A Century of Music at The New York Public Library

By George Boziwick, Chief, Music Division, Library for the Performing Arts
February 3, 2012
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

As the centennial year of The New York Public Library's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building comes to a close and the next 100 years begin, it's a good opportunity to journey through the history, collections, and people behind the scenes of one of the world's premiere music collections. 

This engraving by Paul Revere serves as the frontispiece of William Billings New England Psalm Singer published in 1770

This engraving by Paul Revere serves as the frontispiece of William Billings New England Psalm Singer published in 1770

The music holdings of The New York Public Library were brought together as part of the merger in 1895 of the library of John Jacob Astor (about 4,000 music items) and the Lenox Library (6,000+ music items), with support from the Tilden Foundation to form the research (non-circulating) collections of The New York Public Library.

Before there was an official circulating music collection, many of the branch libraries throughout the system of The New York Public Library had collections of orchestral scores, vocal scores, and opera libretti. Music titles, however; were considered "special interest" items and were procured only if remaining year-end funds were available. In 1920, all of the circulating music holdings were brought together at the library branch on East 58th Street under the direction of its first music librarian, Dorothy Lawton. This centralized location became a gathering place for musicians, and within a year, public music programs had become an important offering. The circulating music collections at the 58th Street location were supported in their growth by regular donations from a variety of New York City philanthropists and musicians, including Otto Kahn, Frank Damrosch, Frederic Juilliard, and Charles Ives (who donated many historical sets and complete works).

In 1929, a major donation to the Library from the American Orchestral Society formed the basis of a collection of orchestral parts for more than 3,000 works, marking the beginning of the circulating Orchestra Collection. The ensuing decades saw continued growth and leadership from a staff dedicated to enlarging and broadening the circulating collections, often following the seasonal concert schedules of the major New York City performance venues to meet the demands of its passionate user base. Today the total circulating Music Collection contains well over 25,000 opera and musical scores; 53,000 items of chamber music (scores and parts); works for piano; and orchestral study scores; as well as a comprehensive collection of circulating books on music and non-print audio visual materials.

Turning now to the research collections, the Music Division of the Reference Department was formally established in 1911 when the new building opened at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.

The crown jewel of the Division is a collection of music, books on music, and autographs acquired by the Philadelphia financier Joseph W. Drexel (1833-1888).

Joseph W. Drexel (1833-1888)

Joseph W. Drexel (1833-1888)

At Drexel's death (during the blizzard of 1888), his collection of 6,000 items was bequeathed to the Lenox Library. Upon the formation of The New York Public Library in 1895, the Drexel Collection became the cornerstone of the Music Division. Drexel developed his collection through a series of major acquisitions at European auctions, including those of German musician Henry F. Albrecht, physician Dr. René LaRoche, and the English antiquarian and collector Edward Francis Rimbault. Today, "Joseph W. Drexel's Musical Library" remains one of the most celebrated and significant aggregates of music materials amassed by a single collector. Without Drexel, there would have been no Music Division in 1895. The collection's strength lies in a variety of areas, including first and early editions (particularly of Mozart and Beethoven); 18th-century German theoretical treatises; and incunabula, such as Franchinus Gaffurius's Theorica musica (1492) and his Practica musica (1496), which illustrate with marvelous wood block prints the theoretical writings by Galileo on music and the physics of music as interpreted by Pythagoras.

Important writings and works by Berlioz, Rousseau, and Rameau are also represented. Sixteenth and early 17th-century English treasures include the celebrated John Gamble's Commonplace Book of 1659, containing approximately 250 songs; and the Sambrooke Book, a massive assemblage of madrigals, motets, and anthems compiled by Francis Tregian the Younger (1574?-1619). Other strengths of Drexel's collection include early English keyboard music, part books, and a 1608 edition of Thomas Morley's Plaine and Easy Instructor. A unique copy of Parthenia In-violata (1615) is another of the Drexel Collection's jewels. Early editions of English, Irish, and Scottish music in the Drexel Collection allow researchers to trace the migration of this music into the works of 18th-century English opera composers, as well as traditional vocal collections and instrumental tunebooks.

Drexel also collected a significant number of early American imprints, particularly in the area of hymn books, song collections, and opera scores. Most notable is the first tune book using shape note notation published in the United States, Little and Smith's Easy Instructor. Also of note is Urania or a Choice Collection of Psalm-tunes, Anthems, and Hymns compiled by James Lyon (1761), which was sold by subscription in and around Philadelphia.

Guided even today by Drexel's magnificent holdings, the Music Division still seeks opportunities to collect important early editions, theoretical works, hymnbooks, and tunebooks, as well as comprehensively acquire newly published manuscript facsimiles of important European works.

