THE EVIDENCE of the last few years suggests that even the most respected publishers no longer bother having their books edited before printing them. Readers have a right to expect accuracy on the printed page, and writers have a right to expect experienced editors to protect them from their own lapses in grammar, spelling and general accuracy. But it seems that manuscripts now pass through the hands of no one especially familiar with either the subject at hand or the rudiments of English. This sort of thing is perhaps only mildly distressing in a personal reminiscence, but in a book offered as an educational tool or a reference source, it is simply unacceptable. Heartening as it is to see major publishers willing to bring out books in the field of what used to be called "music appreciation," these new ones by Ethan Mordden and James Glennon really won't do.
Mordden's Guide to Orchestral Music is subtitled "The Handbook for Non-Musicians." In the first 50 pages or so are some brief expository material on musical forms and performing styles and lists of titles recommended for novice listeners. The main portion of the book is a chronological discussion of nearly a hundred composers from Vivaldi to Henze, with short notes on their most popular works. "My intention is to educate the novice to the utmost," Mordden declares, "to make him or her an insider who comprehends symphony as well as anyone short of a trained musician." But the level of the writing is hardly assuring, and the profusion of errors is sure to be noticed by almost anyone familiar enough with the subject to want such a book in the first place; that those less familiar with it may accept this stuff at face value is most depressing to contemplate.
One gratuitous touch is Mordden's own transliteration of Russian names. Tchaikovsky becomes "Chaikofsky." His compatriot who signed himself "Sergei Rachmaninoff" in the West is "corrected" to Syergyey Rachmaninof," and Mussorgsky becomes "Musorksky," for heaven's sake. All this in the name of facilitating pronunciation, but "Glier" gives a less accurate idea in that respect than the "Gliere" which the composer actually inherited from his Belgian forebears, and Mordden preserves the French transliteration of "Kije" (in the famous suite by "Syergyey Prokofyef") instead of the phonetic "Kizheh" which enables Anglophones to make sense of the tale based on that name and its pronunciation.
Transliteration is not an issue in the listing of Joseph Haydn as "Franz Josef" or the repeated references to Dukas' masterwork as "The Sorceror's Apprentice." Things of this sort, and grammatical mismatches between subjects and verbs, can't help getting in the reader's way and lessening the value of even more substantial books than this one.
And the language -- oh my, it is so hip. "Tripping on opium," Berlioz conceived his Symphonie fantastique, in which he dipicted a musician "hoping to O.D. on opium." Manfred, at the end of Tchaikovsky's big unnumbered symphony, "dies to the religious aroma of an organ." Elsewhere we read of "Beethoven, honcho of the forceful symphony," and are entreated to "listen as you might for a leprechaun, with an agile ear."
So much for style; can one depend on the information? Roy Harris' Symphony 1933 is listed as his Symphony No. 2; it is No. 1. Bruckner (1824-1896) and Mahler (1860-1911) are described as "contemporaries." The note on Bizet's Symphony in C contains no reference to Gounod, on whose First Symphony the work was modeled. The longish comment on the Shostakovich 10th makes no mention of the composer's "personal signature" (the notes representing "D. Sch.") in that work. We are advised that the tune "Malbrook s'en va-t-en guerre," quoted by Beethoven in "Wellington's Victory," bears "a disconcerting resemblence [sic]" to "The Bear Went over the Mountain," but it is not explained that "Malbrook" (properly "Malbrouk") was a distortion of "Marlborough."
Orchestral suites from operas, Mordden declares, "May sound all right to the uninitiated listener, but the music is not doing what it was designed to do. It's wasteful and disrespectful, like listening to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony while you do the household chores." His paragraph on the suite from Der Rosenkavalier seems to contradict that stern judgment, but it is so muddled and totally uninformative that it's hard to tell. What he describes as Franck's tone poem Redemption is apparently the Morceau symphonique from the vast choral work so titled. iLiszt's famous remark on the slow movement of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto is ludicrously misquoted. On page 519 it is reported that Toscanini conducted the U.S. premiere of the Shostakovich Seventh in 1942, but on page 520 Mordden states, with some appallingly silly social-political embellishment, that the work "was not heard on these shores until detente made it acceptable again to remember Leningrad"; pre-detente performances in this country are documented by recordings made in Buffalo under William Steinberg in the late '40s (years before the work was recorded in the USSR) and in New York under Leonard Bernstein in 1962. Khachaturian, who died two years before this book was published, is indicated as still among the living. Etc. etc. etc.
