Percy Scholes

Percy Alfred Scholes M.A., Hon.D.Mus. (Oxon), F.S.A., F.R.Hist.S., A.R.C.M., F.T.S.C. (24 July 1877 31 July 1958) was an English musician, journalist and prolific writer, whose best-known achievement was his compilation of the first edition of The Oxford Companion to Music. His 1948 biography The Great Dr Burney was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

He was born in Leeds in 1877 and was educated privately, owing to his poor health as a child. He became an organist, schoolteacher, music journalist, lecturer, an Inspector of Music in Schools to London University and the Organist and Music Master of Kent College, Canterbury (1900), All Saints, Vevey, Switzaland (1902) as well as Kingswood College, Grahamstown, South Africa (1904). He was Registrar at the City of Leeds (Municipal) School of Music (1908-1912). At various times he was music critic for the Evening Standard, The Observer (1920–1927) and the Radio Times (1923–1929). He was made an Officer of the Star of Rumania in 1930. He was founder and general secretary of the Anglo-American Conference on Musical Education, Lausanne (1929 and 1931); the president of the Union of Directors of Music in Secondary Schools; founder and editor The Music Student (which later became The Music Teacher); and during the First World War he directed the Music section of the Y. M. C. A. for the troops at home and abroad. He ended his days in Cornaux, Chamby sur Montreux in Switzerland.


He wrote over 30 books, mainly concerning music appreciation, but his best-known work is The Oxford Companion to Music, which was first published in 1938. This work took him six years to produce and consisted of over a million words (surpassing the length of the Bible). Scholes was assisted by various clerical assistants, but wrote virtually all the text himself. The only exceptions were the article on tonic sol-fa (for which he was dissatisfied with his own article) and the synopses of the plots of operas (which he regarded as too boring). Although the Oxford Companion to Music was (and is) regarded as authoritative, the text of the first edition is enlivened by Scholes' own anecdotal and sometimes quirky style.


In his writing for this work, and elsewhere, Scholes never believed in holding back his personal views in favour of a neutral point of view. He is credited with the description of harpsichord music as sounding like "a toasting fork on a birdcage"; when describing Handel and Bach, he said that "Handel was the more elegant composer, but Bach was the more thorough".

In The Oxford Companion to Music itself some composers (Berg, Schönberg and Webern, for example) were described in somewhat unsympathetic and dismissive terms. His article on Jazz states that "jazz is to serious music as daily journalism is to serious writing"; similarly, his article on the composer John Henry Maunder states that Maunder's "seemingly inexhaustible cantatas, Penitence, Pardon and Peace and From Olivet to Calvary, long enjoyed popularity, and still aid the devotions of undemanding congregations in less sophisticated areas."

Scholes' other activities included an early recognition of the possibilities of the gramophone as an aid to knowledge and understanding of music. His First Book of the Gramophone Record (1924) lists fifty records of music from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, with a commentary on each; a Second Book followed in 1925. From 1930 onwards, Scholes collaborated with the Columbia Graphophone Company in The Columbia History of Music by Ear and Eye; this comprised five volumes, each containing an explanatory booklet and eight 78rpm records specially made for the series, including Renaissance vocal and instrumental items performed by Arnold Dolmetsch and his family.


Scholes died in 1958, aged eighty-one, in Vevey, Switzerland, where he had been living for many years. Shortly before his death, his "professional" library was acquired by the National Library of Canada. This comprised approximately 50 linear metres of research files and correspondence.[1]

In 1983 Oxford University Press produced The New Oxford Companion to Music, edited by Denis Arnold, which consciously tried to overcome some of the perceived deficiencies of the Scholes' work. This included taking a more eclectic line on music to be included. Unfortunately this resulted in a rather bulky two-volume work of some 2000 pages. The 2002 edition, edited by Alison Latham, reverted to the original title, and single-volume format.


  1. Library and Archives Canada


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