Uninformed Comment

Eric Blom’s Dictionary of Music

Posted in History, Humour, Literature, Music by uninformedcomment on July 22, 2009


I bought this book from a second-hand bookshop in London in about 1974, mainly because I didn’t have a dictionary of music and was learning to play the trumpet at the time.  As it happens, I hardly had cause to make use of the dictionary, and it remained mostly unopened in the intervening 35 years (I did learn to play the trumpet, though).  Until the other day, when I took it down from the shelves out of curiousity.

Of course, I wasn’t the first owner.  This exquisite dedication on the inside front cover  tells a tale all too sparingly:


I wish there were a little more information, so I could try to contact any descendents of Bernard and Elaine and give the dictionary to them.

The book itself dates from 1946.  Now, to me, put “music” and “1946” together, and you’ve got a very exciting epoch.   Jazz was still very much alive, and Bebop was changing the sound of popular music forever.  If I could travel in time and space just once in my life, it would probably be to New York City in 1946, so I could go to 52nd Street and catch not only the up-and-coming “young Turks” like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, but also the longer-established giants like Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins – and, of course, Satchmo himself – still at the tops of their games.

Duke Ellington with sidemen, 1946

Duke Ellington with sidemen, 1946

Of course, it wasn’t just jazz.  On Broadway, one could catch musicals by Irving Berlin, Rogers & Hammerstein, George Gershwin, and my favourite, Cole Porter, all still busily redefining the Great American song.

Broadway, c. 1946

Broadway, c. 1946

In general, this was a very exciting time, and perhaps Mr Blom was in the thick of it, soaking up the music and revelling in the novelty – what a year to be a musicologist!  Does any of that wonder make its way onto the pages of his Dictionary of Music?

According to his Wiki entry, Mr Blom was born in Switzerland, and at the time he’d have been working on this book, he was a long way away from New York.  In fact, he was living in Birmingham (UK), which is about as far-removed culturally from 52nd Street as you’re going to get without interplanetary travel.  And that’s only part of the problem.

Birmingham in 1945

Birmingham in 1945

Because it seems that Mr Blom wasn’t exactly hip to the beat, let’s say.  In fact, snapping his fingers and cutting a rug in New York wouldn’t have appealed to him one little bit.   Let’s open the book, and see the entry for the word Jazz.    How does he sum up such a fresh and fast-evolving musical genre?


Do you get the impression he doesn’t like jazz?  OK, so not everyone did at the time, even in New York City.  Yet the word Broadway doesn’t even have an entry – there’s nothing between Bixi, Franz Xaver (an 18th Century composer) and Broadwood (the British piano manufacturer).

How about Swing?  Ah, yes, there’s an entry here:


So, he accepts that Swing music exists.  But hold on a minute, Mr Blom – I may not be born yet, but this I do know: you’ve got the bit about improvisation completely backwards.  In fact, if you’d defined Jazz properly back there, the word improvised would have been right up there at the top, even before words like monotony and abnormal, since this is one thing we can pretty much all agree on, right?  Jazz is improvised music.

Never mind.  Let’s move onto Blues.  Perhaps he’d have been happier in the Mississippi Delta, or listening to T-Bone Walker in Los Angeles?


OK, Eric, you’ve made your point.  You really don’t like this stuff, do you?

Blom’s Wiki entry says he died on the 11th April, 1959.  I don’t know about you, but I reckon he was glad he did.  After all, by that time he may have heard Bo Diddley, Bill Haley & His Comets, Roy Orbison and The Supremes.  Rather than just turning in his grave, he was probably already spinning around as they administered the last rites.

Eric Blom, enjoying a joke

Eric Blom, enjoying a joke

I’ll leave you with a quote from Blom, courtesy of Wikipedia:

[Rakhmaninov] “did not have the individuality of Taneyev or Medtner. Technically, he was highly gifted, but also severely limited. His music is … monotonous in texture … The enormous popular success some few of Rakhmaninov’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favour.”

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