Mordden may have provided an intriguing parlor game for nitpickers to play rainy days; his book has little value otherwise.
James Glennon is an Australian; Understanding Music, his 12th book on music, contains pictures of and references to some Australian musicians unknown to most of us. It was first published eight years ago, but has been brought up to date for its U.S. publication. It is a tidier and altogether more professional piece of work than Mordden's, handsome in typography and with well-chosen illustrations, but it too has more than its share of the sort of errors that must ultimately shake the reader's confidence. s
The book is divided into 13 broad chapters covering the purpose and structure of music, its history, national influences, interpreters, even criticism and how to handle recordings. At the end are a 55-page "encyclopedia of composers," a nine-page glossary of musical terms and an index which proves to be less than complete. Sensibly as the book is organized, one gets the feeling that Glennon allowed himself both too little space and too little time for which he set out to do. The reliability quotient is pretty low.
Virgil Thomson's name is consistently misspelt ("Thompson"). Shostakovich, whose performing activity was limited to keyboard, is listed as one of the "composers well equipped to direct performances of their own works, as well as works by other composers." In the brief discussion of American opera there is no mention of Samuel Barber, and in the similar coverage of American symphonists since the 1930s, even more astoundingly, there is no mention of William Schuman. Earlier on Schuman is cited as a contemporary of Aaron Copland, while Barber, who is actually a few months older than Schuman and began his public career a few years earlier, is listed among those who came later. Reference is made to a Danish composer named Paterson-Berger, but the man Glennon must have had in mind was the Swede Wilhelm Peterson-Berger. This sort of carelessness seems to reflect a haste which is further reflected in the glancing and superficial treatment of so many of the items crowded into Glennon's relatively few pages.
There is no such cramping in the Britannica Book of Music, which is not "music appreciation" but a comprehensive reference work in more or less the same format at Percy Scholes' Oxford companion to Music: that of a dictionary or a one-volume encyclopedia, with alphabetical entries covering both biographical and general musical subjects. The editor is Britannica Books' executive editor, Benjamin Hadley; it is reassuring to find Michael Steinberg and George Gelles listed on the title page as "consulting editors," and surprising that Britannica did not make more of that. (Steinberg, who for a dozen years or so distinguished himself as music editor of The Boston Globe and now is musical adviser to the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, is identified -- on the jacket only -- simply as "the author of the program notes for the Boston Symphony Orchestra." Gelles, active in Washington a few years ago as a critic for The Washington Star and an official of the film program of the National Endowment for the Arts, is described here as "a well-known musicologist."
The jacket promises a bit more than the book delivers, citing "recommended recordings." There are no specific recommendations, though, except the one following Martin Williams' five-page article on jazz (the only other signed piece I noticed, curiously enough, is one on recordings, by Robert C. Marsh). Other references, at the ends of composers' biographies, may list some titles which are available on records, but no specific recordings, and the "recommendations" following the entries on Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Brahms and other well-known composers read simply: "Numerous recordings of many works." This is hardly a lapse, though, in a book whose functional life may be expected to be far longer than that of this month's Schwann Catalog, and this book's value is especially appreciated after exposure to two others reviewed here.
There are some omissions (Eleanor Perenyi's book is not included in the Liszt bibliography) and an occasional jarring phrase ("He has recorded," in the piece on the late Istvan Kertesz), but the information offered is stated clearly and accurately, and the authors have taken the time to bring out some little-known material in addition to covering the familiar bases. Brahms, for example, is reported as having persuaded a conductor to perform Bruckner's Te Deum and to have been enthusiastic, in his final year, about the new First Symphony of Carl Nielsen. In short, while the Britannica Book of Music does not attempt the depth with which some subjects are treated in the aforementioned Oxford Companion, it is a reliable, professionally produced and thoroughly up-to-date single-volume source of information on nearly everything musical, and it is quite a buy at the price asked.