The Oxford Companion to Music (Oxford Companions)
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86 of 87 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2005
I've been comparing The Oxford Companion to Music, ed. Alison Latham (2002; 1,434 pages) with its immediate predecessor: The New Oxford Companion to Music, ed. Denis Arnold (1983; 2 volumes, 2,017 pages). In the estimable series of Oxford Companions you can usually expect the new edition to supersede and replace the old one. In this case, however, it's not that simple. A glance at the above reveals that the new edition, in one volume, is some 583 pages shorter than the preceding edition, in two volumes. Losing almost 600 pages of 2,000 represents a very substantial loss of material.

Moreover, when we examine the two editions, we discover that the 1983 edition is lavishly, indeed beautifully, illustrated ("1,100 halftone illustrations and line drawings, 405 music examples"). None of the illustrations are in color, but there is an abundance of well-chosen, functional, illuminating photos, portraits, paintings, manuscripts, figures, line drawings, plates, tables, musical examples. The new edition of 2002, alas, has virtually eschewed illustration: almost all of the illustrations of the 1983 edition have been scrapped. We get a comparative handful of musical examples and figures, but just about everything else has been eliminated; even the greatest composers aren't represented by a single likeness, whereas in the 1983 edition even lesser composers get a photo or portrait. If for example you want to understand what an accordion is, there is no substitute for a picture of one. The 1983 edition has a 4-page entry on "accordion," with photos of four different types (including a musician playing one), plus 2 explanatory diagrams. The 2002 edition has a page-length entry with no illustrative material at all. I find this a significant loss, a significant cheapening of the book, and a significant diminution in the pleasure of using it. It's revealing that Alison Latham, the 2002 editor, refers to the "wealth of illustrative material" as one of the assets of Denis Arnold's 1983 edition, but makes no mention of the fact that she has thrown out almost all of it.

But that's not all. If for example we look up "organ" in the 1983 edition, we find a truly comprehensive 20-page entry, with 20 illustrations (plates, figures, tables, drawings, photos). In the 2002 edition we find a 6-page entry with 8 figures; this represents a radical abridgment of the earlier article.

Could "organ" be an unhappy fluke? No, unfortunately it's not. I looked up "trumpet," "violin," and "piano," and found the same result in each case: a truly drastic loss of material, both text and illustration, in the new edition.

If you look up any of the hundred standard repertory operas in the 1983 edition, you find the basic facts about composer, librettist, and premiere, plus a synopsis of the action, and often an apt illustration and "Further Reading" suggestions. If you look up any of the same operas in the 2002 edition, you find a very short entry (Carmen, for example, gets three lines; Tristan und Isolde gets two lines) giving the basic facts about composer, librettist, premiere--no synopsis, no illustration, no reading list.

So you can see why the 2002 edition of this book was received with reservation, indeed with downright disappointment, by those who were familiar with the 1983 edition. Why would Oxford UP have made such Draconian changes? Well, the governing perception seems to have been that the 1983 edition, lavishly illustrated and in two volumes, had outgrown its purpose and over-reached its market. Evidently many found the two-volume format cumbersome and too expensive. The 2002 edition, by eliminating almost all of the illustrations and reducing the size to a single volume, has cheapened and abridged the book, rendered it much less attractive, and in many areas reduced its usefulness, but has made it handier and more affordable.

Does the 2002 edition have no redeeming qualities, then, but cheapness and one-volume convenience? Indeed it does have its virtues. For one, it's up-to-date. A blurb on its dustcover breathlessly claims, "Now, thirty years after the last edition, this invaluable companion is back in a completely new edition"--a barefaced falsehood: the period between the two editions was 19 years, not 30. But the new edition benefits from the scholarship of the last two decades; many new and updated articles ("over 1,000 new entries") reflect the perspective of 2002. Many articles conclude with mini-bibliographies (in both editions), and these are inevitably more current and useful in the 2002 edition.

