George Grove 1820-1900

Published in History Today

Grove is to musicians what Wisden is to cricketers and Crockford is to the clergy. One thing that they have in common is that most people would find it difficult to say anything constructive about them; another is that, above all, they were compilers of lists and although this is indicative to Freudians of a suspicious degree of anal-eroticism George Grove was far more than a regressive, and well deserves a modern biography. The last one was by C. L. Graves, published in 1903, which set out the proposition that Grove was an eminent Victorian. And so he was, but so much more besides.

He was born in Clapham, and his father was, wrote Graves, 'in business'. Actually he was a fishmonger, a devout Congregationalist with a love of hymns, and no interest in books. Charles Dickens knew him as a character with a homely turn of phrase, and unquestionably used him somewhere in a novel. The mother was austere, read a good deal, and was a capable amateur musician. Grove's first musical memories centred around his mother's interpretation on the piano of the Messiah.

Grove's education was local and lopsided, and at fifteen he was articled to a civil engineer, who had the quaint idea that railways had no future, and that the steam-carriage would replace the horse. In his spare time, Grove haunted the streets of London, listening to music whenever he had the chance, especially at the Exeter Hall where the Sacred Harmonic Society gave concerts. He completed his articles, and went to Glasgow to obtain practical experience. Acquitting himself well, he was sent to Jamaica to super-intend the construction of a cast-iron light-house, then to Bermuda to oversee another one. Back in England he became involved in the construction of the Britannia Bridge over the Menai Straits. In a casual throw-away paragraph Dr. Young mentions that about this time George Grove was the father of an illegitimate child.

Intelligent, personable, Grove was eager for advice. The advice was simple: get out of engineering. He became secretary of the Society of Arts, a position for which he had few qualifications bar his love of music. He then became secretary to the Crystal Palace heavily involved in music-making, but a chance remark by the antiquarian James Fergusson sent him off at a tangent – the indexing of proper names in the Bible. William Smith, a maker of dictionaries, recruited Grove as contributor to his dictionary of the Bible.

Described by F. J. Furnivall as 'a cheery, bright, dear little fellow, with a merry twinkle in his eye', Grove was a maniac for work. He established Schubert as a major composer, wrote copious programme notes, edited Macmillan's Magazine, and was given the task of compiling the Dictionary of Music and Musicians, a reflection of Grove's tastes and prejudices, but a remarkable work nevertheless. The new Grove runs to twenty volumes; Grove himself would have been astounded by it, and mystified as well.

In his fading years, Grove was first Director of the Royal College of Music. He was not a great success, and he was behaving rather oddly. Dr. Young documents it thoroughly and solicitously. This is a fine monument to an eminent Victorian, and to a mixed-up man.

Ronald Pearsall

George Grove 1820-1900

Macmillan, London, 1980; 344 pp. 

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