The last word? Definitely maybe

This great monument of scholarship orchestrates all the music in the world. All the same, asks a strained but happy Michael Church, should Grove really call Oasis 'sublime'?
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I strained my back lugging this brute up the stairs, and I was shocked to discover, on pulling Volume 6 from its shrink-wrap, that an unruly binding-machine had gouged jagged holes in 30 pages. Caveat emptor. But modulating from Abba, to Abbado, to the accordion in Africa, to a 55-page treatise on the science of acoustics, I quickly settled in at Stanley Sadie's global university.

I strained my back lugging this brute up the stairs, and I was shocked to discover, on pulling Volume 6 from its shrink-wrap, that an unruly binding-machine had gouged jagged holes in 30 pages. Caveat emptor. But modulating from Abba, to Abbado, to the accordion in Africa, to a 55-page treatise on the science of acoustics, I quickly settled in at Stanley Sadie's global university.

For that is what this book amounts to: 6000 authors - most of them at the top of their field - make a formidable mountain of accumulated musical knowledge. The way that knowledge is organised and communicated may not ( pace its editor) appeal to "intelligent schoolchildren", but any adult with any sort of interest in any branch of music will be fair game.

The barrier is the price, to which there are two alternatives (though Macmillan won't thank me for mentioning the second). Subscribe to the online edition, or invest in a second-hand paperback edition of this dictionary's 1980 precursor, which has now gone out of print.

Frankly, if your main interest is an amateur one in Western classical music's long-dead greats, the 1980 version will still do. In the posthumous lives of such deities, not much happens from decade to decade, barring the odd news-page flurry over the lead in Beethoven's hair, or Mozart's Italian love-child, or some new "masterpiece" found mouldering in an attic.

On the other hand, their posthumous reputations are constantly on the move, as musicologists reinterpret and reassess. Grove's new state-of-the-art appraisals by Christoph Wolff on Bach, John Tyrrell on Janacek, and Stephen Walsh on Stravinsky, are the nearest you'll get to definitive. And in the case of the still-controversial Shostakovich, the new Grove entry - which takes a vicious side-swipe at the "doctrinaire rump of the Western avant-garde" for failing to recognise his worth - places new stress on the inevitability of his compromise with the Soviet government, given his chronic ill-health.

But these composer-biographies, each accompanied by an exhaustive work-list and bibliography, represent a demanding art-form, in which the line between significant detail and irrelevant colour is hard to draw. The Beethoven entry is an exemplary life-and-works amalgam that nicely nails the perennial debate about the identity of the Eternal Beloved.

The Mozart entry downplays the celebrated scatological correspondence which has given rise to Peter Schaeffer's Amadeus and prompted wild speculations about Tourette's syndrome: this vital dimension deserves closer attention.

In the same way, the entry on proto-modernist Charles Ives lames itself by steering clear of Freudianism. Yet how else can we understand his extraordinary creative cut-off in mid-life, or the sexual repression implicit in his bizarre view of Chopin: "Pretty soft, but you don't mind it in him so much, because one naturally thinks of him with a skirt on."

In this new Grove, as in the last, rigorous editing tends to become a strait-laced refusal to give house-room to embarrassments. Look up Gesualdo, who found his wife in flagrante, murdered her by impaling her pudenda, and became obsessed by inventive masochistic rituals in old age. You'll not find such things in Grove's chaste musical essay.

Look up John Tavener, but don't expect any whiff of the sexual-religious-aesthetic amalgam which is now inextricably intertwined with his music. The reverential entry on Arvo Pärt - by his authorised biographer - gives no hint of the eccentricity which informs everything he does.

Don't look up Moondog, the blind visionary from Kansas hailed by Steve Reich and Philip Glass as their forerunner, because he isn't there. Nor is David Helfgott (of Shine fame), victim of the most concentrated critical rub-out in recent times.

On the other hand, we are told who replaced whom on bass in the Hollies in 1966. Grove's desperate desire to be hip leads to some ludicrously train-spotterish pop coverage, and to a slippage of the critical standards that are elsewhere - eg, the listing of Jacqueline du Pré's musical shortcomings - impressively maintained. The word "sublime" is wisely eschewed by the classical contributors, but it's seriously applied to a track by Oasis. Madonna may be flattered to learn that she is "enacting postmodernist models of subjectivity". On the plus side, we get useful articles on rap and hip-hop.

That meaningless label "postmodernism" gets a po-faced essay, and "women in music" a rather good one, but the PC turkey is a long article on "gay and lesbian music" whose defensively intellectualised tone suggests rampant paranoia. I wasn't aware that Wanda Landowska had chosen the "antediluvian harpsichord" as her method of sexual protest, or that similar strategies were reflected in Kathleen Ferrier's "Sapphonic voice", Henze's flight from serialism, or Lou Harrison's obsession with the gamelan (and the list gets weirder).

The whole argument is based on what the authors of the piece respectfully dub "queer theory". While it has sensible things to say about Britten - who practised the "open secret" ploy - it descends into bathos by hinting that Beethoven's heroism was a gay strategy, too.

Of course the German canon was pervaded by homophobia, and of course, many homosexual musicians have hidden their sexuality, but the link between music and sexuality is not so glibly pinned down. Amusingly, many of the names outed in this essay - including Saint-Saëns, Billy Strayhorn and Billie Holiday - are put firmly back in the closet by their formal Grove biographers.

But Richard Taruskin's essay on nationalism - hot on the heels of a comical survey of national anthems - is one of the new Grove's biggest hits, amounting to a history-in-miniature of Western music as a whole. Taruskin charts the development of the concept, from the gently political Englishness of Handelian oratorio, through the more strident politics of Verdi's "Va, pensiero" from Nabucco, to Wagner and the emergence of German nationalism. He shows how this swelled into "universalism", which was answered by a rival musical universalism emanating from France. He distinguishes between "tourist nationalism" (Chopin) and "export nationalism" (Stravinsky), and shows how all such categories have broken down under the benign impact of "world music".

And ethnomusicology is where Grove's greatest glory lies - as it was in 1980, though nobody noticed the fact. The new Grove entry on censorship may be woefully Eurocentric - just Hitler and Stalin, not even bringing in Mao - but nowhere else will you find such massively detailed accounts of non-Western musical cultures. Vietnam, Iran, Japan and Georgia are just four of the countries with superb sections of their own, while Indonesia's is a book in itself. To get the leading Tibetan scholar to delineate music in that beleaguered land is a coup. By contrast, it's interesting to note that Cuba once sported a nice line in ecclesiastical motets.

Want to know more about the motet? Grove's panoptic entry fills 36 dense pages. In separate articles on the viol, the serpent, the sitar and the didjeridu, Grove goes into pitches, styles and acoustics. You might think the lur - a Nordic brass instrument looking like a cobra poised to strike - was a spoof, but no. And talking of spoofs, there's a pleasant entry noting previous Grove spoofs, and pointing out the futility of trying to outdo the reality of music's rich range of eccentrics.

No mention, however, of the spoof which apparently lurks somewhere in the 1980 edition. Asked by a researcher what his instrument was called, an African musician replied "Fuck off" in his local dialect, which duly went into the book as its name.

So here it is. I can't comment meaningfully on the online version, partly because I'm so far unable to negotiate its quirky links, and partly because the sound element is not yet installed.

Since they'll never do the book again, this online version is the future, and if it lives up to its promises - to update, and to illustrate aurally - it will become an essential tool for professionals and amateurs. It will also allow for the remedying of errors in the book. But I rather like the upgrade implicit in the misspelt "Andrew Lloyd Weber". The boy may astonish us yet.