Musicologist  Stanley  Sadie

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


There are fine exponents in every field, and within the musical realm are many sub-categories, each of which has its own list.  Let me say right here and now that as a general rule, I find rankings
and people who constantly insist on thema hideous detraction and a huge waste of time.  That being said, one cannot fail to think that among those who write, doing so for a highly respected publication in a major market carries with it a certain weight of prominence, as do scholarly journals.  Likewise, books seem to fall into categories that assign credibility and honor, depending on their authority and status.

Knowing all this, there must be a special place for the overseer of the largest and most-respected encyclopedia of music in the English language.  Stanley Sadie, editor of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians is that person.  His name is inscribed on the spine of each volume, and upon him is heaped all the praise and glory that goes with this towering achievement.

Before doing this gargantuan task, he was a critic for The Times of London, as well as author of several books about well-known subjects
including Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven.  I mention this to indicate that doing the only book on an unknown composer is great in its own right, but to do so when there are stacks of volumes already in and out of print puts a lot of obligation on anyone who attempts to add to a well-traveled road.

There was a convention of music critics in Chicago in October of 1992, and Sadie was here to attend.  He graciously took time from a very busy schedule to speak with me at his hotel, and what you are about to read is that enlightening chat. 

Being a critic for many years before accepting the mantle of historian, we talked a bit about the ins and outs of that particular area.  We then went on to his work of re-making the primary encyclopedia of music in the English language.  That, and the four other sibling compilations remain at the forefront of musical scholarship.  Indeed, later you will be able to see exactly where he was in the process at the time we met.

He was always straight-forward with his responses and thorough in sharing his ideas.  Here is that conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  Thank you for seeing me.

Stanley Sadie:  Oh, that’s a pleasure.

BD:    You’re in town for the Critic’s Convention?

SS:    For a bit of it, yes.  I’m taking part in the panel tomorrow morning, but unfortunately I’m not staying right through.  It can’t be helped; I’ve got to be back.

BD:    Do you like being a music critic?

SS:    Well, I spent quite a long time being a music critic for The Times in London, you know.  I was on the staff for seventeen years.  And yes, I love being a critic!

BD:    Do you prefer being critic to musicologist and scholar?

SS:    I try not to see the activities as two different areas.  I think one can bring scholarship to criticism, and one can bring critical attitudes to scholarship.  I think that’s a healthy mix.  I have to feel that way, don’t I, to justify myself?

BD:    [Laughs]  Perhaps...

SS:    I do feel that way.  I think there should be evaluative thinking, critical thinking, in scholarship.  And the more scholarship there is behind criticism, the stronger it is.

BD:    Perhaps here in America we equate criticism with opinion.

SS:    Yes, I know.  That’s true to some extent in England, too, but there’s been quite a substantial group of critics with a scholarly background in England.  Andrew Porter is a friend and colleague of mine for many years, of course.  You know his kinds of work.

BD:    Sure.  [See my Interview with Andrew Porter.]

SS:    And there’ve been others
his colleague Nick Kenyon; Jeremy Noble, who is my predecessor on The Times who ended up teaching over here in New York State as a musicologist; my former colleague on The Times, William Mann; Martin Cooper.  These are people who write serious, scholarly books and criticism.  It’s not quite the same tradition here, I know, but that’s understandable; it’s a different kind of world.  London and New York create their own kind, and your other cities here create different kinds of ambience for people to work in.

BD:    Should there be a different slant from someone who writes for a daily newspaper, as opposed to a weekly or a monthly or a scholarly journal?

3 sizes SS:    Speaking as a critic, you mean?  Every critic is always thinking,
Who is reading this?  When are they reading it?  What are they doing when they’re reading it?  What are they wanting from me?  It’s a job.  You have to satisfy your readers.  If you don’t, you won’t be doing it much longer!  So, you have to think about that all the time.  Yes, I think there is something different.  In England — I know more about English circumstances than American, of courseif you’re a Sunday critic, you, as it were, take a deep breath before you write your piece.  You think back over a few events and you maybe frame a story around several things with the emphases you want.  You may be trying to get something a little deeper than just commenting on events.  But if you are a daily critic and you are writing about one event at a time, then really your job is partly reporting, partly criticism, partly placing of the artist or the music.

BD:    You mean you have to take your reading audience into consideration?

SS:    I think you have to know who you are writing for.  If you’re lucky, yes, I think you do, actually.  You’re thinking of the kinds of people who are going to read your words and how they’ll react.  You’re trying all the time to refine their taste.  A critic is a professional listener, isn’t he, really
— someone who should be listening with more expertise than anyone else?  The primary object of a critic, really, is to try and open new worlds for his reader.  That sounds a bit sort of pretentious, but I think you should always be trying to open up people’s ears to make them more aware of things and give them a little depth to their listening.

BD:    They’re reading your words.  Are they looking directly into your mind, or are they also looking through your heart?

