of abbreviations, a factor that may cause some difficulty for readers unfamiliar with the German conventions in this regard. But in nearly every respect the Riemann "Sachteil" is the modern dictionary of musical terms par excellence, doing justice to both the current and historical meanings of its subject matter.

When we turn to the Oxford Companion to Music, an entirely different atmosphere prevails. Any effort to force a comparison with the two preceding works discussed would be misleading. The Oxford Companion is one of the few thoroughly self-contained dictionaries of music. One's purpose in consulting it is not so much to acquaint oneself with a particular musical fact as to see how its editor, Percy Scholes, treated the subject. The work is characterized by a personality of the most congenial and engaging kind. The best that can be said of the new 10th edition, the first to appear after Scholes's death in 1958, is that it preserves the quality of that personality. The Companion differs from both Harvard and Riemann in the fact that it treats both terms and biography. The biographical entries are generally very brief; even the major composers are rarely allotted more than two columns. It is in topics related to the sociology of music that the richest vein of information can be found, as, for example, the articles on "Methodism and Music", "Publishing of Music", "Minstrels, Troubadours, Trouvères, Minnesingers, Mastersingers", or "Jazz".

The differences between the 9th and the 10th edition are minimal. Scholes's successor as editor, John Owen Ward, has added some ninety-one new entries, among which are to be found a few new ones devoted to contemporary American composers. The information offered is so brief as to be practically worthless. Of George Rochberg, for example, the statement is made that "his compositions include two symphonies". Andrew Imbrie is given a somewhat fuller treatment: "His compositions include a violin concerto, choral music, and chamber music, mostly in a dissonant, but basically tonal, contrapuntal idiom". Along with the added material, the editor has introduced some cuts, substantial enough so that the 10th edition is actually six pages shorter than the 9th. Otherwise the work has undergone little change. It is time that someone challenged the claim, so often made by editors and publishers, that a work has been "completely reset". In the case of the Oxford Companion there has been a certain amount of cutting and pasting, but most of the original type is intact. So also are the 185 plates taken over from. the 9th edition. The illustrations provide a persuasive inducement to browsing in this work. They are well chosen and well mounted although somewhat archaic as seen from the viewpoint of the 1970's. They include, of course, the portraits by Batt—imaginative reconstructions of intimate moments in the lives of the great composers.

The Oxford Companion is not every man's meat. Some will regard its tone as a bit precious and provincial; others will be annoyed by the total lack of bibliographical information to invite the user to follow new paths in his investigations. But not since Rousseau's Dictionnaire de musique (1768) has music lexicography produced a work so rich in reasonableness and other benign human qualities. It can truly be said that Percy Scholes brings a breath of the Enlightenment into our neo-Romantic world.


1The World of Music, a Treasury for Listener and Viewer, ed. by K.B. Sandved (2nd ed, 1957).

2Tom S. Wotton. A Dictionary of Foreign Musical Terms, and Handbook of Orchestral Instruments (Leipzig 1907).

3Horst Leuchtmann. "Das Polyglotte Musikfachwörterbuch der AIBM", in: Fontes Artis Musicae (1965), p. 84-86.

4Archiv für Musikwissenschaft, 25 (1968), p. 241-277, and 27 (1970), p. 214-222.

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