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Oxford Dictionary of Musical Terms, edited by Alison Latham.
Oxford University Press, 2004.
Paperback. 208 pages, no illustrations. Edge indexed alphabetically. £8.99 USD16.95.
ISBN 10: 0-19-860698-2, ISBN 13: 978-0-19-860698-7.


This has been lavishly praised in the press. This is, of course, a reference work. One does not read a book like this straight through. One necessarily buys it on faith, assuming, hoping even, that when one needs advice, the book will have it.

Naturally any musically knowledgeable person after months of working with a book like this would come up with a list of terms left out which he or she might feel ought to be included, and areas where a dictionary definition should have more detail and/or more clarity. This is the hazard of the game. But my experience was that in merely a few moments of casual leafing through I found a rather long list of problems, such as:

The word carmen is defined as a Latin word for song or poem. But the authors donít mention that the plural of carmen is carmina, as in Carmina Burana. Is every person who goes to the Proms concerts secure on third declension Latin plurals?

The essay on modes does not give enough information to allow a person to understand the mode numbers in the titles of the pieces in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, probably the only place a contemporary music-lover is likely to encounter mode numbers.

The authors mention that the first cebell, "a kind of gavotte," written in England was for the lute, but donít say that the distinguishing characteristic of the cebell is that it has an extended written out flourish, presumably for a solo dancer. They do give this level of detail in their description of the character of the fandango.

They say a lot about passacaglia and chaconne, but donít point out that passacaglias are more for guitar or lute - which you can play while walking down the street - or, consequently, keyboard instruments reading from tablature; and chaconnes are more for static ensembles of, mostly, strings. Bach observed this distinction. The family relationship with the fandango in the sense of variations over a repeating motive could also have been mentioned.

They adhere to this ageís obsession with vertical writing and do not mention that figured bass is a short-hand way of writing counterpoint as well as harmony; in those musical styles where figured bass was used counterpoint was generally more important than harmony.

They suggest, but do not clarify, that the acciacatura is notated the same as the short appogiatura, or "grace note". I think this is the case; otherwise, what is the notation for the acciacatura?

They do give corresponding American terms in their definitions, but favor the British definitions, sometimes not giving the American terms their own separate listing, or sometimes only with a cross-reference. We would expect Oxford University Press to do this, even though on other occasions OUP has produced reference books with a decided mid-Atlantic focus, or even a North American focus. I donít think American readers would have any problem finding their way through this book. Most American readers will spend half their time with this book looking up semi-breve, crotchet, quaver, hemidemisemiquaver, etc.., over and over again; those pages will likely get quite dirty from handling. A table of these terms would have been helpful, included under "note values" or maybe even as a frontispiece.

The word jazz is wisely not defined, not even to reprint Virgil Thomsonís rather pompously reductionist one, or anything from Adorno, most likely from the desire to avoid violence. Swing, blues, rock, rag[time], rap, torch, are also all omitted even though some of these are going on 100 years of usage. But I suspect theyíre all in Grove and probably should stay there.

There is one completely inexcusable omission: the "word" MIDI. While many do not know what it means, do not understand it, the future of music of all kinds rests securely in this concept. Any musical dictionary, however elementary, which does not include it is significantly flawed. The editors might refer me to the foreword where they state their intentions in including words for definition. Iím not ignorant of their point of view; Iím saying that they are addressing a readership and thereby assume the responsibility of serving that readership irrespective of what they might choose or do not choose to say.

I should in fairness list at least some of the overwhelming number of definitions which are models if not marvels of concise precision, but I will include only one: The authors correctly translate and define the marking allegro as an indication, first of cheerful character, and only later as a simple fast tempo marking. It is to be hoped that this will reduce the frequency of such markings as "allegro tragico" or "allegro lamentoso". Earlier musicians knew enough Italian not to make this mistake.

Summing up, I think more attention could have been paid to the specific questions a modestly knowledgeable person would be asking, perhaps at the expense of meeting abstract or philosophically consistent criteria of coverage. I hope my comments will prove useful in preparing the next revision of this book.

A scholarly, well-written, very useful book which, with a little common sense, could have been just a little more useful.

Paul Shoemaker




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