SS:    Well, [laughs] that’s always the metaphysical question, making the distinction between the mind and the heart.  It’s a bit of each.  I think if you don’t show you’ve got a heart, they won’t bother to read you, actually.  But it’s all controlled by your intellect, ultimately.  It’s very important to let enthusiasm, or the opposite, show through from time to time!  I think it’s very important.   Your readers have got to know you.  They may not want to identify with your taste, but they’ve got to know what sort of person you are
if you’re a criticand what basis you’re speaking from; what preconceptions you have, what you dislike, what music does turn you on and what kinds of performance turn you on.  I think that’s very important and they can get a picture of you through that.  They’ve got to know that you’re a live person who actually responds to music, or they won’t find you very interesting, probably.

BD:    Let’s look at it from the negative.  I don’t usually like to do negative, but without naming names or pieces or anything, if there’s a piece or a performer that you don’t like, is it partly your job to try and drive that composer or performer off the stage?

SS:    No, I don’t think as much as that.  This is a very big and difficult question about the responsibility of the critic.  If it’s a matter of incompetence or charlatanry, perhaps it is a matter.  It is your job to expose it for what you really believe it is.  If it’s that your taste doesn’t coincide because you think somebody’s interpretation is misguided, that’s something different.  That’s opinion.  I think there’s a distinction there.

BD:    And you always try to make that distinction?

SS:    I think you automatically make that distinction without being conscious of it.  You can say you dislike something, but that’s not the same as saying it’s incompetence.  Saying it’s incompetence is another thing and you have to do that from time to time.

BD:    Have there been times when you’ve been to a performance which you feel is incompetent, and yet it is applauded and cheered to the hilt?

SS:    Oh, yes, that happens to you.  I remember when I was a very young critic, when I was first writing in The Times, I went to a piano recital at the Wigmore Hall, wh
ich is where most of the debutantes make their bow in London.  There was this very young Swiss man — I can remember his name, but I wouldn’t dream of saying it — and I said to a colleague afterwards I thought it was really terrible; almost better not to write at all than write the kind of review one had to write.  He took a different view, which was all right, but actually he went home and decided that he wouldn’t write the review.  I was left holding the baby!  So I wrote a review and it was very unfavorable — perhaps justly.  The man didn’t have the technique or any kind of interpretive insight.  There was a telephone call from his mother to the office the next morning, saying, “Your critic is driving my son to suicide!”  He didn’t commit suicide as far as I know, but it was sort of distressing, actually.

BD:    Has he had no career, or a mediocre career?

SS:    I’ve never seen his name again.  But then he wasn’t in residence in London, so I wouldn’t expect to, necessarily.  He might work, but he never wants to come back to London again.

BD:    But you would know if he was making a career in Europe or in the States.

SS:    No, he’s never had any further career.  I’ve never heard of any further career.

BD:    What advice do you have for performers if they are reading criticism?

SS:    Remember that you’re dealing with one person’s view, and don’t be put off by it.  Be yourself by it.  You may learn, actually.  I have often had letters from people saying, “Thank you for these useful remarks.  We’ll take them to heart.”  There have been other letters, too, saying, “You got that wrong.”  [Laughs]  And sometimes I have; sometimes I haven’t, but there have been a number of letters, or people who have come up to me, or have said to friends that they find things useful.  I think they can learn if I can say something or make them think about something a bit differently, or say something particularly in my own area of expertise.  Then I think a critic can be quite useful to a performer.  But the critic’s function absolutely is not to help the performer!  The critic is speaking as a member of the public.  His responsibility is first to the music, second to his public.

BD:    And then lastly to the performer?

SS:    Hardly to the performer at all.  The performer is out there on his own.  He’s got what he thinks about that.  That’s not my job!

BD:    What advice do you have for the public that goes to concerts and then reads the review in the paper the next day, or in the magazine the next week?

SS:    Well, again, same advice, really.  Remember that you’re talking of one man’s opinion.  It’s written in black and white; the words aren’t engraved in stone.  And you know, the newspaper is perhaps used for wrapping up the rubbish the next day!  [Both laugh]  We’ve all seen our notices around rotting cabbages, or fish and chips.

BD:    That can’t give you a good feeling.

SS:    It reminds you of the ephemerality of things!  I’d been doing it a long time
— seventeen years, in factand it was about then that I began to feel I didn’t particularly want to do it much more.  I still enjoy writing when I do write.  I do it very little nowadays; I did a bit for periodicals, for monthlies and so on, when I left The Times.  I still quite enjoy doing it, and get a bit frustrated when I go to an event and don’t have a chance to write a criticism!

BD:    Really?  I would think it would be easier to go and not have to put into words your feelings.

SS:    Oh, yes, if you want to be responsible.  It doesn’t matter if you go to sleep in a boring one, just as it doesn’t matter if you let your attention wander.  You don’t have to be asking yourself, “What am I thinking about?  What am I going to remember of this?  What am I going to note down on scraps of paper or the back of a program?”  It’s, of course, much more relaxed, but on the other hand, you don’t get the chance to say, to be stimulated into formulating your ideas, and I’m sure it’s a good thing for me.  I don
’t know how it is for you.

BD:    I do very little written criticism.  I’m just on the radio.  I play the music and promote concerts and I’m glad to interview performers and give them a chance to speak.  But when I go to a concert, I don’t have to worry about gathering my ideas.  I can just relax and let the music wash over me.

