A Musician's Dictionary


81 pages
ISBN 0-920151-21-3
DDC 780'.207





Illustrations by Dave Donald
Reviewed by Desmond Maley

Desmond Maley is the music librarian at the J.W. Tate Library,
Huntington College, Laurentian University, and the editor of Newsletter
of the Canadian Association of Music Libraries, Archives, and
Documentation Centres.


On the whole, Barber strikes the right note in this expanded edition of
his tongue-in-cheek Musician’s Dictionary. Who could disagree, for
instance, that a concerto is “[a] sort of musical boxing match between
one musician (the soloist) and all the rest (the orchestra),” although
it is not clear why “nobody wins—especially the audience.”
(Doesn’t everyone enjoy a good fight?) For the benefit of the
layperson, the correct definition of many terms is given followed by the
satirical take. Thus, “Te Deum” is described as “[a] particular
work set by various composers for use during a church service. Not be
confused with tedium, the feeling you get from listening to such
works.” Barber’s wit may be pointed, but isn’t truly barbaric.
“Bagpipes” receive probably the roughest treatment: “A Scottish
instrument (of torture, war, mass destruction) whose sound resembles
that of a cat being run over by a car.”

Much the same can be said of Barber’s Better Than It Sounds, an
entertaining compendium of quotes somewhat reminiscent of Nicolas
Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective. The potpourri includes
Rossini’s celebrated put-down, “Wagner has beautiful moments but
awful quarter hours.” Brahms’s Requiem “is patiently borne only by
the corpse,” according to George Bernard Shaw. “I write as a sow
piddles,” was Mozart’s description of his compositional method.

Pop music is also represented, including Joan Rivers’s gag that
“Boy George is all England needs—another queen who can’t dress.”
However, some errors in editing were noticed, and Barber has a penchant
for quoting himself . “After all, if I won’t quote me, who will?”
he quips in the preface. This may be true, but the boundaries of hubris
are rather stretched when, in such a short book, the compiler is cited
seven times.


Barber, David W., “A Musician's Dictionary,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 30, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/2408.