Music People: Philip Morehead makes a dictionary | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Calendar

Music People: Philip Morehead makes a dictionary


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


It took Philip Morehead about four years to put together The New International Dictionary of Music, a new book designed to offer some competition to the mostly British, mostly classical music dictionaries already on the market. "Really, there's no book quite like this," he says. "It covers a very broad area--on a very superficial level. Since most music dictionaries are British, our aim was for it to be predominantly American. When there was a choice to be made--composers, performers--the American got the edge."

Working on a reference book comes naturally to Morehead, music administrator at Lyric Opera. His father, Albert Morehead, who wrote several volumes of Hoyle's Book of Games, was for many years editor of New American Library's Roget's Thesaurus, Webster's Handy College Dictionary, and World Almanac ("the second-largest-selling paperback in publishing history," Philip notes). Albert died in 1966, and the books he'd worked on were turned over to his son, who now revises them on a ten-year cycle. "I'm usually at work on one of them. It's like painting the Golden Gate Bridge--as soon as you finish it's time to start over."

To get started on the Dictionary of Music (New American Library, $15), Morehead and his collaborator Anne MacNeil followed the usual procedure of culling a list of entries from other dictionaries, specialized and unspecialized. (To avoid plagiarism, only the list is borrowed.) Once they had the basic list--folk, jazz, rock, and classical are all included--"we took out things that we didn't think were appropriate, and we started adding."

The big challenge in pulling the book together was keeping on top of changes in what Morehead calls "the ephemeral world of rock." With other genres the hardest problem was deciding whether someone was well enough known to be included. "Rock is very different. We had to try to figure out who would be likely to be around long enough to last through the life of this edition."

Opening the 620-page volume at random, you find a wild variety: Marni Nixon (the singing voice of actresses in many movie musicals), the opera Nixon in China, node, noel, No, No, Nanette, noodling, Jimmie Noone (a jazz clarinetist). There are occasional odd lapses (shouln't the entry for Les Noces note that Stravinsky wrote it?), but the book is fun to thumb through--the Grateful Dead share a page with Bach's Great G Minor Fugue.

Morehead is now dreaming of a digital version of his dictionary "We could have the musical examples digitized. It would be great fun putting that together. This would be perfect for CD-ROM."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg.

Add a comment