This may seem a surprising book to find reviewed here, but it
should not be forgotten that there are a great many references
in its pages to music, composers, and the authors whose work
inspires those composers.
The Oxford companion to English literature first appeared
in 1932, and in 2009 the seventh edition was published with
a new editor, Dinah Birch, Professor of English Literature at
the University of Liverpool. Her predecessor, Margaret Drabble,
remains as an adviser and the present editors debt to
previous editions is acknowledged by including a list of all
the contributors to the sixth edition, most of whose work remains
in this new publication, for the OCEL is an evolutionary
work. Nevertheless, there are more than 1,000 entirely
The literature of musicis surveyed in a separate
entry and ranges from Thomas Morleys Plaine and easie
introduction to practicall Musicke (1597), via Roger North,
Burney, Bernard Shaw, Ernest Newman and others, to the 20th
century, including biographies, from Mainwarings Life
of Handel to Dr Fellowes on Gibbons, Byrd and the English
madrigal composers. Any people or subjects mentioned in this
and any other part of the book who have a separate entry are
shown by the attaching of an asterisk to the name or subject
heading, an expedient common to the various Oxford Companions.
These are references to those who have written about music,
but there are also references to musical compositions by them
with literary associations and to similar works by others: Elgar.
These entries, too, refer (via the asterisk) to further entries
for poets and writers associated with a particular composer.
In the case of Elgar, for example, Longfellow, Newman, OShaughnessy,
Kipling and Benson.
As with all personal entries in the book, there is also a guide
to major separate works of reference, biographies or commentaries.
To give a further example, the Britten entry leads to separate
entries for Auden, James, Crabbe, Forster, Melville, Plomer,
Mann and others; Stanford has references to separate entries
for Tennyson, Bridges, Whitman, Sheridan, Newbolt, Le Fanu and
Hans Christian Andersen.
The Companion has always attempted to cover English
literature in its broadest context, as well as authors
and works from literary cultures other than those of Great Britain;
so in addition to British composers such as Matthew Locke, Henry
and William Lawes, Purcell, Handel, Parry, Butterworth, Gurney,
Holst, Ireland, Bliss, Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Quilter, and
others, there are entries for Berlioz, Strauss, Stravinsky and
Verdi (to name just four), all of whom were indebted to British
authors for texts, libretti or storylines.
It has to be said that there are few if any references from
authors to musical settings or representations of their work
- not even in the entries for Housman or Whitman - but virtually
all the writers referred to in the composer entries have their
own entries in the body of the work.
There are as before useful Appendices: a chronology of English
literature which, as well as showing Principal Literary
Works for each year, also has Other Events,
which include significant births and deaths of composers and
first performances of musical works and operas. Other appendices
list Poets Laureate and the winners of various literary prizes,
all updated to 2008 or 2009.
A small number of general entries occur where a literary and
musical form coincide for example madrigal, describing
its history and form and listing prominent composers. I was
fascinated to read the entry for dub, dub poetry
(new to this edition) an instrumental remix of
a reggae recording, often involving reverberation, echo, and
other electronic effects, used as a backing track for improvisation
or toasting; there is more, but toasting
is not explained! I was also surprised and disappointed, given
the Liverpudlian credentials of the editor and no fewer than
six of her colleagues among the associate editors and contributors,
to find no entry for John Lennon (though Roger McGough is there)
a minor, though regrettable lapse!
This Companion keeps well clear of the territory of the
Oxford companion to music, but it is right and proper
that the literary and musical links are recognized and can result
in some interesting revelations. The list of composers is surprisingly
My only grumble concerns the format, which - to my mind unnecessarily
- has been enlarged from 16 × 24 × 5 cm to 19½
× 25 × 5½ cm (number of pages unchanged),
with weightier paper and more leading between the lines. I prefer
the more compact version: the new edition is too tall to occupy
the shelf-space not yet vacated by its predecessor. No doubt
this is all in the dubious cause of accessibility.
It can be bought online at much less than the recommended retail
© Garry Humphreys,