Perhaps the most valuable feature of the new edition is the inclusion for the first time of entries not just for composers but for distinguished performing musicians. In the 1983 (and earlier) edition, there were no entries for conductors, singers, instrumentalists. In the 2002 edition you'll find entries for Toscanini, Walter, Furtwangler, Caruso, Melba, Ponselle, Melchior, Flagstad, Callas, Heifetz, Casals, Artur Rubinstein, Horowitz, Segovia, Dennis Brain, and many others. This change was overdue and certainly enhances the usefulness of the book. Many of the "over 1,000 new entries" in the 2002 edition are in this category. "Space limitations have restricted these [entries] to artists who are no longer alive and who had significant influence on composition or performance." These entries are also limited to classical musicians.

In some cases the perspective of 2002 has warranted an expanded version of a composer entry in the 1983 edition. For example, Orff, Moussorgsky, and Scriabin all get expanded treatments (but lose their portraits) in the new edition.

So, what to do; which Companion to choose? My solution is obvious but perhaps not very helpful: if you love music and like good reference books, get both. I believe the Alison Latham 2002 edition should be viewed as an updated supplement to the more substantial and lavish 1983 edition, not as a replacement. Denis Arnold's 1983 two-volume edition was the first complete revision since the original 1938 Oxford Companion to Music, edited (and largely written) by Percy Scholes; it is not perfect, but I think it represents the high-water mark of the three editions. If you have only the spartan 2002 edition, be aware that you are missing much of value and beauty in the 1983 edition. (Unfortunately I'm not the only one who has noticed that the 2002 edition is no replacement for the 1983 edition: if you check prices for used copies of the 1983 edition in the USA, you'll find that they are high.) If you own both editions, you can enjoy the best of both worlds. If I could own only one, I'd keep the 1983.
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33 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on May 15, 2002
The Oxford Companion to Music is an excellent reference work for those who love classical music. It's probably not detailed or technical enough for most professional musicians; but those who enjoy listening to the endless variety and vast range of emotions of classical music (that's a plug!) will find the OCM can considerably enhance their enjoyment.

This is a big work of 1,434 pages; but the typeface, while small, is well-chosen. It's clean and clear; even these old eyes read it with no difficulty. There are extended articles on famous conductors and all the major composers plus numerous others that you never heard of. The biographies are helpful in placing a composer's works in the context of his life. Especially helpful is a well-chosen but unannotated bibliography after most of the biographies.

There are also major articles on different forms of music, types of instruments, etc. I thought I knew a lot about the sonata form, but I know more now after reading that article. There is almost no analysis of individual works; to include them would probably have doubled the size of this work. I've used a number of classical reference works over the years, but the OCM is easily the best. It's complete enough so as not to oversimplify too drastically but not so long that "you learn more about penguins that you really want to know."
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on October 27, 2005
This updated (2002) Oxford Companion is probably the best choice if you are looking for a serious reference for the many aspects of musicology AND in-depth biographies of the major and minor composers. This guide gives about 2-4 full pages of text to "the big guys" like Bach, Beethoven and Liszt and only 1-3 paragraphs to the less influential composers like Biber or Locatelli. But this will probably not be enough to fully satisfy the more serious student's interest (the multi-volume New Grove Dictionary is the place to go then). The OCM also gives a few pages each to describing the major eras of music (Renaissance, Baroque etc). Its descriptions of musical terms (like what is allegro, a sarabande dance, a hurdy gurdy etc) are written in straightforward language but are usually not excessively descriptive. However, some topics get quite a thorough treatment - such as the many aspects of harmony and sound - so the OCM is certainly not any "lightweight" reference. Of course, it all reads in the tone of an encyclopedia and thus does not really make captivating reading for the non-music major. Other guides to classical music are better at introducing musicology to the newby, such as the NPR Encyclopedia or David Dubal's compelling "Essential Cannon of Classical Music."

But, if you are a more serious music student or listener with a greater interest for in-depth musicology (and already have enough references on the lives of the composers), then the Harvard Music Dictionary is probably the top choice. It is pure musicology (with the composer biographies in a separate, companion volume). As a result of such focus, the Harvard Dictionary has more space for more detailed treatment of each music topic. It is slightly more technical in nature (superb graphs, charts) and academic in its writing compared to the Oxford Companion. But, either one is excellent and can be had on Amazon marketplace used for about 1/3 the list price.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on May 4, 2012
Hopefully, you've already carefully read David A. Kemp's prior (January 2005) review in this same Amazon thread. Allow me here to append several of my own thoughts to Mr. Kemp's most highly commendable discussion. [As I write these words, I have, at hand, a public-library copy of this mercilessly cut, bare-bones, one-volume, 2002 edition, as well as my own recently purchased, pristine copy of its splendidly illustrated, thoroughgoing antecedent: the two-volume, 1983 New Oxford Companion to Music (ISBN: 0193113163).]

