Cambridge University Press has now published more than a dozen of its Cambridge Music Handbooks, each volume devoted to a single work or, in a few cases, to a set of related works by one composer. There is nothing new about the idea of a book devoted to one composition; in fact, this series can be seen simply as an extension of the successful Cambridge Opera Handbook series into the realm of concert music. Still, there has not been a substantial series of books in English on single works of concert music since the wonderful Norton Critical Scores (which differed in that they were both scores and commentaries), and it is worth considering what difference this new series might make to performers and listeners, scholars and students.
First of all, the series can be used as a reference set. If you want to understand the complex stages of Robert Schumann's conception as he created his Fantasie, Op. 17, for piano its connection to the Bonn Beethoven monument, the role of Clara Wieck as inspiration, the addition of movements, the changes of title you may have trouble finding a full and clear account in any biography or history or dictionary, but you will find it all beautifully laid out, even tabulated, in Nicholas Marston's Handbook on the work. It can also be surprisingly hard to find good musical analysis of particular compositions you are studying or teaching, even standard repertory pieces like the subjects of these Handbooks, but it can be found there.
Best of all, because these are whole, if short, books devoted to single works, they can bring together the fruits of several kinds of inquiry about a work: William Drabkin, for instance, relates the analytical question of musical unity in Beethoven's Missa solemnis to the generic question of whether the work is to be considered a liturgical mass or an oratorio; and Donald Burrows examines the versions of Messiah that Handel made for successive performances and then uses this survey to suggest which of these versions make coherent choices for modern performers.
It may be worth worrying, though, whether books like these represent an atomization of musical scholarship, whether scholars are just finding more and more to say about smaller and smaller subjects. One response would be that rich accounts of single works make a healthy complement to theoretical writing -- equally characteristic of music scholarship today -- that concerns itself only incidentally with particular works or composers or periods. Another response would be that the narrow focus of these Handbooks is precisely what makes them adaptable to any number of contexts, both traditional and untraditional. From the point of view of the college teacher, the Handbooks lend themselves to use in many sorts of courses and even invite the creation of new courses along lines other than the traditional ones of period, genre, and composer.
The covers of the Handbooks form a gallery of the composers' portraits (in ghastly colors), suggesting that an individual work is most naturally studied as part of its composer's output a highly traditional assumption by music historians and analysts. But inside the Handbooks, more attention is given in most cases to the place of the work in its musical genre. Genre, too, is a traditional context in music studies, but here it is treated in many fresh ways, reflecting the renewed interest in genre within the humanities generally -- Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire is placed in the history of the melodrama by Jonathan Dunsby; Chopin's creation of the piano Ballade is assessed by Jim Samson, drawing on modern literary theory of genre.
Just over half the Handbooks issued so far deal with vocal works, and this proportion in itself demonstrates a new attitude about the nature of the Western classical canon -- new since the publication of the Norton Critical Scores, certainly. Furthermore, the Handbooks on vocal works are notable for the attention they give to the words: Nicholas Temperley's account of the text of Haydn's Creation crossing and recrossing the Channel leads him to describe the English text as "authentic" for performance; Paul Wingfield, in the volume on Janácek's Glagolitic Mass, considers the work as part of the politically charged revival of Old Church Slavonic as an ecclesiastical language, on the way to providing a pronunciation guide for English-speaking performers; and Susan Youens, in her volume on Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin, demonstrates how incisive literary analysis of the poetic texts can be the best preparation for the musical analysis of songs.
The music analysis in these volumes is as various as the authors; the best thing about it is that all the authors reach beyond the confines of any single analytical method. Some of it is intelligible to college students with basic training in music theory, some only to experienced analysts. All of the volumes rely on the reader to have a score open while reading the analysis. This reliance proves awkward in a number of cases because the author, finding the available scores inadequate, devotes considerable space to enumerating their faults. It can be asked in such cases whether the Handbook would not better have waited for the publication of a superior score.
Otherwise, the choice of subjects so far can only be admired: not only has Julian Rushton, the general editor of the series, chosen individually important works, but the Handbooks as a group show something of the richness of the Western concert-music tradition -- as well, incidentally, as the richness of musical scholarship today. As the publication of the series continues, I hope the list will grow in some new directions. So far, in a series addressed to readers of English, only Messiah (and perhaps The Creation) represents the music of the English-speaking world: works like the Concord Sonata, the War Requiem, and Appalachian Spring make obvious candidates for future Handbooks. Beyond that, it would be exciting to see some play with the concept of the musical classic on which the series is based. How about some Handbooks on numbers like John Henry or La Marseillaise or Waltzing Matilda or The Blue Danube or Amazing Grace , which have become classics precisely by living outside of any authoritative text? Or Handbooks about the many renditions of a single jazz "standard" -- "standard," after all, is nothing but the jazz word for "classic"?