SS:    Yes, yes!

BD:    I usually find something good.  Even if I don’t care for the performance, I can say, “Oh, I liked that bassoon solo in the middle.”

SS:    Yes, that’s good!

BD:    Do you find it particularly easy or difficult to go to a performance where you know in advance it’s going to be spectacular?

SS:    Actually, one of the things about writing criticism is it’s much harder to write a favorable review than to write an unfavorable one.  I don’t know if this is true of other languages, but it’s certainly true that English is very much richer in words of invective than in words of praise.  There are all kinds of things you can say when you’re being severely critical, and very many fewer adjectives of praise.  It’s always harder to go to a glamorous event or good event.  Sometimes the event is such that you take off and you don’t stop and think, and the words do come.  It can inspire you in some sense.

BD:    I just wondered if your mindset would be different if you know this is a performer you have enjoyed for years and years and years, playing with a first-rate orchestra and a conductor that knows what he’s doing in a hall that’s acoustically rich.

SS:    Yes, there are those occasions that you enjoy, and you relish them.  Of course it’s fun; it’s tremendous.  I was one of a team of critics on The Times, and the critic senior to me used to choose the events he wanted, and I more or less had the pick of the rest.  And sometimes we would say, “You might as well go to this one and let me do that one.”  We shared out the glamorous ones fairly much, so I did get to quite a lot of exciting things like the Vienna Philharmonic and big, exciting works that gave great interpretation.

BD:    Is it part of your responsibility just to keep up with things, to go to concerts that you’re not reviewing, so that perhaps the following season, when you are reviewing it, you will be up to date?

SS:    In my early days as a critic, I used to use most of my nights off for going to concerts, yes.  Quite often I did.  When you’re working five nights a week and you usually use one of the other nights, you don’t get much home life
— not at night time, anyway!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Have you done any teaching?

SS:    No, not really teaching.  I’ve been writing and editing, editing journals and editing big books and things.  I’ve done bits of teaching, but not much.  I taught at the Conservatory for a while.  I taught music history there.  I’ve done odds and ends of lecturing, but I’m not really a teacher.

american BD:    You don’t view your writings as teaching the public?

SS:    Oh yes, there’s certainly an element of that in it.  There’s bound to be a didactic element in any writing, any worthwhile writing, yes.

BD:    Have we got too many professional musicians these days?

SS:    There’s a lot of people being trained as professional musicians who aren’t ever going to make a living at it.  I think perhaps the conservatories are over-producing, slightly.  I don’t know how it is here; that’s possibly the case in London.  There has been some paring down of the size of the conservatories, which have grown rather big and a bit unwieldy.  And they’re producing too many second-raters or third-raters.  But of course there’s always been some lesser-lights, because there are people who aren’t ever going to be good performers but are still great lovers of music and are important in teaching a new generation.  Music teachers trained at conservatories are fulfilling a very important role in society.  They’re keeping traditions going and keeping musical things alive.

BD:    Has the musical tradition been kept up over the span of time that you’ve been attending concerts?

SS:    Yes, it has really.  There have been changes.  There are changes currently in London.  Now there’s much less careful, thoughtful criticism going on, day by day, in London newspapers and I think this is always a bad thing.  Criticism is actually a healthy activity, in that it keeps music at the front of people’s minds.  It keeps standards up, to some extent.  The times when music criticism has not been around, performing standards have tended to go down.

BD:    Because they’re not getting the nudging they need from outside?

SS:    Because people who aren’t competent feel they can get away with performing in public, and there’s no check on them, no one to say that they’re incompetent, publicly.  I think that professionalism has a place in pointing out who such people are.

BD:    You mean they fool the public?

SS:    Yes, I think that tends to happen a bit.  When criticism is at a low ebb, you do tend to get a lot of amateurish performance.

BD:    Are there perhaps too many critics around these days?

SS:    No, I don’t know that there are.  I’m not sure about that.  The situation is different in each city, in each culture.  I don’t know how it is here in Chicago.  You have two important daily newspapers, don’t you?

BD:    We used to have four, and I used to run around to the vending machines and get four different papers, and sometimes read four very divergent reviews!

SS:    Yes, of course that’s a favorite sport.  There used to be a manager of the central hall in London — the Royal Festival Hall — who used to print, on the back of each month’s brochures, contradictory remarks by London music critics.

BD:    Attributed, or not?

SS:    Attributed, yes.  It used to infuriate us, of course, and make us look silly!  But actually, what he was really doing was underlining the value of criticism, that individuals can react very differently to the same thing, and that one man’s meat may be another man’s poison.

BD:    And reminding the public that they can enjoy something even if the critic says it’s no good?

SS:    Yeah.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk a bit about your pet project, the Grove.  You became the Editor in 1970?

SS:    That’s right.

BD:    Was this before or after the decision had been made to revamp it and bring a whole new scope to it?

SS:    The English firm that publishes it is not the same as the American firm.  The English firm always had felt that there was scope for a different kind of Grove from the traditional one, a tradition that had begun with Sir George Grove himself and had gone on up to eight volumes in the 1954 edition.

BD:    I remember the nine volumes (including the appendix) that were sitting there for years and years as I was growing up!