Considering that you can still obtain a used set of the bountifully illustrated two-volume, 1983 edition via Amazon Marketplace sellers (not to mention competing used-book sellers), why would you settle for this essentially UNILLUSTRATED, significantly ABRIDGED, one-volume edition? [However, be forewarned: based on my own recent shopping experience, some/many of those "marketplace" sellers who've listed their wares under the "two-volume" heading are--presumably inadvertently--selling NOT *both* volumes but just the first or the second. Therefore, you'd be prudent NOT to place your order till after you've ascertained from the seller that BOTH volumes will actually be shipped!]

But even supposing you're not the least bit moved by "pictorial" content per se and all you care about are the textual attributes of the respective editions, I'd advise you not to be under the illusion that this 2002 edition necessarily constitutes a more useful text today. Consider the following example: If you look up the article on "Handel" in both the 1983 edition and this 2002, you'll readily notice the 2002 version of that article has been only *slightly* revised--primarily insofar as there's now--at least marginally--LESS content than there was in the 1983 edition! And the use of a "giant" font to set off the composer's name--not to mention wide, gray-shaded bars at the edges of those "bio" pages--frankly makes this 2002 edition's presentation appear a sort of dumbed-down version of (almost) the same old information.

Moreover [evidently in an ironic, absurd attempt to make this (otherwise unremittingly austere) 2002 edition appear "friendlier" (less "academic") to the layperson], this downsized edition's layout treats all such composer-biography articles as "interruptions" to the main text. (If you're reading the article immediately prior to a "composer biography," this 2002 edition forces you to skip ahead--several pages--to finish the article you're presently immersed in! By contrast, the 1983 edition doesn't do that; indeed, its more sensible layout more so resembles that of the preeminent, multi-volume NEW GROVE DICTIONARY OF MUSIC & MUSICIANS--or at least my 1980, 20-volume edition of the latter.)

The aforementioned Mr. Kemp (in this same Amazon thread) stated, "In the 1983 (and earlier) edition, there were no entries for conductors, singers, [and] instrumentalists" but this 2002 edition does include (SOME) such entries. But he rightly points out that such entries only pertain to DEAD, not living, entities. In any case, let's "get real" here. This ostensibly "improved" 2002 edition's "Toscanini" article comprises only three DINKY paragraphs! By contrast, Wikipedia's analogous article utterly dwarfs what Oxford's "improved" single-volume "Companion" provides. In short, I deem the addition of this book's "dead conductor/performer" entries to be well-nigh inconsequential.

Notwithstanding the preface's statement that this ONE-volume format is something "for which Companion devotees [had] long been petitioning," THIS devotee isn't persuaded that replacing the prior two-volume format was/is absolutely necessary. Heck, any individual or institution that can't somehow accommodate 2.5 additional inches of width (and juggle a total of TWO volumes of CAPTIVATING pages instead of ONE volume of AUSTERE pages) has my pity.

Bottom line, this essentially unillustrated 2002 edition is but a dreary, diminished, distant descendent of the captivatingly browsable two-volume edition of 1983. Why any music/book-loving soul--after having once perused the prior publication--would contentedly make this eviscerated version their "companion" is beyond me!

The 1983 two-volume edition was a royal masterpiece in its bibliographic niche; but this 2002 one-volume edition--vis-à-vis its illustrious predecessor--is a lamentable letdown.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 21, 2013
I Like the book. Very good reference material. I recommend his book for any one studying or interested in music
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3 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on January 12, 2010
I have purchased many books from various sellers using amazon.com as an agent, and all have been spot on. This is the first time I have purchased a new book actually from amazon.com itself.. and I was appalled to discover that sloppy packing had dogeared about 50 pages of the book, which was a Christmas present from me to my daughter..I am thinking I will never give Amazon the chance to repeat this "service", but continue to use amazon as only an agent for other more reliable sellers, who value their customers enough to ensure that they receive always the most meticulous service.
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