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Book Review

An Early Music Dictionary

Musical Terms from British Sources by Strahle

Musical Terms from British Sources 1500-1740

(Cambridge Musical Texts and Monographs)
Graham Strahle
Cambridge University Press (2009) pp xl + 468
ISBN-10: 0521106907
ISBN-13: 978-0521106900
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Graham Strahle has done a superb job of providing music lovers – particularly enthusiasts of "early" music from the Renaissance and Baroque – with as comprehensive a dictionary (almost an encyclopedia) of musical terms in use during those 250 years or so as is now anywhere in print. Until now, perhaps rather surprisingly, we've had to make the best of Jerome and Elizabeth Roche's A Dictionary of Early Music, which is now published by OUP (ISBN-10: 0195202554 ISBN-13: 978-0195202557) – previously Faber; except that it covered a different time span (from the troubadours to Monteverdi) and is much slimmer at barely 200 substantive pages.

Now in a large and impressive, an almost imposing, volume at 12" x 8" and nearly 500 pages, Strahle has produced a work that is authoritative, satisfyingly comprehensive, well laid out and presented. And, as a result, is extremely useful. His focus is on definitions of musical terms from abattuta (an orderly keeping of the beat) to zygia (a pipe used at weddings). It can be seen from the latter that "terms" is interpreted pleasingly widely. It includes definitions of performance practice, instruments, text, compositional technique, rhetorical terms so vital to understanding music from the period; even buildings (like the Royal Exchange) which played an important part in the music; and multiple precise definitions of general terms like "colour", "composer" and "natural". Musicians and composers themselves are not included in An Early Music Dictionary.

The entries are compiled entirely from printed and manuscript sources in Britain from the period, 1500-1740. So there is at once a specific focus, and a richness of perspective – because multiple definitions, explanations and illustrations are usually given for any one headword. The source itself, its date, author (where known or relevant), synonyms, translation(s), variations, "parent" publication (if applicable), quoted instance(s) (whenever that helps) and meaning/explanation all follow to result in clear and consistent coverage of each word:

1730 BAILEY Dict. Britannicum (1st Edn) Consonous
(consonus, L) of the same tune or sound, agreeing in sound;

where "L" is "Latin" of course, and the sources are referenced elsewhere. In fact there is a clearly set-out page with the expected annotation ("virtual arrows") explaining how to use the Dictionary. Although standard lexicographical conventions are employed, this guide is welcome as well since over a dozen fields could accompany any one entry. Again, typographical clarity has been employed to get you to the substance of the headword without confusion.

Where necessary, Strahle cross-references to make the Dictionary even more usable… "celestial music see harmony of the spheres", for instance; although "Bacon, Francis see diapason" does rely on the kind of specialist knowledge that can legitimately be expected of users turning to this volume. By the same token, often-quoted sources such as Florio, Kersey and Cotgrave have abbreviations specific to them. These, too, are explained clearly and thoroughly in the two and a half page section at the front of the book which covers all (other) abbreviations and symbols.

In fact, 20 pages also at the start of An Early Music Dictionary are devoted to the lexicographical, musical, theoretical, terminological, mythological, stylistic, historical and textual background, conventions, and research that inform and are everywhere evident in the thoroughness of the book. This includes an illuminating (no pun intended) section on the trend that emerged in the Enlightenment against jargon.

Indeed, comprehensive and readable, thorough and extensive though Strahle's definitions are in this book, there is never repetitive or parallel verbiage for its own sake. In other words, this is a working dictionary. The chances are extremely high that when the listener encounters a musical term from the period, meanings, context and explanations for it will be found here quickly and easily in An Early Music Dictionary: Musical Terms from British Sources 1500-1740. What's more, it's an easy book to get to know and find your way around.

Equally impressive is the Dictionary's scope: although the primary sources were in use in Britain over the period, lexicographies (originating) in Latin, Italian, French and Spanish are drawn on just as much. You'll find entries for "coryphæus", "Geneva jig", "trophy money" as well as "song", the notation "fin" and "mode". In other words, this is an extremely comprehensive collection of definitions which is otherwise unavailable in print. That alone makes An Early Music Dictionary: Musical Terms from British Sources 1500-1740, which is one of the Cambridge Musical Texts and Monographs series, so easy to recommend.

Perhaps most helpful and most striking, though, is the way in which An Early Music Dictionary reveals how musicians themselves used the terms at the time. This gives invaluable insight into performance practice and its theoretical underpinnings which is otherwise only to be found in longer studies about the period… how did musicians of the late sixteenth century understand counterpoint, sonata and neume, for example?

As hinted at, production standards and usability are high. An expert balance has been struck between detail, specialist depth and meticulous annotation on the one hand; and accessibility, transparency and availability of the material on the other. While it's true that the greatest appeal is perhaps the insight which the Dictionary affords into contemporary usage and conventions, and doing so in ways that no other publication offers, listeners wishing to track down exactly what's still meant or implied by recant, sonaglio and cymbal will find it all here. Given the scope and standard which has been adhered to, even the rather high price is not unreasonable. Unhesitatingly recommended.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Sealey.