Shelf Life: How Musical Reference Materials Treat American Composers

Many entry-based reference books (meaning, not those that compile a few long essays) focus their efforts on a more manageable chunk of music history or its personalities, while others try to be as comprehensive as possible in a single, affordable volume. By necessity, the latter reference will omit most composers (American and otherwise) not of primary international interest. The former will more likely turn up information on composers neglected by the major sources, if the composers fall into the relevant racial, gender, or geographical categories. Even so, the results are highly variable.

The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music (Don Michael Randel, editor. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996) tries to cover classical, jazz, and some pop figures, composers, and performers, worldwide, in one volume. For the most part, all it offers is the sort of bland recitation you find in program-note bios. Ben Johnston, for example, gets a paragraph of CV, plus this apt but miniscule note on his music: “He composed in a variety of styles (serial, electronic, aleatory, microtonal) but is especially associated with works in just intonation.” There’s also an extremely abbreviated work list. Similarly, Robert Muczynski is awarded a one-paragraph CV and a spare reference to works “in a restrained neoclassic style.”

Copland receives a better biographical narrative (although it’s cleansed of both praise and criticism) with some stylistic description, plus a partial works list and bibliography. Interestingly, Griffes fares almost as well. Dan Asia, Dan Coleman, and Annie Gosfield, though, are denied admission to Harvard. Some of the entries that are present, however, are quite well done, considering the format. Charles Wuorinen is blessed with a column and a half of space, integrating stylistic issues with work chronology, and adding some juicy gossip: “Wuorinen was denied tenure at Columbia in 1971; he took the Group for Contemporary Music with him when he left.”

If only composers could benefit from such lavish treatment in every reference book as the International Dictionary of Black Composers (Samuel A. Floyd Jr., editor. Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1999). The advantages here, of course, are that black composers (not just African Americans) still constitute a very small population—ideal in terms of information management—and are the subject of high scholarly interest. So this two-volume set provides a great deal of detailed information on relatively few individuals. Billed as a “cross-section of composers of African heritage who reside in locations around the world” and intended mainly for lay readers rather than musicologists, this dictionary is neatly packed with long biographical sketches, work lists (including works only in manuscript), bibliographies, discographies, big photos, and 500- to 1,000-word critical essays about a couple of specific works by each figure. Composers of concert and theater music are included if they’ve written compositions that have been commercially published or recorded, and “have a substantial corpus of work.” Important personalities in blues, ragtime, jazz, and gospel are also represented in the 185 entries, 87 of them classical. The first classical composer in the book is Alton Augustus Adams (1889-1987), a U.S. Navy bandmaster from the Virgin Islands credited with only four piano solos, seven band pieces and two songs. Even so, he gets an extensive, detailed biography and good essays on some of the individual marches. I’ve found this set very useful in work I’ve done on the likes of Roque Cordero, Anthony Davis, James P. Johnson, Ulysses Kay, and George Walker.

In terms of content, the 20-year-old International Encyclopedia of Women Composers (Aaron I. Cohen. R.R. Bowker, 1981) is the polar opposite of the International Dictionary of Black Composers. The encyclopedia includes about 1,100 20th-century American women (and many more of other nationalities), and several 19th-century figures. It’s really just a long list of names, sometimes but not always followed by a few lines of CV. The lack of basic information can be frustrating: Doris Gould, for example, is listed only as “20th-century English composer,” with no birth date or other details other than a mention of one opera published in 1961. Elsewhere, the work lists may be extensive, maybe not. There’s also an itemization of the 435 sources from which information was drawn, relevant sources cited in each entry. This is a disappointing volume because it’s so tantalizing. It’s nice to know that the existence of Noa (formerly Susan) Ain and Sister Florence Therese Fitzgerald has been noted for posterity, but it’s frustrating to be given so little information on them.

Women in Music: An Encyclopedic Bibliography (Don L. Hixon and Don A. Hennessee. Scarecrow Press, 1993) is a two-volume index to women’s biographies in music encyclopedias and dictionaries in English and other languages (including multiple editions of Grove’s and Baker’s), which also cites obits in major newspapers and other sources. For each figure we’re given name, dates, field of specialization, and a coded list of sources. The Noa Ain and Florence Fitzgerald entries, alas, simply send us back to the dead end of Cohen, and Annie Gosfield was perhaps insufficiently established to make it into this early-’90s resource.

Gene Claghorn’s Women Composers and Songwriters: A Concise Biographical Dictionary (Scarecrow Press, 1996) is drawn largely, it seems, from his Women Composers and Hymnists and ASCAP‘s 1994 list of members. It’s certainly eclectic, with brief entries for composers in the classical, pop and hymn tune realms. Each entry contains the composer’s name, dates, a line giving (perhaps) her greatest hit, and a one-paragraph CV with no critical evaluation. There are no work lists to speak of, and neither do we find Ain, Gosfield, or Fitzgerald (other than Ella).

The Norton Grove Dictionary of Women Composers (Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel, editors. Norton, 1994) is the last of the spin-offs from the 1980 New Grove (not its 2001 incarnation), but drawn less from the inadequate mother text than from the updated New Grove Dictionary of American Music of 1986. The editors warn us that this is “a record of achievement, not of promise; and it is not a directory,” and the cut-off birth date is about 1955. It does include nearly 900 composers in the Western tradition, but Ain is absent, and so are Gosfield (too young) and Fitzgerald. Joan Tower (born 1938), at least, gets a solid entry: the usual CV followed by two long paragraphs on her techniques in specific works. Given the publication date, the work list inevitably stops in 1993. Not every entry rises to the quality of Tower’s. An example chosen at random: The entry on Arlene Zallman (born 1934) is heavy on CV with brief allusions to style that probably came from a publisher’s blurb rather than the contributor’s experience with Zallman’s scores.

From Shelf Life: How Musical Reference Materials Treat American Composers
By James Reel
© 2002 NewMusicBox