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The Penguin Companion to Classical Music
By Paul Griffiths

896 pages
Penguin Books Ltd
153 x 234mm
ISBN: 0141009241
£30.00 - £21.00 (incl post and packing) on


Why companion? Why not dictionary? What’s the difference? Essentially a companion must be companionable. That person does not have to know everything but you need to be at ease in their company. As with any companion (even with a friend) you must expect to be stimulated by their viewpoints, opinions and knowledge and to disagree without wanting to walk off and never come back. As for a dictionary it tends to be a repository of factual material rather than opinions. The character and preferences of the compiler are revealed only rarely in such cases and has to be implied rather than inferred.

Griffiths has already produced one major reference work on modern classical music. It is therefore no surprise to find entries such as that for Conlon Nancarrow where the writer opens up his opinions about the music: ‘fascinating and entertaining counterpoint using the rhythmic precision and mechanical oddity of the pianola.’ This is just one example. There are many others. This is valuable as it should provoke you to explore and experiment and then either to agree or disagree violently.

I had never heard of Tarnopolski but he gets an entry and we are told that his music is polystylistic, searching playful and grotesque.

In the same admirable track is the entry for Ruggles: ‘a style of unabashed dissonance and strong angular melody a music of quiet exclamations and rampant challenges.’ Fine writing succinct indeed.

Of course there are blindspots. I was astonished to discover that there is no entry for Erkki Salmenhaara. On the other hand both George Lloyd and Jonathan Lloyd are in as is Robert Saxton. Salonen is there as both conductor and composer.

Earlier composers are of course covered as are the standard Greats usually in very substantial readable narrative entries. A large number of Bachs appear. As do Muffat, Scheidt, Sweelinck, Lanier, three different Martinis and Taverner to name a few at browse-random.

Dates of birth/death are given as full dates rather than just the year. Composer entries in some cases include worklists with dates. There are quite a few of these and they are a strength of the book.

More reactionary figures such as Constant Lambert have a place here but why no reference to major works of his such as his Music for Orchestra and Summer’s Last Will and Testament? Miaskovsky and Langgaard are there with highly detailed and dated worklists for their 27 and 16 symphonies. Vladimir Shcherbachev is present and is mentioned as the only one not to condemn Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth when he discussed the work in Leningrad. I was delighted to see Boris Lyatoshinsky, Max Steinberg, Shebalin and Shaporin putting in an appearance as well as Rudi Stephan; that expressionist-impressionist German composer killed in the Great War. Ropartz and Marcel Landowski are present.

Film music denizens get their place so you can find information on Korngold, Herrmann, Williams, Waxman and Rozsa but not for Poledouris or Friedhofer. I think they have struck the balance reasonably well there although I was sorry that their film music entries tend to obliterate reference to their concert works: thus nothing about Waxman’s Joshua or Sinfonietta.

Errors? There are bound to be a few. Go to the Lyapunov entry and you will find that it is claimed that his Symphony No. 1 was written in 1917. That’s wrong. It dates from 1887. His Second Symphony was written in 1917. Delight at seeing a reference to T. Appleby Matthews as the first conductor of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was tempered by seeing Louis Frémaux, a most unfairly neglected conductor (he does not get an entry of his own), spelt as Frémeaux.

Among musicians rather than composers I was sorry to find no reference for the conductor Vernon Handley.

There are entries for subjects you might not expect to find in a music companion: try the ones for Sex and Madness. Hymns get a mention as does the Bible. There are also sections for Italy, Norway, Sweden and France.

Hyperion get their own entry. That’s a new one: a record company! Quite right too. Nothing for ASV-Sanctuary. There is one for EMI, Decca and DG.

The book appears to be up to date as far as 2003. For example the characterful entry for the pianist Vladimir de Pachmann lists Mark Mitchell’s 2003 biography of de Pachmann. Some websites are also cited.

Browsing or using this delightful book as a reference work is a pleasure. The font is on the larger side and the grade of paper is substantial and quite white. Definition of typography is sharply focused; not to be taken for granted I am afraid.

Penguin continue to push out the boundaries of their reference library and have done so successfully and with distinct character in Paul Griffiths’ book.

Rob Barnett

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