SS:    Yes, that’s right.  The 1954 edition has a lot to be said for it, but it’s not written by teams of professional scholars, and it’s very much predominantly English in its authorship.

BD:    This is not to say it was put together haphazardly, is it?

SS:    No, not at all haphazardly.  Well actually, in some respects, yes, a little haphazardly.  I could go into that a good deal!  But it wasn’t put together with the kind of advisory team of scholars that you really need, and that became more and more necessary as time went on.  By the time we started the Sixth Edition of Grove in 1970, it was very clear that it couldn’t be done by one man in the way that Eric Blom had done it, or George Grove had done.  I needed to have a team of people working with me, advising specialists.  I had a medievalist, I had a couple of Renaissance scholars, experts in instruments, experts on musical bibliographical matters, and so on, all advising on the coverage of these areas.  I developed a kind of an overview of the whole thing and discussed details with them, and worked out ways of covering each area.

BD:    So you immediately hit upon the decision to make it a whole new kind of thing?

SS:    I suppose.  The decisions are, you know, like chicken and eggs.  The Group Director in charge of it went to talk to a number of people to see what ideas they had about how it might be done.  They found that my ideas on it coincided with the kind of general view that they took
that it should be not primarily British, but certainly Anglo-American; using the English speaking world as its principal authors, and of course plenty of writers from Germany and France and Spain and elsewhere, too — indeed, all parts of the world.  That was very much my own idea, making it much more international in scope in its actual coverage and in its authorship.  I think that was acutely necessary.  You’re not going to get a proper coverage of Polish music, for example, without going to Polish authors in Poland.

BD:    At what point was it decided not to just expand and revise the old thing, but essentially to scrap it and make a new thing, and see what shape it would take as it evolved?


:    That was always inherent in my agreeing to be the editor, that I would have a free hand to use anything I wanted to use.  My rule of thumb was simply if I could get something better, I would.  If I felt that an article in the Fifth Edition was of a very high quality and there was no one who could actually do it better, then we would simply reprint it.  We did reprint a number of articles, for example, by Professor Gerald Abraham, the very distinguished student of Russian music who did most of the entries on Russian composers.  He also wrote on Schumann; we retained that article, though we did a good deal of updating there because a lot of research had been done, and we had to have a new list of works and a new bibliography.  But broadly speaking, we said, “Is this article the best that we can do?  If not, let’s re-commission it.”

BD:    Somewhere I saw that you had said about three percent of the Fifth Edition found its way into the Sixth.

SS:    It was of that order.  I never worked this out; that was a figure I made up one day when I was trying to do a quick, spot calculation, and it’s become gospel since!  [Laughs]  I don’t know whether it’s true, but I think it’s about right; it can’t be very far off.

BD:    When you started out, did you know it was going to be twenty volumes, or did you just know it was going to be some kind of mammoth undertaking?

SS:    We knew it was going to be big.  We said initially, “Let’s aim for twelve biggish volumes.”  It was very soon after that it was going to be fourteen volumes, and then it grew, as these projects do.  You know what happened with Sir George Groves’s own dictionary, don’t you?  When the first volume appears — it appears in separate volumes, actually, in fascicles
it says on the title page, “A Dictionary of Music in Two Volumes.”  When Volume Two appears, it says, “A Dictionary of Music in Three Volumes.”  And when the third volume appears, it says, “In Four Volumes.”  That time it was right!  So these projects do tend to grow, and that’s indeed happened, particularly with our most recent one.  We didn’t mind Grove growing.  We had to keep it to a reasonable size, but it did need to be twenty volumes.

BD:    Why twenty?  Why not twenty-four?

SS:    Well, that’s a very good question, but quite a difficult one to answer.  But there is an answer to it.  If we’d made it twenty-four volumes, then it would have gone into a good deal more detail than is broadly necessary for a non-specialist dictionary.  I think that’s the right answer to that question.  I think if we were doing it now and we were actually adding to it — and of course that’s something we are considering at some stage — we might want to make it another two volumes, another three or four volumes, because a lot’s happened since.  There’s been research on material already there, and in new music.  But there might be other ways of changing the shape.  I don’t know.

BD:    Now you say
for the non-specialist.  At whom is the twenty volume Grove aimed?

SS:    I mean the library user, the person who wants a certain level of information that he can get from a dictionary of music, as opposed to going to specialist books
which are very likely in other languagesor periodical articles, and so on.  That’s what I was really meaning by the non-specialist.  The specialist will use our bibliographies first to find his way to those specialist articles in the periodical literature, the festival literature, the congress report literature, and so on, which is not generally available except in big libraries and is awkward to use, very often in foreign languages and not broadly accessible.  So we felt that that size was right for a dictionary that needs to be accessible to the ordinary reader.

BD:    So in no section of the dictionary is it all you’d ever want to know about a particular topic or subject?

SS:    I wouldn’t say that that’s necessarily entirely so!  I think there are probably a few things that have got all you want — and maybe several, quite all you want, and a bit more!  [Both laugh]  I don’t know!  It’s very difficult now, when you’re doing this.  When you’re preparing it, you never know quite what you’re going to use.  For instance, there’s a marvelous article on Indian music.  To the specialist on Indian music, that’s going to be insufficient.  To you and me, it’s probably going to be rather more than you want to know.  It’s a very big article.  It’s a marvelous article, written by Harold Powers of Princeton.  It’s very detailed and very elaborate.

