Chris's Reviews > The Oxford Companion to Music

The Oxford Companion to Music by Percy Alfred Scholes
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's review
Apr 06, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: music

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While largely superseded by seventy-five years of research and the general availability of internet resources, it’s still useful for its historical take on once-contentious issues, for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.

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