Note: I originally wrote this blog post series about George Grove (my classical music hero) back in 2016 on an old blog. I’ve lightly updated these posts from their original form. This is Part Two of Five and I’ll post the rest of the story in coming weeks.
In my last blog post on the Book That Changed My Life, I explained how I picked up a copy of George Grove’s 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 Mahler’s Second Symphony – but that’s another story.)
But I will confess that it wasn’t until several years into my classical music career before I really investigated the guy who wrote that Beethoven book. Which is surprising in hindsight, because if this was the book that changed my life, you could argue that George Grove himself (despite having long departed this earth) is the man who changed my 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. So for one reason or another, I hadn’t looked into it. 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. So 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 now, I’m not sure how well known he is in classical music circles.
But back in the Victorian era, in the realm of classical music, he was a massive name. 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 I read was actually a collection and expansion of his program notes on Beethoven symphonies. There are lots more housed in the library of the Royal College of Music in London.)
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 one of if not the major place for young musicians in the UK to study their craft. And he established his famous Dictionary of Music and Musicians, which became the most essential dictionary on musical matters from the late 19th century to this day.
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 readily available [sadly it looks like it’s gone out of print since I wrote this in 2016, but it’s easy to pick up a copy], the Royal College of Music is still running . 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 – wait for it – he wasn’t 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 he 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 – was defined by the names of famous musicians and conductors. As a result of that, the structure of most classical music 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 want an artist to help you shape the artistic direction of a company, right? But it can sometimes send a message 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 and organising logistics) but when it comes to the look and feel of what happens on stage, the industry often still looks to the new hot-property conductor to be the magic bullet.
So from that context, Grove 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) 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?
These were the questions I had on my mind as I looked forward to my fact-finding trip in London. What I ended up finding out was even more enlightening than I could have imagined. More on that in Part 3.