Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: My Favorite Things!

A little inside information about me. Since I was a kid, I have loved architecture and home design magazines: house porn, to be honest. The one constant in my reading has been Architectural Digest, to which I’ve been addicted since I was a teenager. Other mags have floated in and out of my consciousness over the years, including one called “Metropolitan Home”, to which I subscribed for many years (but no more; there’ just so much time for mags, I’m afraid).

“Is this going somewhere” you ask? Yes: bear with me…

“Metropolitan Home” had a regular feature (perhaps it still does) in which a designer would be asked to identify “the 10 things you cannot live without;” basically “your favorite things”. These good people would vie with each other to come up with the coolest, hippest, most sophisticated things-they-could-not-live-without: the caviar and lobster frittata at the Revo Café in Dubai; “my platinum Faberge cuticle scissors”; vicuna cashmere scarves: “my Swarovski crystal-studded Lixil Satis Smart Toilet” (this can be yours as well for just 130k);“my solar-powered Black & Decker Nose Hair Trimmer”, and so forth.

(As best as I can recall, not one of those questioned ever came up with any of those things that we really can’t do without, like a good night’s sleep, clean water, hydrocortisone cream, a sympathetic therapist, a refrigerator, lube, a decent cocktail shaker, etc.)

“Is this going somewhere?” Yes, yes: just hang in there a moment longer.

As the editors of “Metropolitan Home” are unlikely to ever ask me to identify the “10 things I cannot do without” I’ve decided to ask myself. To avoid being gratuitous, I have in fact listed the nine things I cannot do without.

Numbers 1 and 2: my essential fluids (Peet’s Mocha Sunani coffee in a French press in the morning; a Mojave-dry Bombay Sapphire martini with a twist, shaken – thank you very much – in the evening).

Number 3: my piano (I have a very nice piano that I treat like the princess she is and which has, over time, developed a grudging if not frequently demonstrated affection for me); number 4: Passantino No. 85, 12-stave music notebooks and, number 5: Pacific Music Paper No. 1 pencils (I still compose analog: pencil on paper); number 6: my 27-inch iMac desktop, on which I am writing this post; number 7: my Varidesk, which allows me to work standing up (sitting is indeed the new smoking, and working standing up has been a revelation); number 8: my studio sound system; and number 9, the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, without which my life as a musician and music historian would be inconceivable.

Sir George Grove

And there we are, finally! Please: a birthday greeting to the extraordinary polymath Sir George Grove – creator of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians – who was born on August 13, 1820, 198 years ago today.

Grove was trained as a civil engineer, and it was in that capacity that he engineered lighthouses in the West Indies and bridges in England and Wales. Successful though he was as an engineer, his love for music drew him to arts administration: he moved to London in 1849, at the age of 29, where he became secretary of the Society of Arts.

His timing was perfect. “The Great Exposition” – Britain’s world’s fair in honor of its industrialization and modernity – was in preparation. It was held in London’s Hyde Park from May 1 to October 15, 1851, during which it was attended by an incredible 6,039,722 visitors!

The centerpiece of the Exhibition was the humongous, 990,000 square foot (or 92,000 square meter) Crystal Palace. Built from a cast iron frame and acres of glass, it was 1851 feet (about 564 meters) long by 454 feet (about 138 meters) wide and 135 feet (about 41 meters) high, roughly the size of the state of Delaware, give-or-take.

When the Exposition closed, the Crystal Palace was disassembled and re-erected in Sydenham Hill – in Southern London – and reopened in 1853 as a center for the arts, education, and leisure. The head of the new Crystal Palace operation was the 33 year-old George Grove. Among his many actions, Grove created an orchestra and hired the conductor August Manns to be its music director. The orchestra’s concerts were programmed by Grove and August Manns. Aside from programming his favorite Austrian and German composers (the usual suspects: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann), Grove championed the music of a wide variety of contemporary French and English composers, including Hector Berlioz, Georges Bizet, Léo Delibes, Charles Gounod, Jules Massenet, Camille Saint-Saëns, Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame), Hubert Parry, Charles Stanford, Edward German, and Granville Bantock.

One composer Grove was especially devoted to was Franz Schubert, who was almost completely unknown in England at the time. Grove presented the first English performance of Schubert’s Symphony in C Major, the “Great”, which had been rediscovered in Vienna in 1838 by Robert Schumann, ten years after Schubert’s death. Inspired by Schumann’s musical sleuthing, Grove and his bud Arthur Sullivan (again, of Gilbert & Sullivan fame) went to Vienna in 1867 in search of “lost” Schubert manuscripts. They struck gold, finding several symphonies and reams of smaller works. But their biggest discovery was their final one. Grove described it this way:

“I found, at the bottom of the cupboard, and in its farthest corner, a bundle of music-books two feet high, carefully tied round, and black with the undisturbed dust of nearly half-a-century. These were the part-books of the whole of the [incidental] music in Rosamunde, tied up after the second performance in December 1823, and probably never disturbed since. Dr. Schneider [Schubert’s nephew] must have been amused at our excitement; at any rate, he kindly overlooked it, and gave us permission to take away with us and copy what we wanted.”

Whoa! Talk about finding buried treasure!

It didn’t take long for Grove’s Crystal Palace concerts to become an essential fixture on the London music scene. George Grove wrote the program notes for the concerts, notes that were embraced by the concert-going public for their plain, understandable, non-technical language. In 1901 a year after Grove’s death in 1900, a biographer wrote:

“The daily and weekly orchestral performances at Sydenham prompted those admirable [program notes] which the name of George Grove was so long and favourably associated. He had always shown a great fondness for music, but had never received any technical training in the art. Entirely self-taught, his knowledge was acquired solely by ‘picking up’ information. “I wish it to be distinctly understood,” he said, “that I have always been a mere amateur in music. I wrote about the symphonies and concertos because I wished to try to make them clear to myself and to discover the secret of the things that charmed me so; and from that sprang a wish to make other amateurs see it in the same way.”

It was that same impulse to educate and enlighten that led Grove to create his “dictionary of music and musicians”. He announced his intention to create it in 1874, writing:

“The want of English works on the history, theory, or practice of Music, or the biographies of musicians accessible to the non-professional reader, has long been a subject of remark.”

The first edition was issued over a 12-year period ending in 1889; it was cast in four volumes and ran 3125 pages in length. As opposed to my 2001 hardcover edition, which was was cast in 29 volumes, contained 29,499 articles and ran over 27,000 pages. On top of this, there are now separate, multi-volume sets entitled The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz; The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, and The New Grove Dictionary of American Music!

For our info, I no longer use my hardcopy editions of the various New Grove Dictionaries; for $195.00/year I subscribe to digital versions of all these resources and as a result, I regained some 10 feet of shelf space in my studio library. Digital or hard copy, there is no substitute for Grove: none, zip, nada. It is indispensable and among my very favorite things!

Postscript: George Grove was tireless. In 1882, he was appointed the first director of the new Royal College of Music, which he single handedly turned into one of the world’s great schools of music (for which he was knighted). He was also a well know Biblical scholar who wrote extensively on the Old Testament. Did he sleep? I can’t say.

Happy birthday, Sir George.

For more on the impact of the “New Grove Dictionary” on my work, I would invite you to download, say, one, three, five, even TEN of my Great Courses surveys, secure in the knowledge that not a single one of them could have been created without the “New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians”!

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