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The genial mutton chops of Sir George Grove

In my last blog post on the Book That Changed My Life, I explained how I picked a copy of Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies in a second-hand bookstore. It so fired my enthusiasm for Beethoven symphonies and then classical music in general, that I lay the blame for my subsequent entry into the classical music industry entirely on that book. (Well, that book and the Mahler 2 – which I am very much looking forward to presenting in this blog as part of the Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour.)

But I must confess that it was a while longer down my classical music path before I started to get curious about the guy who wrote that Beethoven book. After all, if this was the book that changed my life, in a way it really means that George Grove himself (despite having long departed this earth) changed my whole life.

But you know what it’s like with old books from the 19th century – they all seem to be written by a bunch of guys with very English-sounding names who all have rather spectacular facial hair that would give a hipster barista a run for his money. So I’ve never paid a lot of attention to old authors, even if I like their books.

But somewhere along the line, I got curious about George Grove – especially as I grew interested in the art form of creating audience engagement with classical music. Clearly, this was a man who had a knack for getting people fired up about Beethoven symphonies. Who was he?

A quick look around Wikipedia told me a little bit, and that little bit was fascinating. Grove was born in 1820 and died in 1900, so he effectively spanned most of the 19th century, just disappearing off the horizon before the onset of the 20th century. Nowadays, outside of classical music circles no one has heard of him – and even then, I’m not sure how well known he is in those circles.

But back in the Victorian era, in the realm of classical music, he was big bikkies. He was involved with regular concerts that occurred in a place called The Crystal Palace (I’ll do another post on those) where he was not only Secretary of the company that ran the concerts, he wrote the program notes week in and week out. (So the Beethoven book was actually just a collection and expansion of his notes on Beethoven symphonies. There are apparently lots more – some of which I’m hoping to get a look at while I’m in London next month.)

As if writing notes and promoting concerts weren’t enough, he also got the Royal College of Music up and running in the late 1800s, which became the major place for young musicians to study their craft. And he established the famous Dictionary of Music of Musicians, which became the most essential dictionary on musical matters.

And apart from the Crystal Palace (which sadly burned to the ground in 1936), all of the musical endeavours that George put his hand to are still with us. The Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies book is still in print, the Royal College of Music is still running (and if their website is to be believed, voted the #1 place to study music in the UK). And if you’ve got a small fortune and spare room on your shelves, you can get yourself the 29-volumes of The New Grove Dictionary of Music. If that’s not a lasting legacy, then I don’t know what is.

But what’s most fascinating to me about Grove is that, when you look more closely, he’s not actually a musician. He wasn’t a famous conductor or composer. He was an engineer. His studies and background prepared him for civil engineering (like this lighthouse he built in Jamaica, which is also still standing today). He was a layperson. And yet somehow this man managed to become the driving force behind British classical music, with a presence that still impacts on us today.

This I find extraordinary and also (as a layperson myself) incredibly inspiring. If the 19th century of classical music is largely dominated by the names of composers, the 20th century – especially once the record player became widely available – has been defined by the names of famous musicians and conductors.  As a result of that, the structure of most arts companies is that the top position, that of Artistic Director – the person who sets the tone for all the activities of the organisation – is nearly always an artist themselves.

I can understand the logic – you need an artist to help you shape the artistic direction of a company, right? But it does often feel that those of us who aren’t artists as such, are second tier. We can help with some of the admin side (after all, there is plenty of work to do selling tickets and raising money) but when it comes to the look and feel of what happens on stage, we still look to that new young hot-property conductor to be the magic bullet.

So from that context, Grove now fascinates me. Because what I can’t help wondering is – did he manage to build up the classical music scene precisely because he was a layman? Was it that feeling of being on the outside of something amazing (even though he was as heavily involved on the admin side as he could be) that helped him know how these things should be run? Did it give him an empathy for the amateur, struggling to come to terms with the genius of Beethoven, Mozart and Co?

I’m not sure, but I’ll see what I can uncover when I’m on my fact-finding trip to London next month. More next time!

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2 thoughts on “A Guy Named George – Part 2: The Man Who Changed My Life

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