GERALD ABRAHAM, who will be 76 March 9, published his first book in 1927, when he was only 23. The title was Borodin , and he soon established himself as England's outstanding authority on Russian music. Among the dozen or more books he has written or edited since then are several on Russian music and on individual Russian composers -- as well as others on Chopin, Beethoven, Handel, Schubert and Schumann. He also served as editor of Volume IV ("The Age of Humanism") of the New Oxford History of Music, published in 1968. His new Concise Oxford History of Music is neither a digest of that multi-volume set nor in any way derived from it, but a most ambitious and remarkably successful one-man show.
In his preface Abraham acknowledges that "large-scale histories of misic by single authors are things of the past," but he suggests that "a chronological synoptic survey of the whole field in tolerably readable quasi-narrative form, a survey by one man who has for years been occupied in scrutinizing the work of specialist, might still be useful to the intelligent layman and non-specialist. It might even perhaps be useful to a specialist who, finding himself knowing more and more about less and less.' might wish to stand back and consider the whole continuum of misical history."
His emphasis is on the music itself: "Not composers except as producers of it, not instruments except as they help to make it; there are plenty of other books which give that kind of information." Indeed, what his Concise History does is tie together and interrelate many of the phenomena on which more detailed materials may be found in various musical dictionaries and encyclopedias. In less than 900 pages Abraham takes us from pre-history to the death of Stravinsky in 1971. We don't get to Bach till the middle of the book -- which means the coverage of early music is exceptionally thorough and that of the 400 year period assumed to be of most general interest has to be dealt with in the most selectively concise way. There is little impression of skimping or condensation, though: what is most striking is how much is included -- and how expansive Abraham manages to appear.
There is a discussion of Nebuchadnezzar's alleged orchestra, of "monster concerts" in Seneca's time, of the music and instruments associated with the great age of tragedy in Greece. There are extended chapters (called (intercludes") on music in the Islamic world, in India and Eastern Asia, and "The Music of Black Africa and America."
Within this limited space Abraham manages to give us such sidelights as the sources, among Berlioz's earlier compositions, of the movements of his Symphonie fantastique and Harold in Italy; the information that Schubert intended the first entr'acte in his Rosamunde music as the finale to his Unfinished Symphony; that there had been symphoneis with choral finales before Beethoven's Ninth: that Smetana borrowed the Vysehrad theme in his cycle Ma vlast from a work by Fibich.
Room is found for numberous illustrations, both pictorial and musical, and following Abraham's own 863 pages, there is a bibliography of nearly 50 pages, broken down according to the structure of the book itself, with a reading list for each subsection compiled and described by a well-known scholar. There is also a terse value judgment here and there: Mendelssohn's Second and Fifth symphonies are "regrettable"; Borodin's Second is "the masterpiece of Russian orchestral misic of its period" -- a period which included Tchaikovsky's Fourth.
There are, of course, some omissions, which will weigh more with some readers than with others. The name of Scandinavia's greatest symphonist, Carl Nielsen, turns up only in a footnote, and the star performers -- Toscanini, Stokowiski, Casals, et al . -- are not mentioned at all. (Joshua Rifkin gets a mention, not in connection with his performances of Scott Joplin's piano rags, but as a Bach scholar.) Neither Henry-Louis de La Grange nor Alma Mahler is mentioned in the Mahler bibliography, and there is no mention either of the American musical theater or its leading composers.
There are very few actual errors. Virgil Thomson, still in residence at the Chelsea Hotel as of this writing, may or may not be amused to see his dates given as "1896-1979." Ravel, in 1918 was not the first to "discover" Erik Satie, who had been acknowledged by Debussy before the turn of the century. The year of Prokofiev's voluntary repatriation was 1933, not 1936.
Abraham's transliteration of various Russian names may be disconcerting to some readers. "Dyagilev" and "Rakhamaninov" never used such spellings themselves: "Chaykovsky," fortunately, is crossed-referenced under "Tchaikovsky" in the index.
But there is really very little fault to find in this vastly informative book, as remarkable for the detail managed in the space allotted as for the high level of accuracy and erudition. In addition to a very full index, the table of contents itself is unusually detailed, running to nine pages. Abraham's style is utterly uppretentious and unselfconscious; he tells his story with the comfortable assurance of one who knows what he is talking about, knows what he has to say is of interest, and is himself fascinated by it all. He makes of obvious effort to entertain (thank goodness), but his straightforward enthusiasm is certain to sweep almost any reader along from beginning to end before the book is put onthe reference shelf.