Il dissoluto punito osia Don Giovanni [Title page], Digital ID exh_70091, New York Public Library

Il dissoluto punito osia Don Giovanni [Title page], Digital ID exh_70091, New York Public Library

In the Beginning

The first chief of the Music Division was Edward Silsky (a former music curator at the Lenox Library), who oversaw the installation of the music collections into the new building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in 1911. During his tenure, the music collections and budgets were assessed, alongside those of Harvard University, Boston Public Library, and the Library of Congress. These comparisons sought to bring the holdings of the Music Division into line with these other institutions and set the Division on its path to greatness. That path was broadened considerably by the work of musicologist Dr. Otto Kinkeldey (1878-1966), who became chief of the Music Division upon Silsky's retirement in 1915.

Dr. Otto Kinkeldey (1878-1966)

Dr. Otto Kinkeldey (1878-1966)

After World War I, Kinkeldey's research trips to France, Spain, Italy, and Germany allowed him to make considerable purchases for the Library. He left the Music Division in 1923 for Cornell University, returning to the Library in 1927. He was drawn back to Cornell in 1930 by the offer of the first American chair of musicology, created specifically for him. He was also named University Librarian.

Carleton Sprague Smith (1905-1994)

Carleton Sprague Smith (1905-1994)

As the country was plunged into the Great Depression, the Music Division surprisingly assumed some of its most distinguished and lasting characteristics. Under the guidance of Dr. Carleton Sprague Smith, who was chief of the Music Division from 1931-1959, the Division saw unprecedented growth toward making its under-processed collections available.

With an infusion of resources from the Works Progress Administration, projects such as the copying of scores for performance, and the cataloging, annotating, and indexing of music and musical information all came under his scholarly purview and the watchful eye of Special Collections curator, Sydney Beck.

Smith was able to bring in émigré musicologists Hans T. David and Curt Sachs to work on major editorial projects making some of the Division's formerly hidden treasures available for performance and study.

CSS, as we still affectionately refer to him, was an expert in many fields: hymnologist, flutist, music administrator, and scholar who helped to establish the American Musicological Society. He was also a founder of the Music Library Association, an organization for which Smith, Kinkeldey, and nearly all subsequent Music Division chiefs have served as president. Smith's talents in diplomatic relations created opportunities for expanding the scope and reach of the Music Division into other countries, particularly Latin America and the southern hemisphere.

As part of the "Good Neighbor Policy" under the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, working for the U.S. Department of State, Smith was given a four-month leave by the Library in 1940, allowing him to tour the countries of South America as a cultural ambassador. In this capacity, Smith forged important musical ties, built relationships for the government, found opportunities for cultural exchange, and acquired unique materials for the Music Division's collections, including manuscripts of Camargo Guarnieri, José Rolón, and many others.

His ties to Brazil and Latin America remained in place long after his visit and his departure from the Library, allowing for a welcoming open door that saw, among other things, the acquisition of manuscript collections of Carlos Chavez in the 1980s and Marco Rizo in the 1990s.

These relationships continue today in the form of donations of contemporary music materials and regular visits to the Music Division by colleagues from a number of South American countries.

Upon Smith's departure from the Music Division, Philip Lieson Miller (1906-1996) took over as chief.  Smith was retained by the Library for several years as a consultant and was a regular visitor to the reading room at Lincoln Center well into the 1980s. Today, two of Smith's greatest achievements have become legendary and they should be noted here: he was the first to conceptualize an all-encompassing "Music Museum," bringing together in one building the holdings of music, theater, dance, recorded sound, and an instrument collection. Decades later (minus the instrument collection, which is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), his idea became a reality. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, located at Lincoln Center, opened in November of 1965.

The American Music Collection

Smith was also responsible for the "branding" of the Music Division by bringing together for the first time a unique aggregate of materials devoted to the music of the United States. Today, the American Music Collection remains vibrant, active, and visible, and it is respected worldwide as one of the most comprehensive, and certainly one of the few, collections devoted to American Music with its own curator. 

The American Music Collection (formerly the Americana Collection) grew out of Smith's desire that holdings in American music should be brought together so as to be curated and thus recognized as a legitimate area of musicological research. By 1936, again with money and staff from the Works Progress Administration, the "Americana Section" of the Music Division under its first head (librarian and print collector) Joseph Muller (1877-1939), was able to accomplish a great deal in fulfilling Smith's historical mission.

Of note are the major collections of early American tunebooks, songsters, and broadsides, all of which are still considered world class holdings in the field.

In 1938, a bequest from the composer and conductor Henry Hadley (1871–1937) provided the foundation of a score library devoted to American music that would set the Americana Section of the Music Division on its course.

Brooklyn Eagle Bridge crush march : descriptive / [music by] Wm. E. Slafer.,Title on cover: Brooklyn Daily Eagle Bridge crush march (descriptive), Digital ID g99c796_001, New York Public Library

Monitor grand march / composed by E. Mack., Digital ID g00c53_001, New York Public Library

Monitor grand march / composed by E. Mack., Digital ID g00c53_001, New York Public Library

Howard's tenure as Head of the Americana Section (1940-1956) set a distinct tone and a very high standard of collection development in the bourgeoning field of American music research.

Henry Cowell with his cat PepperIconography CollectionMusic Division
Henry Cowell with his cat Pepper

Iconography Collection
Music Division