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  • A Short History of Opera
  • Tom Kaufman (bio)
A Short History of Opera Donald Jay Grout and Hermine Weigel Williams New York: Columbia University Press, 2002 1030 pages, $65.00

A Short History of Opera is perhaps one of the best known and most widely circulated texts on the history of this art form. Now in its fourth edition, it was originally published in 1947, revised in 1965, further revised in 1988, and again in 2002. The first two editions were written by Donald Jay Grout, the third coauthored by him with Hermine Weigel Williams. The current volume is the work of Professor Williams, but Grout is still the first listed author.

Every new edition has been an update, but far from a rewrite, of the previous edition, and a comparison among them indicates that a fair amount of the material on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century composers in the current edition is actually a recycling of material published more than fifty years ago. Unfortunately, the latest edition makes somewhat limited use of knowledge gained from revivals of previously neglected works and from the research of such Verdi scholars as Julian Budden or such bel canto experts as William Ashbrook, Alexander Weatherson, and Philip Gossett.1 A few examples will suffice to show the extent to which the text has evolved or failed to do so.

Grout has always had an understandable interest in Berlioz's Les troyens, a work that many consider one of the masterpieces of French grand opera. But it was virtually an unknown quantity during the 1940s, despite a 1947 BBC broadcast conducted by Thomas Beecham, later released on LP. Though several complete commercial recordings now exist, the first studio recording did not take place until 1969. Thus, the following statement from the first edition seems appropriate for the time of publication (1947),2 although it does demonstrate a desire by the author to dictate taste: "it would seem that Les troyens ought to be produced regularly at state expense until singers, conductors, and public are brought to realize its greatness. Of all the works of the French grand-opera school in the nineteenth century, this is the one most worthy of being so preserved" [End Page 734] (p. 319). In the second edition, this statement was changed to read: "But public or no public, the work ought to be produced regularly at state expense until conductors, singers and audiences are brought to realize its greatness" (p. 324). This statement was retained in the third edition, with the words "at state expense" removed (p. 378). Even though audiences in most major opera centers have now had the opportunity to judge the opera for themselves, and at least three commercial recordings and countless pirates of live performances are available,3 this statement can still be found on page 364, where it seems both out of place and behind the times.

Also in the first edition, Grout displayed a much less understandable disdain for Flotow's once extremely popular Martha. This disdain is apparently shared by many operatic opinion leaders, but it makes little sense to those ordinary operagoers who know the work well from live performances or recordings and have found much to enjoy in it.4 Martha was described in the first edition as a "sentimental old-fashioned piece which has inexplicably survived while many better operas have been forgotten" (p. 372). The almost identical wording ("which" having been changed to "that") can be found in the present edition (p. 434).

For a book aiming to give a basic grounding in opera, A Short History of Opera demonstrates a peculiar, or at least highly individual, sense of proportion. Thus the coverage of Verdi in the fourth edition is quite a bit less than I expected (fourteen pages for Verdi, versus nineteen for Gluck and thirty-six for Wagner). A comparison of the treatment afforded to Verdi and Wagner illustrates this point dramatically. Each of the three early Wagner operas—Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot (with only cosmetic changes between the first and fourth editions), and Rienzi—gets at least a full paragraph. Der fliegende Holländer gets almost two pages, while the later works receive...


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