BD:    So you write essentially, then, for the musical scholar, but not necessarily in their topic.

SS:    At least you’ve got to be up to date for the person in that topic.  You’ve got to take in the literature search, so that a student of Indian music will get a good picture from that.  But he also wants to look at the bibliography and follow up.  He’ll read a sentence written by Powers and say, “I wonder where that idea comes from.”  He wants to go to the bibliography; he wants to go deeper into it and see if he takes the same view as Powers of a particular thing.  That’s some discussion.

BD:    So if I’m a specialist in something and someone says, “What do you do?” I could say, “Read the article in Grove about this specialty and it will tell you essentially what I do and what I’ve learned.”

SS:    Yes, that’s right.  Take again, as an example, Indian music.  The article is the biggest I read in the dictionary; it’s quite big, yet it’s within the scope of the dictionary.  There’s no detailed discussion of any single work.  If you want to read a bit about the Jupiter Symphony or find a couple of sentences about citterns or a few paragraphs in which a late symphonist is discussed, fine.  But if you want to read in more detail about the Jupiter Symphony and its background, then you’d want to read a specialist like J.N. David, or maybe a festschrift analyzing one of its movements.  And that we would expect to lead you to from the bibliography.

BD:    So there’s an explanation, but no real analysis?

SS:    It wouldn’t be just twenty volumes, it would be two hundred if there was real analysis!

BD:    Would you have turned it down if they had said, “We want an exhaustive study of everything.  Make it five hundred volumes and that’ll be it”?

SS:    Well, it couldn’t have been done in my lifetime!  It can’t be done.  It really can’t because to do these jobs thoroughly takes slow and elaborate work.  With this opera dictionary, we’ve taken about a year longer at it.  And we’ve done, actually, something slightly more elaborate on the Opera Dictionary than we did on Grove itself, in the sense that we’ve tried to check, in more detail, every fact in it.  Opera, as a subject, is a more self-contained one than the whole of the world’s music, such as Grove has, so this enables you to be a little bit more precise, and to build in a lateral element as well as a vertical element.  A dictionary, like Grove, is made up of articles written on particular topics.  If you imagine those as a series of vertical strands, you don’t get many cross-connections between them.  You put in cross-references, of course, but you cannot draw conclusions that might come from looking in a horizontal way at those vertical constructs.  In the Opera Dictionary, we think we’ve got a horizontal structure as well.

BD:    I see.  So then it does become a fabric.

SS:    It becomes a fabric.  It becomes much more solid, and much stronger.  And in that sense, I think, this is the best of the dictionaries we’ve done.  We’ve done two other big ones.  We did a three-volume Dictionary of Instruments, which tells a good deal on non-western as well as western instruments, and their makers and their use.  And then we did a four-volume Dictionary of American Music.

BD:    Right, yes.  I refer to that all the time.

SS:    I’m glad to hear it.  Excellent!  And then there’s a two-volume Jazz Dictionary.  I wasn’t involved in that myself, except in a sort of general advisory capacity.

BD:    I am curious why the American was made a different size.  The twenty volumes of Grove are very nice, but then I have these four larger size volumes.

SS:    Yes, that’s right.  That’s because, generally speaking, Americans like to have larger books!  [Both laugh]  So we used a larger format.

BD:    I would have thought it would have looked nice to be twenty-four of the same size along the shelf.

SS:    It would be nice, yes.  It would be nice to have them all exactly uniform in some ways.  The opera dictionary is also slightly larger in format, which gives it a slightly different scope of illustration, which is very important in the Opera Dictionary.  It’s slightly taller pages.

BD:    So, it’s the size of the American?

SS:    It’s actually in-between!  It’s slightly narrower.  [Laughs]  Sorry, your shelves aren’t going to be tidy!

BD:    Oh, I don’t care about them being tidy, but once in a while it’s nice to just look at something as a set.

SS:    Yes, yes, it would be.  Actually, what you do when you’re planning one of these things is say, “What is right for this dictionary?”  That’s the way we’ve done it.  We chose a different typography in the opera one as we did for the American one.  The American one has a slightly more ornamental typography.  It’s set in a typeface called Garamond, which is a historic one, whereas the twenty volume dictionary and the instrument dictionary were set in Times Roman, which is a very standard, simply legible, quite condensed type, actually.  The way it’s structured, you get more words per page in Times than in almost anything else.  And it’s good for conveying information in a very dense kind of way.  For opera, we’ve got a slightly different look, again.  I think it’s slightly more elegant.  Operas, after all, are rather elegant kinds of arts, and we thought we wanted to match something to it, rather than the slightly humdrum Times type.

opera BD:    How many volumes is the Dictionary of Opera?

SS:    Four volumes.  It’s four very big volumes.

BD:    Is it out yet?

