The Oxford Dictionary of Music: new edition, and competition

Oxford Dictionary of Music, front cover

This week saw the official publication of the Oxford Dictionary of Music, 6th edition, for which I am the new editor, and on which I have been working for the last three years. I say this was the official publication week, but I gather pre-orders on Amazon were delivered about a fortnight ago. I’m not sure how these things work – this is my first book after all.

When Oxford University Press asked me to produce the 6th edition of the Dictionary, my remit – beyond the usual tasks of updating and revising the definitions and biographies – was to improve the Dictionary’s coverage in three main areas: popular music, non-Western music and contemporary music. My experience with the New Grove, and particularly as new music editor for its online edition, was one reason OUP approached me.

I may talk in a future post about my approaches to the Dictionary’s popular and world music coverage. But to mark its publication I wanted to say a few words about how I chose which composers to add to the new edition. If this post has piqued your interest, at the end is a contest to win a copy of the dictionary.

My brief was for around 100 new entries on contemporary composers. This sounds like a lot, but it’s a pretty tight brief. The reasons for this are purely practical: the Oxford Dictionary of Music is already pretty big; in fact, as a paperback its page count is close to the limit of the binding will take.

Who are the top 100 living composers?

Those 100 names filled up pretty quickly once I surveyed the existing content of the dictionary. Michael and Joyce Kennedy, authors of the 3rd, 4th and 5th editions, had done an excellent job in keeping up with British music, but this had come at the expense of coverage of European and North American music. Some composers had understandably slipped through the cracks in earlier editions. Over time, these omissions grew in significance. They were the first names to be included in the 100, even if some of them were in the late stages of their careers (such as Christian Wolff, Robert Ashley and Salvatore Sciarrino), while one or two others (such as Gérard Grisey) were no longer with us.

Some other names I felt had to be included for historical interest. These are composers whose names would have been included automatically 20 or 30 years ago, even if their music is less well-known today. My overall aim with my additions to the Dictionary’s new music coverage was to present as accurate a picture of the scene as possible. Even if that was necessarily limited in detail, it was essential that the scope was as wide as possible: in terms of geography, style, medium and historical era. By this means, I hope that any student of the subject will be presented with a broad view of modern composition, unfiltered by dogma. (No doubt my own prejudices will have filtered through unconciously, but I was at least trying to be aware of them.)

It seemed wrong to me, therefore, to overlook figures who might have been important in the 1970s or 80s just because they seemed less relevant today. A complete view of 20th and 21-century musical practice should not privilege one era over another. Composers who fell into this bracket included András Szőllősy and Theo Loevendie.

Electroacoustic music was another area that required attention, and again several figures – including François Bayle and Bernard Parmegiani – suggested themselves immediately.

Once all the retrospective gaps had been filled in, I was left with space for 30 or 40 “new” composers (I say new, but some of these were active in the 1970s and 80s). Once again, I was guided by the view that the Dictionary’s coverage should be as broad as possible, even if that came at the expense of some figures who in other circumstances might have made the cut. This was the hardest part of the list to compile, and I am thankful for the many conversations I have had online and offline with composers and practitioners more knowledgeable than me. In particular I am grateful to John Fallas and Colin Holter, both of whom took time to look over my list and make suggestions.

Predicting the future of music

Compiling such a list makes one a hostage to fortune – with a four-year production schedule you are to an extent trying to predict the future, and to do so from an entirely biased position. How do you measure the “success” or “importance” of a composer, particularly one who is still in mid-career? How do you second-guess what composers future students, performers and concert-goers might be interested in? And how do you reconcile the fact that those might be very different sets – students are more likely to need information on Brian Ferneyhough, Helmut Lachenmann and Tristan Murail; concert-goers Graham Fitkin and Mark-Anthony Turnage? My solution was to begin with styles, regions, media and other clustering devices, and to see what happened when I picked representative figures from each. In the event this worked pretty well, although inevitably since I put the list together in 2008 some things have changed. Today’s list might turn out slightly different.

With a few more tweaks, I was able to compile a list that I think is not only representative of a broad spectrum of modern composition, but also close to a run-down of the top 100 composers working today. With luck the dictionary will not only help music-lovers find out more about things that they know, but will point them in the direction of some things that they don’t.


To win a hardback copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Music, 6th edition, just answer this simple question:

On what date was the youngest composer in the Oxford Dictionary of Music, 6th edition born?

The closest date (day, month and year) wins. In the event of a tie, I will draw names from a hat. Decisions are final; closing date for submissions is 14 September. Email submissions only – no answers in the comments, please. Send your answer to: The winner will be contacted to provide a postal address.

3 thoughts on “The Oxford Dictionary of Music: new edition, and competition

  1. Congratulations on your work.
    I face a similar challenge in my listening by focusing on American classical music. I favor truly contemporary music and yet, find gratification in the music of say, Charles Ives or John Cage. Early on in my blog, I used “new” in the title to indicate I was trying to encompass the entire spectrum. I’m still not sure this was a satisfactory compromise. Maybe I should spend a month only listening to music from this century and see if that makes for a more enlightening experience.

  2. Just wondering if any Australian composers made the cut, and if so, who? They’ve been a notable omission in the past – when I was in undergrad only Percy Grainger and Peter Sculthorpe were featured in any of the major encyclopedias. Am I too presumptuous to imagine Brett Dean got in? Liza Lim perhaps?

  3. Dear Hannah,

    Thank you for asking. Liza Lim was added for this edition (although not Dean this time around). Australian-resident/Australian-born composers carried over from the previous edition include Richard Meale, Ross Edwards, David Lumsdaine, Roger Smalley, Nigel Butterley, Barry Conyngham and others.

    You might also be interested to know that the Grove Music Online recently produced a special update on Australian composers, which included new and revised articles on Ros Bandt, Brett Dean, Matthew Hindson, Jon Rose, David Young and about 15 others.


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