I bought, because a reader recommended it, The Pimlico Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Composers (1999), by Mark Morris – not the famous dancer, of course, but a Welsh music critic resident in Canada. It is organized by country, which creates some curious ambiguities: for instance, Foss is listed under the U.S.A. and Wolpe under Germany, even though both were born in Germany and emigrated to America. (I think of Wolpe’s late music as highly American, while Foss retains his German accent.) But it has certain advantages, such as listing Iceland’s Thorkall Sigurbjörnsson, New Zealand’s Douglas Lilburn, and Norway’s unfortunate and distinctly underrated Geirr Tveitt, whom most survey histories are unlikely to mention at all.
What’s interesting is the opportunity to see our music world in an exceedingly British mirror. For example, this comment in the section on the U.S.A.:
“It is difficult not to come to the conclusion that in terms of musical impact, and in the reflection of the wider human condition and the narrower expression of the ethos and ideas of the day, none of the American composers has yet matched their European counterparts.”
This is refreshingly frank, and brings up two Eurocentric criteria with which I might have been sympathetic when I was 20, before I became more acclimated to the changes that came with postmodernism. On one hand we have “the wider human condition,” i.e., the programmatic holdover from Romanticism that music is supposed to encapsulate some echo of the bourgeois man’s relation to society. On the other, “the narrower expression of the ethos and ideas of the day,” which seems to reflect a modernist belief that the Hegelian World Spirit, moving ever westward (and stopping for the time being in London, at least until the trains are in better repair), is embodied in a mainstream of music on which all “serious” composers must comment, and to which they all contribute. No dirty rumor of “pluralism” taints these pages. British composers, from that country which the Germans used to call “das land ohne musik,” occupy 72 pages; Americans only 50; Germany gets 49, and Russia 45. Harry Partch, La Monte Young, and Morton Feldman (the most influential composer of the last 25 years) are mentioned only in passing, not granted separate entries, while the names Conlon Nancarrow and Robert Ashley appear nowhere. Meanwhile, the entry on the United Kingdom begins, “The history of British music in the 20th century is a remarkable one,” and includes separate essays on William Alwyn, Ivor Bertie Gurney, Daniel Jenkyn Jones, Elizabeth Maconchy, and Grace Williams, all of whom surely outrank the marginal Feldman.
To an extent, the book indeed complements my own American Music in the Twentieth Century. But I have trouble thinking how I’ll explain away its anglophile exaggerations, and I have ended up taking Paul Griffiths’ more equitable Modern Music and After for my 20th-century music survey class.