SS:    It’s on the brink of coming out.  It’s going to be published in December.  We have a launch in New York on December the third, and those who bought it will have copies in time Christmas
— but only just by the skin of our teeth!  We’re still working on its printing here now.  You saw me send a fax a few minutes ago.  That’s some material for the end of the fourth volume, actually, that I was working on during the flight on the plane today.  They were finalizing page proofs of the letter T this morning when I left London.  They will have got to V by this evening, and tomorrow they’ll get to Z, I think.  There’s a big team working!

BD:    How much of this is from the Grove, and how much of it is completely new?

SS:    A very large proportion is completely new.  For a start, there are articles on individual operas, nearly two thousand operas — some very short, some extremely long
— and all this is freshly commissioned!  There are some new articles on composersabout two thousand or three thousand composers; I can’t give you an exact figure at the moment.

BD:    Have you tried to cover everything in opera, or was any thought given to taste
that certain operas nobody likes, so we won’t include them?  They’re never done, so why put them in?

SS:    If they’re historically important, we’ve put them in.  You might say, for example, that the operas of Massenet are a slightly exotic taste.  We’ve given a very thorough coverage to Massenet’s operas.  We’ve got a very good and sympathetic coverage, beautifully written by Rodney Milnes, the Editor of Opera Magazine in London.  And as I read these articles, I ached to hear these works!  That’s what I like, really, being tempted to hear them.  We’ve never said, “This is a bad opera.  We won’t write on it.”  If you count the repertory of operas, there must be fifty thousand operas composed.  So you have to be discriminating and we think we’ve chosen a good selection.  We’ve let our advisors in each area help us.  We have, for example, a lady working in Virginia who was our chief advisor on Italian opera of the late eighteenth century.  She’s got a wonderful grasp of what was new in Italian opera at this period, and she suggested little entries on a number of operas by Jommelli, Bianchi, Andreozzi — not exactly composers who you hear at the Lyric Opera of Chicago every night!

BD:    I know an overture by Jommelli, and that’s about it of those three.

SS:    Jommelli’s a very interesting figure, actually; a very important figure.  It’s a very long article on him in general; he’s a very serious important figure.

BD:    Do you hope that some of this will then translate into performances of their works?

SS:    Oh, I do!  Yes, of course I do!  You read about this Bianchi opera which was the first opera to do this or that or the other and to make various departures in style.  Operas of historic importance, for one reason or another, that’s described, and the reason of their historic importance is described, too.  For most of our articles on operas, we gave the plot — sometimes just a thumbnail sketch of it, sometimes a fairly full account
— and we may certainly discuss the music and give a little bit of background about when and where they were performed.  And if they were important, we have a little bit about the background history of them and their composition.

BD:    Are you pleased with the way it’s turning out?

SS:    It’s been a very exciting dictionary to work on.  There are days when you look at it and think, “This is thrilling.”  There are other days when you think, “Oh, God, I wish had done this slightly differently, or better.”  But yes, we’re very pleased, actually.  We’re very excited by it.  As I say, I do think it’s the best dictionary we’ve done.  One of the things we woven into it is a lot of discussion of librettos and librettists.  The literary element of operas is very, very important; in some areas it is considered much more important than the music.  In the eighteenth century, when you went to the opera house, you’d know the librettist name, but you might not even be told the name of the composer!  You bought your program, your little libretto, in the theater as you went in.  Librettos are very important in giving shape to the work and giving definition to it, especially in an age when musical idioms are as uniform as that.  So we’ve given a lot of attention to librettos and to the articles on librettists.

BD:    Has there been any attention given to the dissemination of recordings and videos of operas?

SS:    We haven’t listed discographies or anything like this because always, if you try and do a discography, it’s out of date before you’ve got it in print.  There are other works that specialize in this area that we wouldn’t wish and shouldn’t try to compete with.  We’ve certainly mentioned, in many articles, the existence of recordings; there are many articles on singers and conductors where recordings are often cited as enshrining their arts in particular.  “Their outstanding recording of so and so,” that kind of thing.  There’s an article on the recording of opera, and there’s an article on the filming and videotaping of opera that’s actually written by Brian Large, who is responsible for all the Met broadcasts.  He’s an old friend, an old colleague.

BD:    So you’ve gone to the right sources in every instance, as much as you can?

SS:    We try to follow the old Grove rule
you get to the best person.

BD:    So the Grove Dictionary of Opera is about to come out.  How long has the twenty-volume Grove been available?

SS:    Twelve years.

BD:    Looking at it from a distance of twelve years, are you still pleased?

SS:    Broadly, yes.  I can see things that in the light of changing circumstances I could do differently.  I’m not saying that there’s some articles in it that aren’t as good as some of the other articles.  If I were advising a further edition, I would want to consider what I would be re-commissioning, what I would want to commission afresh, what I wouldn’t, and in what subject areas it might need a good deal of overhauling, and in what subject areas it’s still pretty well up to date.

grove 7 BD:    Has there been any thought to adding an appendix volume?

SS:    No, we won’t ever do an appendix volume.  It’s not a practical proposition to do an appendix.  The only thing we would do might be a new edition, in due course, a revised edition.

BD:    Would that be, then, Grove Seven, or Grove Six and a Half?

