Most helpful positive review
86 of 87 people found the following review helpful
Better or Worse than its Predecessor?
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.