"Every other author may aspire to praise," wrote Dr. Samuel Johnson in the preface to his much-praised but sometimes eccentric Dictionary. "The lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and even this negative recompense has been yet granted to very few."

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians quotes that remark at the beginning of its 29-page essay of "dictionaries and encyclopedias of music" -- perhaps as an incantation against malevolent spirits.

It will not work. Wherever music specialists gather, these days, The New Grove (let's call it TNG ) is the No. 1 topic of conversation, and a good part of that conversation seems to deal with its flaws. They exist, and we shall come to a few of them, but first it seems proper to examine the scope of this publication and to mention: that its appearance is one of the major publishing events of our time; that it sets spectacular new standards in its field that no music scholar, no matter how learned, can read it at random for any significant length of time without learning something new; and that no reference library can claim to be adequately well-rounded unless it has a copy.

It is, in sum, a landmark, a dazzling achievement.

The best way to get an idea of Tng 's scope is simply to take a deep breath and plunge into it -- look up, for example, the article on "chaconne." Before reading the informative, two-and-a-half treatise and this baroque dance (and musical variation) form that originated in Latin American and reached its high point in the music of Bach, you may notice that it comes alphabetically right after an entry on another Latin American dance form: "cha-cha-cha." This article is only one paragraph, but it will tell the casual reader all he might want to know about cha-cha-cha except, perhaps, how to dance it. For that, the paragraph has a one-item bibliography: a book entitled How to Dance.

From cha-cha-cha to chaconne is a considerable leap, but it is only the beginning. Browse forward a bit, and you will find a wealth of information on the music of Chad, an African nation blessed with a dazzling variety of drums. Then a page and a half on George Chadwick, an American composer who sometimes sounds strikingly like Dvorak -- unjustly neglected today but internationally known at the turn of the century.

From one-line cross-references to a larger article, one learns that the chagana were cymbals and the chahar para were clappers in Persia during the Sassanid period, and that Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky can be found under "Tchaikovsky" in TNG. Skipping rapidly past such topics as "chalumeau" and "chamber music," one pauses briefly at the five absorbing (if rather mathematical) pages on the ancient British custom of change ringing. Then, after a dozen pages on "chanson" and several on "chapel," after composers named Chapelet, Chapi and Chapuis, one stops briefly at the charango -- a variation on the guitar, developed in the Andes, that used a dried armadillo shell for its back.

There are two articles on "Charleston" -- one on the city and one on the dance -- but first there is a succinct paragraph on Ray Charles (by no less an authority than Henry Pleasants) which informs us that "He translated Gospel into secular terms and introduced it to a wider white audience." Then we are into composers named Charpentier -- five of them, including Gustave, whose opera, Louise, is coming back into favor, and Marc-Antoine, whose choral music is one of the glories of the French baroque. The article on Marc-Antoine Charpentier concludes with a complete list of his works -- 10 pages of small types -- and a bibliography that half-fills another page.

This hasty survey covers a mere 70 pages out of some 18,000 in TNG; it omits as much as it mentions in that brief span, and it does not even cover all the entries beginning with "cha": Chabrier comes a few pages earlier; Chartres, Chausson and Chavez a few pages later.

Grove has been around for a century; TNG would be its sixth edition, except that it is an abrupt bread with some old Grove traditions. The style of the articles is, on the whole, less personal, the outlook less British, the implied sense of what is and what is not "music" enormously expanded. It is also more than twice the size of the last edition. Less than 3 percent of the material from the fifth edition has been recycled into TNG, and this proportion accurately reflects the way attitudes and information on music have changed in the quarter-century since the fifth edition. Long-playing records, high fidelity and the superior sound of FM broadcasting were still new phenomena at the time, and music-lovers were just beginning to develop the expanded awareness of music -- all kinds of music -- that came as a result of these new developments. The name of Antonio Vivaldi had not yet become a household word. A whole world of ethnic music, from the Andes to the Himalayas, was just beginning to be adequately recorded with the new tape machines that could go and capture the music in its own environment. Hardly one American in a million could have told you what a sitar was; the rock revolution had not yet happened, and electronic music, which is now heard regularly in commercials and sometimes in the top 40, was still a far-out idea.

Perhaps it takes a monument as massive and specialized as this Brittanca -sized encyclopedia, devoted to nothing but music, to show us what has happened since the mid-1950s. The remarkable thing about TNG is how well it handles that enormous and complex assignment.

In the '50s, much more than today, music was seen as an array of sharply compartmentalized (perhaps even hostile) blocs, rather than a more or less continuous spectrum. Lovers of popular music were inclined to regard opera as the plaything of wealthy dilettantes and chamber music as the pastime of musical snobs, while devotees of the classics would hardly allow the name of music to be applied to the work of Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker, let along Chuck Berry. All previous editions of Grove reflect these attitudes; there are sketchy articles on jazz and folk music and hardly a word on commerical popular music, although that is the music heard by most people most of the time.

TNG has reversed this policy with a thoroughness that amounts to a revolution and with a remarkable fineness of perception. There is a full page on the Beatles, for example, including some thoughtful musical analysis. There is an entry on Elvis Presley, but none on Dolly Parton -- and in terms of their musical importance this is precisely as it should be. Instead of lumping all folk music into one article, there are hundreds of articles (about a million words in all) that treat various aspects of it: geographic distribution, styles and forms, instruments, sources, noted performers and scholars. Music is no longer defined as Western and classical. There are special articles on the musical culture of all the world's major cities and virtually every country -- I've already mentioned Chad, for example.

