Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart

The encyclopaedia Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (MGG) is the biggest reference work of its kind in the field of music. The first edition was published in seventeen volumes between 1949 and 1986 and made musicological history. The second edition was published from 1994 to 2008 as a co-production between Bärenreiter and J. B. Metzler. This includes a Subject Encyclopaedia consisting of nine volumes and a Biographical Encyclopaedia consisting of seventeen volumes, each accompanied by an index volume. A Supplement Volume completed the MGG in 2008.

When the two publishers announced their intention of collating all  musical knowledge in book form once more, there were some sceptical reactions: the book was no longer an adequate medium, knowledge could be presented better in electronic form, and anyway, German was no longer the language of musicology. Yet, after just a few volumes had been published, it was clear that the MGG was recognised worldwide as a standard reference work.

Examining the blue volumes, the principle of the work quickly becomes clear. To take a specific example, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, his life and works are excellently documented: the MGG article devoted to him occupies almost a hundred pages. Anyone who reads this article is up-to-date with the latest research.

But who was Nicolas Dubut? The ‘maître joueur d’instruments à vent’, that is a master of wind instruments in Paris in the 17th century, is only granted seven lines. These are few lines in comparison with Mozart, but enough to ensure he retains a place in music history. In this way, the biggest music encyclopaedia in the world encompasses a huge range of information, with major articles the length of books and smaller entries just a few lines long.

Simple statistics can only give a flavour of the scope of the encyclopaedia. Nevertheless, they are always impressive. There are 29 volumes containing a total of 25,000 pages. Over 3,000 authors from 55 countries have written articles on 1,500 subjects and 18,000 people. The 29 extensive volumes measure almost 2 metres in length and weigh 43 kilo.

However, the contents are weightier. What the editorial department together with the editor, Ludwig Finscher, have achieved fulfils the brief which was set for the project: The MGG captures knowledge about music as represented at the beginning of the 21st century. As the times of narrow nationalisms are over, as the dominance of the ‘Western’ perspective has long since given way to a global one, readers can go on a world tour through the volumes. The music of China is described in 36 pages, and that of Arabia in 60. The major themes of western music such as the symphony and string quartet are treated on an equal footing with these subjects. Non-European musical forms and instruments, such as the huayno (an Andean dance) or the kamānče (a type of lute found in the Middle East) find their place alongside the waltz and the piano.