Book Review: A-R Online Music Anthology

By Kendra Preston Leonard

The A-R Online Music Anthology, published by A-R Editions, bills itself as “an extensive collection of music and articles designed expressly for music history courses” and as an option to traditional music history textbooks, print anthologies, and sets of CDs. (https://www.areditions.com/information/a-r-music-anthology.html) Having both taught music history courses and worked as a professional textbook editor (and, in the interest of transparency, have contributed to the A-R Online Music Anthology), I admire the approach A-R Editions is taking with this project. As textbooks and ancillary materials become even more expensive, online textbooks that have the capacity for continually adding new material, as A-R’s does, are helpful for students and instructors alike. Instructors can request complimentary access. Student subscriptions to the Anthology cost $60 for six months of use; institutions can purchase a site license for on-campus and networked computers for $2500 a year. Students and instructors can print out individual essays or pieces from the site.

The Anthology currently offers about 600 pieces of music primarily from the Western art tradition, including works from antiquity through the early twentieth century. The same composers found in print anthologies are well represented here: there are enough pieces by Beethoven, Chopin, Handel, Josquin, Monteverdi, Mozart, Palestrina, and Schubert to satisfy any traditionalist. The Anthology also includes works for those wanting to broaden their students’ worldview, such as works by Wizlâv IV, Luis de Narváez, William Billings, John Field, Clara Schumann, Ruth Crawford, W. C. Handy, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Bessie Smith, and Anthology editor James Zychowicz is taking suggestions for and planning to include other works by marginalized composers as the Anthology continues to expand. Most, but not all, of the music is newly engraved for the Anthology and is clear and easy to read, and all transposing instruments’ lines are notated at concert pitch. However, the Anthology does not always provide sources for editions or the year in which pieces were completed, information that would be useful to include.

In addition to this collection of music, the Anthology also includes just over one hundred “textbook articles” and “textbook commentaries.” The articles are in-depth discussions of individual pieces, such as Allan Atlas’s article on Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; concepts, like Richard Bass’s essay “Harmony and Key Relationships in Romantic Music;” and composers, including Karen Cook on the Comtessa de Dia and K. Dawn Grapes on William Byrd. The articles generally run from about 12 to 35 pages and include links to sources, recordings, videos, and pieces available through IMSLP that are not yet included in the Anthology. Textbook commentaries are shorter (1–3 pages) introductions to a specific piece. The commentaries mostly accompany pieces from the medieval and Renaissance periods, and include images of manuscripts and diagrams that help explain the concepts and materials in the commentary. Most of these are by a team of authors including Emily Lawrence, Carolyn Bacon, and Catherine Nix and provide thorough introductions to the pieces they accompany.

The Anthology’s weakness is its interface, which is clunky and difficult to read and use. I tested the site using several different operating systems and browsers. In each, the primary page loads in a window that uses only part of the screen with about a 9-point font (Figure 1). I could not find a way to expand this window or increase font size.

Figure 1. The Anthology’s landing page, shown in Google Chrome.

Fig 3

Clicking on an article leads to a new page in which the article appears in a small reading pane; enlarging the view within this pane to a comfortable reading size makes the page expand beyond the limits of the reading pane (Figure 2).

Figure 2. An article in the reading pane, shown in Google Chrome.

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The same holds true when opening a piece of music: the size is small and the reading pane is limited (Figure 3). Pieces can be also opened in a split-screen format with the search tool.

Figure 3. Music in the reading pane, shown in Google Chrome (Ruth Crawford’s String Quartet, III).

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Navigation also needs to be simplified. There appear to be redundant search functions and menus, which provide different results for the same search. One top-level search tool (Figure 4) offers multiple options for genre, key, tonality, et al., while the other (Figure 5) does not. It’s not clear how to access one over the other.

Figure 4. Multiple search options within the A-R Online Music Anthology.

Fig 1

Figure 5. Fewer search options.

Fig 2

 

In all, the Anthology is a solid resource for teaching and learning music history. As it expands, it will become even more valuable for users, especially if the user interface is redesigned to be more accessible and user-friendly and the navigation is streamlined. At some future point, too, the collection will need to include twenty-first century music and reconsider its use of labels such as “Baroque” and “Romantic,” as scholars develop new and more accurate terms.