The first time I encountered The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, I was at freshman orientation week in college, looking forward to starting the work on an English degree and playing violin in the college orchestra. I discovered in the tiny library in my dorm a copy of the fifth edition (1960). I pulled a volume off the shelf and took it upstairs to my room to investigate. In it, I found articles about composers I loved and those I hadn’t heard of yet , along with lists of their works; articles about instruments and occasional photos and diagrams of them; articles about cities and the various types of music-making that takes place in them; articles about genres, performers, patrons, orchestras, opera companies and more. The articles offered vivid descriptions of musical sound, fascinating biographical details, and the authors’ insights on the way music is made. By the time I graduated four years later, I had read all nine volumes, and was headed to graduate school in musicology. I was hooked.
Photo: The nine volumes plus index of The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th edition in Tyler House, Smith College
According to the eponymous George Grove’s preface to the first edition in 1879, the dictionary was intended “for the use of Professional musicians and Amateurs alike,” an intent that extends to the present day. Grove was a Victorian polymath who had worked as both a civil engineer and a Biblical lexicographer while cultivating a rich life as an amateur musician, organizer of concerts and program annotator. His unusual combination of skills along with his ambitious vision uniquely qualified him to take on the project of creating a dictionary of music, covering “all the points…immediate and remote, on which those interested in the Art, and alive to its many and far-reaching associations, can desire to be informed.” (Preface, A Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan, 1879; you can read the whole preface here.) Initially planned as a two volume reference work, the first edition was finally completed in 1890 at twice its original length.
The current edition, Grove Music Online, is digital and is overseen by a board of scholars advised by representatives of eight scholarly societies. Its vision of the world and its musics is broader than Grove’s could have been in 1879 and its size has expanded to accommodate a constantly expanding variety of musics from around the globe. Its more than 51,000 articles and nearly 6,000 images and musical examples are consulted daily by students, scholars, musical amateurs and professionals alike. Grove’s first edition was in four volumes, but would amount to over forty volumes, should it be published in print today.
While Grove has changed a great deal over the last 139 years, you can still find vestiges of its history among its more than 33 million words, including some of George Grove’s original articles. My personal favorite of these is “Couac.” (You may find a list of all of his articles still in publication after the preface here).
Although a few articles like “Couac” date back to the 1879 edition, most Grove articles were written more recently. “Couac” is also one of the briefest articles, which can range in length from term definitions of a few words, to essays on large concepts of as much as 80,000 words, to detailed lists and descriptions of research resources of 120,000 words in length or more. Grove’s most popular articles are biographies of some of the best-known composers in the history of Western art music; Bach, Beethoven and Mozart have been consistently holding the top three positions since we started tracking such data after Grove first went online in 2001. But the article most readers tell us is their favorite is “Mode” by the late musicologist Harold S. Powers, who defined the concept that describes how musical sound is organized and broadly explored its various uses across centuries and continents.
Articles are revised and new ones are added to Grove regularly. If you are curious about current editorial projects or the latest articles published, visit the What’s New page, where you may browse some of the editors’ favorite new articles. Last December, Grove Music Online relaunched to a site with new functionality, including a responsive display, and a query builder to define filtered searches built on a brand new taxonomy, and the ability to embed audio and video recordings (coming soon). Many articles also contain links to recordings.
If you aren’t sure where to begin your travels in Grove Music Online, the site features tools for exploring. Investigate the history of opera, or contemporary music, or women musicians through Grove’s timelines.
Use one of Grove’s topical guides to introduce yourself to major fields in music history.
Or get to know some of the people who are responsible for writing and editing Grove’s articles through our series of conversations with scholars.
If it’s Grove itself that you’re interested in, you can read more about its history here.
And if none of these seems like your path, just pick one of the categories in the browse bar at the top of any page and dive in. A whole world of music awaits you.
Grove Music Online
You can access Grove Music Online through Oxford Music Online which is FREE with your library card HERE (Scroll down to Film, TV, music and the arts)