TNG's chief concern is still the Western classical music tradition, and it has expanded that category far beyond its predecessors. The first edition of Grove was compiled on the assumption that music composed before 1450 was not of general interest. Later editions amended that attitude, but even the fifth did not give full recognition to the medieval, Renaissance and baroque composers who were beginning to impress people through the medium of long-playing records. That has all been changed. The introduction to TNG mentions casually that virtually evey known medieval composer has been included, and a check of its contents supports that claim. Formerly obscure composers receive illuminating treatment. Those who have become aware of Antonio Salieri, for example, through Peter Shaffer's play, Amadeus , will find a five-page article, including illustrations and a complete list of his works. Such eminent but neglected composers as Binchois, Obrecht and Berwald receive comparable treatment.

There are complete, or substantially complete, lists of the works of some 1,200 composers and selective lists of 3,000 to 4,000 more. Practically every composer before 1800 has a complete list as well as a bibliography, biography and musical analysis. In many cases, such as Vivaldi, Bach, Telemann, Mozart, Haydn and the members of the prolific Scarlatti family, TNG's entry almost amounts to a small book within a book. One effect of this enormous escalation is a shift of emphasis away from the classical giants who dominated musical awareness before the '50s. aIt is not that Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are neglected in TNG ; they are treated superbly. But they are seen in a much larger context than before, and in this perspective -- quite rightly -- they do not loom so large.

TNG is directed primarily at the average reader -- an orientation reflected, for example, in its enormously expanded use of illustrations. But many entries assume a high level of expertise in the reader -- for example, the 39-page article on "Psychology of Music," the 163-page treatise on manuscript sources of music before 1700, and the 128-page article on music periodicals (which includes an exhaustive list of publications in many languages and a 28-page index). Most of the long and complex articles are preceded by a one-paragraph summary entry which treats the subject as it would be handled in a one-volume dictionary of music; then there is a table of contents for the article to allow quick access to specific subtopics. This arrangement provides for varied levels of interest and should increase enormously its usefulness in public and university libraries -- which are, considering the price, the places where the average reader is most likely to encounter TNG .

The odds are that sooner or later (probably later) there will be a paperback edition -- which will also be expensive, though less so. A more intriguing possibility, and one on which the publishers of TNG have not yet made any firm decisions, is that eventually some of the material may be split into books which can be sold separately. A volume (or, more likely, several volumes) which could be called "Grove's Book of the Great Composers" exists embryonically in these pages. The million words on ethnomusicology (mostly listed under the names of the various nations) could be trimmed and rearranged into "Grove's Book of the Music of the World." The entries on various cities could be reworked (perhaps with color illustrations) into "Grove's Book of Great Musical Cities."

As for the flaws, they are present and noticeable -- though frankly those that I have found so far seem insignificant in relation to the massiveness of the undertaking. They come in a variety of sizes and shapes.

There is the uncaught slip of the pen -- for example, a reference to "Lincoln Center in Washington, DC" in the entry on George London. Martin Bernheimer, who wrote that article, certainly knows what center sits on the banks of the Potomac -- but the mind does play tricks. w

There is the obscure typographical error -- there is one in French ("se" rather than "ce") in the entry on the eminent medievalist Johann Beck; but the article is three times as long as it was in the Fifth Edition and enormously more informative.

There is the ambiguity with erroneous implications -- in the monumental article on popular music occurs the statement: "From 1929 there was also the new medium of the talking picture . . ." Does this mean that the writer slipped on the date of The Jazz Singer (1927)? tIt probably does, though he may be referring to the arrival of talking films en masse or in Europe. Later in the same article, another author implies that "Drink to me only with thine eyes" is an "Irish song." The tune is "traditional," as they say in sheet music, but the words were written by Ben Jonson. The implication may be 50 percent accurate, but another example could and should been chosen.

Certainly there are other errors. No doubt some sopranos, living and dead, have managed to slip a rejuvenating birth date past all precautions, and there must be works attributed to one baroque or Renaissance composer that were composed by another. But the bulk of what is being described as error on the musicological cocktail circuit lies in the area of editorial judgment. Why is the barbiton (a plucked string instrument that began going out of style in Greece around the time of Aristotle) given only one-quarter of the space it had before? Does Peter Maxwell Davies deserve eight times as much space as George Crumb, twice as much as Witold Lutoslawski? Shouldn't an encyclopedia that has an article on birdsong also have one on the music of whales? They are a significant influence on contemporary music, and echoes of their songs can be heard in the work of musicians as diverse as Alan Hovhaness, George Crumb and Judy Collins. Should the article on the great Russian basso be placed under "Shalyapin," even with a cross-reference under the more traditional spelling of "Chaliapin?" Such questions are ultimately imponderable -- or ponderable ad infinitum, which amounts to the same thing.

A final problem -- and one which can e solved, ultimately and temporarily, only by the eventual appearance of a "New New Grove," is the ravages of time. A small part of this massive work began to be obsolete when John Lennon died. Another segment fell behind the times with the appearance of Penderecki's "Te Deum." At the moment, TNG is still shiny and new; it mentions such recent works as Lutoslawski's "Novelette" and Thea Musgrave's "Christmas Carol." But time works inexorably and the art of music, thank heaven, is still alive and growing. All we can say is that TNG seems calculated to stand firm for a long time, and it leaves it successors a high standard to emulate.