Published May 2, 2014
I have a bone to “pick” with Percy Scholes. He belittles my beloved mandolin.
Scholes describes the mandolin in “The Oxford Companion to Music” as “an instrument of somewhat the same type as the lute but much less artistically valuable, being now in use for the most part by people who wish to play simple music without much trouble.”
I found Scholes’ dismissive definition of the mandolin in the 10th edition of the “Companion to Music,” published in 1970. The first edition was published in 1938, “the product of six years and more of work on the part of one superman and a varying number of paid and unpaid clerical helpers who at various times included” Scholes’ wife and mother-in-law, according to the preface of the 10th. “The result of this solo performance was a book which has been called ‘strongly personal, limited in range, but endlessly fascinating’ ... For the present revision it was considered quite inappropriate to change radically the characteristic rich anecdotal quality of Dr. Scholes’ style. ...”
Scholes said in the preface to the first edition that he played or read thousands of sheets of music and scrutinized thousands of pages of concert and radio programs, gramophone record catalogues, etc., so it’s not as if he was unaware of the classical catalog of mandolin music, which is more extensive than most people realize.
That definition aside, the “Companion” is a superb book, at 1,189 pages a ponderous partner in one’s exploration of the world of music but not the type I would slip in my violin case’s storage compartment. I forgave Scholes his disdain for the mandolin as I paged through the Companion, especially when I happened upon a photograph of the earliest American song, “My Days Have Been So Wondrous” written by Francis Hopkinson in 1759, and on the facing page Scholes’ advocating for vocalists’ “abandonment of the practice of incessant tremolo or vibrato.”
This musical companion is a member of my rather large reference library. I love dictionaries and other types of reference books, especially the specialty reference books, and the Oxford University Press, the same publishing house that produced the monumental “Oxford English Dictionary,” makes some of the best.
I consulted another Oxford publication, “The Oxford Companion To English Literature,” this week after encountering a name from Greek mythology in the movie “Bicentennial Man.” The movie, released in 1999, is based on Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg’s science fiction novel “The Positronic Man,” an expanded version of Asimov’s short story “The Bicentennial Man.” In the movie, Robin Williams plays a household all-purpose robot named Andrew Martin that, it turns out, possesses human emotions and creativity, and the story follows Andrew’s quest to become human. At one point Andrew encounters a female robot in a market and follows her to a disreputable-looking business where her builder works. Her name is Galatea, and it is that name I looked up in the Oxford book.
Galatea was a name for two characters in Greek mythology, a sea nymph and, the one I was concerned with, the statue the artist Pygmalion crafted. Pygmalion had sworn off women and all their annoying imperfections but fell in love with his creation, and Aphrodite, the goddess and beauty of love, gave life to the statue so Pygmalion could have his love. “Pygmalion” was the title of the play by George Bernard Shaw on which was based the musical “My Fair Lady,” and this story of a creator coaxing life from a manmade object was reworked to some degree in the Star Trek episode “Requiem For Methuselah.” In that show an immortal man makes a female robot and tries to animate her emotions with Capt. Kirk’s unknowing help. Characters from Greek mythology abound in a book about English literature because they or references to them abound in the literature.
And so I have wandered far from that entry on the mandolin, but it is typical of the book-bound thoroughfares I follow while wandering through my library. I think instead of picking a bone I shall thank Dr. Scholes for this pleasurable literary pathway I have trod.