SS:    It would be, bibliographically speaking, correct to be Grove Seven, but it would be a revised Grove SixGrove Four was a revised Grove Three; Grove Two was a revised Grove One, actually, so there’s plenty of precedent for that.  It would be quite heavily revised.  It’s interesting you asked that question.  I spoke to a man who is our chief advisor on the early Renaissance during much of the early preparation of Grove, and I said to him, “If you were revising Grove, how much would you change?”  “Oh, it would be all different,” he says.  “We want to rewrite almost everything!”  “Is that really so?  Would you like to have a look at one volume, for example, and give me a real written report on this?”  So I commissioned a report from him and he said, “You know, I was exaggerating.  Probably about sixty percent of the articles could be reprinted as they stood with just sometimes a little correction and sometimes a bit of extra bibliography.  You’d probably not need to re-commission more than fifteen percent in that area,” and I think that goes for quite a lot of the dictionary.

BD:    I would think that would be a great relief to you to know that your dictionary is standing up so well.

SS:    Yes.  It’s very nice to know that.  It’s very nice to know that the work is circumscribed if we do start on this, that there’s a certain limit to what we’d have to do.  I don’t think I would want to go through quite that again
a ten year project!  I may not be quite at a suitable time in my life for that, though I must say I would do it if I were asked!  [Laughs]

BD:    I’m afraid it’s sort of like asking a woman who’s in labor, “Will you have another child?”

SS:    I’d say, “Never again!”  [Continues laughing]

BD:    So you’ve got the big Grove and you’ve got the four smaller ones...

SS:    Yes, you’ll find these little ones quite big, actually.  For this opera one, we said, “Yes, a three volume opera dictionary.  Don’t make it more than three modest-sized volumes to start with.”

BD:    So it turned out to be four large volumes.

SS:    I said initially, “It’s difficult to contain; opera’s a big subject.  If we’re to satisfy the needs of the serious scholar
which we’ve got to doand satisfy the interests of the opera goerwhich we certainly need to do, tooit’s going to be very difficult to contain it in three volumes.”  I have to tell you that although it’s four volumes, it contains as much as six and a half volumes of Grove.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Where is music going today?

SS:    I don’t know the answer to that!  I’m not a critic sufficiently to know the answers to those questions.  What do you think?

BD:    I think it’s growing like topsy, and we’re trying to follow all kinds of paths.

SS:    It’s diversifying.  You can certainly say that.  It’s certainly diversifying compared to when I was doing active criticism in the sixties and seventies.  We all felt that music was moving in particular ways.  There were certain trends that were clear then that have broken down now, and it relates to much broader social conditions and circumstances, too.  It relates to all kinds of things, like the interest in non-western music.  That’s certainly the case in England; I’m sure it’s perhaps even more so here.  There is also the absorption of popular music trends into what we call serious or classical music, too.

BD:    Do you feel that the audience for classical music as we know it is going to continue, or is it dying out?

SS:    It certainly isn’t dying out.  Think of the number of CD’s that are purchased every day.  The sale of serious classical gramophone recordings is as great as ever.  The opera houses are full.  There’s a great vogue for opera at the moment in many parts of the world.

BD:    Let me ask a philosophical question.  What’s the purpose of music?

SS:    Well that’s a very difficult question.  It’s the kind of thing you want to discuss with a biologist, an evolutionist, and others.  I have a friend who has often asked me this, and he feels that music does have some collective significance in focusing feeling and emotion.  What evolutionary purpose does it have, you might ask?  I should think there is some
in welding communities together, in strengthening groups in some sense.  If you’re at a concert, you share a fellow feeling with a couple of thousand other people at the concert.  That’s something.  I don’t know, really, the answer.  I think there are other things, too. 

BD:    Is there a balance between art and entertainment in music?

SS:    We talk of entertainment.  We go to things like Janáček’s opera From the House of the Dead, or operas where everybody’s killed, or the world comes to an end, like Götterdämmerung.  All these works are so deeply depressing, in some ways.  Or we go to tragedies like King Lear — that’s a prime example — and we’re entertained by it.  But we’re talking about tragedy; this doesn’t make us laugh. 
Entertainment — it’s a funny word.  We can be entertained in a whole lot of different ways, and by being given this kind of spiritual sustenance that works like these give us, we’re entertained in some sense.  And people use the term entertainment music as a translation of the word interhauptensmusik, to mean light music or trivial music.  But actually, Götterdämmerung is entertaining, too!  But then on the other hand, there’s no arguing either that tragic or serious things are more profound than comic ones, necessarily.  Great operas like Figaro or Falstaff or Meistersinger, which are partly comic operas, have just as profound things to say, it seems to me.

BD:    Thank you for coming to Chicago.  I appreciate it.  And thank you for spending the time with me.

SS:    Very good to be here.  Thank you.

From The Times
March 23, 2005
Stanley Sadie

Musicologist whose thirst for all forms of scholarship made the New Grove Dictionary the last word on music.

A leading Mozartian scholar, Stanley Sadie was also widely knowledgeable in every other branch of musical scholarship. This made him eminently suitable for editing The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians from 1970. The 20 volumes eventually appeared in 1979, delayed because of the large scope of the new edition. He was also largely responsible for organising its successor in the late 1990s. The two editions evinced an enormous increase in the size of the work, encompassing a vast amount of new scholarship and long articles on ethnic music. Such was Sadie’s enthusiasm that some thought the Grove had become too unwieldy, too eclectic.

Yet several spin-off volumes, all edited by Sadie, meant that one could acquire just the sections of Grove one wanted. One of the most important of these, with additional material, was The New Grove Dictionary of American Music (1986). The New Grove Dictionary of Opera (1992) used some matter from the main Dictionary, but contained many new articles. It remains the most authoritative of its kind, not least because of Sadie’s thorough control of editorial policy.

Sadie was accomplished in choosing the right author for a subject. Having travelled widely in musical lands, he was able to make the dictionary far more cosmopolitan in its style and scope than it had previously been. He was a hands-on editor, overseeing almost every aspect of the vast work’s myriad entries, and contributing a great deal himself in writing new and learned articles.

He was not unnaturally angered when one colleague invented two composers (actually two Danish villages hyphenated), a matter that eluded even Sadie’s eagle eyes, for the 1979 edition, although the incident provided some undoubted mirth among readers in the know. The exigencies of producing the 2001 edition faster than Sadie would have liked was part of the reason for his eventual replacement as effective editor, although he still acted in an advisory capacity and had assembled many fresh entries and new authors. In the end, that most recent edition showed all too clearly the haste in which it went to press and on to the internet.

Sadie had enjoyed a busy career as a musicologist and critic before he was invited to edit Grove. Indeed he was probably put in charge of the dictionary following his time as a successful editor of The Musical Times (1967-87). He extended its range in terms of coverage of events, particularly as regards contemporary works, and a wide range of articles concerned with the fruit of musical research. He was president of the Royal Musical Association in 1989.

He became a music critic on The Times in 1964 and remained in that post until 1981, when his work on Grove demanded his full-time attention, although he occasionally found time to write notices, lengthy and well-informed, for the Financial Times. His reviews always suggested a firm commitment to musical scholarship, and his views, usually sympathetic to the performers, were laced with a caustic wit. He was, in sum, a fair but strict critic.

Sadie was born in London, and attended St Paul’s School, 1942-48. He read music at Cambridge from 1950, studying with Charles Cudworth, Thurston Dart and Patrick Hadley. The first two no doubt led him to his lifelong work on composers of the 18th century. Indeed, having obtained an MA, he went on to take a PhD with a dissertation on mid-18th-century British chamber music, He taught at the Trinity College of Music, 1957-65, before turning to musical journalism.

In 1976, besides his other work, he became general editor of the authoritative Master Musicians series of music biographies. He also found time to write books on Mozart (1966), Beethoven (1967) and Handel (1972). After he left Grove he embarked on a book, with his wife Julie, on composers’ houses. This will shortly be published under the title, Calling on the Composer: a guide to European composers’ homes and museums. This is the fruit of 12 years’ labour by the partners.

On a visit to Russia for the volume, Sadie was involved in a serious car crash, caused by an unruly taxi driver, that nearly brought his life to a premature end.

By that time he had embarked on a large, exhaustive work on Mozart, the first volume of which he managed to finish and is with the printers. Mozart and Handel (he was the first to suggest the restoration of Handel’s London home as a museum) were indeed the great loves of his life, and he probably knew as much as any of his contemporaries about those great composers’ lives and work, examining and re-examining source material in his typically scrupulous manner and writing about their work from his extensive knowledge of the scores.

A festschrift in Sadie’s honour, subtitled Words about Mozart: Essays in Honour of Stanley Sadie, was published by Boydell and Brewer in February. Many of his most distinguished colleagues contributed to this celebration of his work.

He was a lively, witty and quite didactic conversationalist, often at his happiest when discussing the minutiae of a score or dissecting an interpretation of one. Friends could be sure to have any theory tested in conversation by a finely honed, always inquisitive mind. He achieved an enormous amount in furthering the cause of musical scholarship and knowledge in an international environment. At the same time he always ensured that there was time to enjoy the good things of life.

Sadie was twice married. He had three children by his first wife, Adele. After her early death in 1978, he married the American string player and musicologist Julie Anne McCornack. They had a son and daughter.

He was appointed CBE in 1982.

Stanley Sadie, CBE, musicologist, editor and writer, was born on October 30, 1930. He died on March 21, 2005, aged 74.

In March of 2014, I received the following e-mail, and was granted permission to reprint it here.

Dear Mr Duffie, 

I have just had the good fortune to come across your interview with my father, the critic and writer on music Stanley Sadie. Thank you for making it available online, in the first place; I would not otherwise have known it existed or been able to read it. 

Thank you also for getting the most out of him in the interview. His lively, witty, thoughtful attitude comes across so readily, in answer to your very perceptive questions. He sounds jolly - and charming - which he was. 

It was a real pleasure to read it - especially on this sad day, the ninth anniversary of his death. Thank you for brightening it up a little for me!

With very best wishes, 

Celia Sadie

© 1992 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on October 29, 1992.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB later that year, and again in 1995 and 2000.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2009, and the note from his daughter was added in 2014. 

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.