By SUSAN MANUS
Users were saying "bravo" about the Library's digitized sheet music collection even as the Music Division and the National Digital Library recently added a new audio feature.
"The 'Music for the Nation' site from the Library of Congress marks a new and wondrous era in making research materials available for studying American music. That I can sit in my living room and survey online a large amount of the sacred and secular music published during the 1870s in this country is simply miraculous," said frequent user Lee Orr, chair and professor of music history at Georgia State University.
The "Music for the Nation -- American Sheet Music, 1870-1885" site became available in October at the Library's American Memory Web site. The site has been augmented to include audio samples and expanded historical narratives. The 1870-1885 portion is the first of several installments of sheet music from the 1800s planned for digitization.
The newest feature of the site consists of audio samples of selected items, found under the heading "In Performance -- Choral Works from the Collection." For this, 12 pieces were selected that best represent the four-part choral writing of the 1870s. Some of these, such as "Grandfather's Clock," by Henry C. Work, and, "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers," by James A. Bland, are noted by music scholars as the 'greatest hits' of the era.
A chorus of Library of Congress staffers came together as the "Music for the Nation Singers" to record these items exclusively for the online presentation. The director for the recording, Library Music Specialist Robert Saladini, had "envisioned a group of singers standing around a piano in the 1870s and just having fun singing popular music of the period. ... I wanted a somewhat unrehearsed, informal sound for the audio clips."
Each audio selection is linked directly to the corresponding bibliographic record, which can, in turn, provide access to the music itself, enabling a listener to follow along with the sheet music images. Listeners can hear the pieces using any of three audio formats.
The massive project to digitize most of the 19th century collection of sheet music was undertaken by the Music Division in conjunction with the National Digital Library (NDL) Program.
This initial release consists of approximately 22,000 selections of sheet music from the 1870s and includes not only popular songs, but also piano, choral and instrumental music. These items originally came to the Library as part of the requirement that copyright applications be accompanied by two copies of an item. Subsequently, the regular deposits of musical compositions grew to become a substantial portion of the Library's musical holdings. The large number of deposits can now serve as a study of American musical trends for any given era and represent a comprehensive view of the range of music that was published in America.
The first of the Library's digitized collections to consist entirely of sheet music, "Music for the Nation" provides a close look at musical Americana in the post-Civil War period. The site currently features complete page images for each selection of sheet music, as well as extensive historical background material on music in the 1870s, written by Library Music Specialist Wayne Shirley. Mr. Shirley, a scholar who specializes in American music, provided a cultural context for the music in the narrative "A Decade of American Music," which can be accessed from the home page. The subjects discussed in these essays include popular themes for songs, ethnic songs, religious and devotional music, and instrumental music. Mr. Shirley also categorized hundreds of the collection titles by subject, which are accessible by links in the narrative. The complete list of works can also be searched by subject, title or composer, with audio performances included for selected items.
In the 1870s sheet music was a popular commodity. Before the era of radio and recorded sound, owning the sheet music itself was often the only way for people to become familiar with their favorite pieces.
Musically, the 1870s represented a time of transition. Stephen Foster had died in 1864, and the music of Tin Pan Alley would not emerge until the 1890s. Popular subjects for 1870s songs included presidential elections, the centennial of American independence, celebrities, technological advances and temperance, as well as the timeless subjects of home, mother, love and death. For example, a search using the word "mother" resulted in 244 "hits," revealing the popularity of that subject in the 1870s.
John Philip Sousa started publishing songs during this decade, although the more famous works that would earn him the title "The March King" were written starting in the late 1880s.
James Bland, the first prominent African American songwriter, known for his "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," was also an active composer in this decade. Other notable and widely published song composers of this era were C.A. White, H.P. Danks, Thomas Westendorf, George Persley and David Braham.
Solo piano music, mostly in the form of marches and dances, represents one of the largest categories in this collection. Mr. Shirley observed that around this time, "there was a great increase in the publishing of 'easy' piano literature for amateur and student players and also lots of piano four-hand arrangements."
While the majority of the music published in 1870s America was by American composers, much European music was also published in the United States as well. Most of this music is operatic in origin, and French and German operettas were particularly popular. Operatic literature was often transcribed into dance music as in, for example, the "Carmen Quadrille."
Significance Beyond Music
The subjects that the American people chose for their songs during this era often illuminated the concerns of the time, as evidenced by such titles as J.M. Kieffer's "Remember the Poor," and J.E. Magruder's "The Drunkard's Daughter." A highly sentimental era, many songs addressed these and other social concerns, such as the death of children, a subject that was particularly prominent among the songs of the early 1870s. Mr. Shirley commented that "this collection is extremely useful for people researching the sociology of the period. ... There are lots of songs about orphaned children, for example, which accurately reflected the real conditions of the time."
Major historical events such as presidential elections, the great Chicago fire and new technology such as the telephone and electricity were also well represented as song subjects. Patriotic events, including the 1876 American centennial, were the subject of songs such as "The Men of '76" by Harrison Millard, who wrote it to pay homage to the soldiers of the Revolutionary War. This sheet music, like many others in the collection, has an elaborate cover illustration.
The collection was scanned from 35mm roll microfilm originally produced by the Library's Photoduplication Service to preserve these materials for the Music Division. Morgan Cundiff, NDL project leader for the Web site, explained: "Though the Library still possesses the original paper documents, we decided to scan from the microfilm because of the possibility of far greater efficiency and speed in the scanning process. This approach yielded a legible copy of the printed music, while making it possible to digitize a large volume of material."
The entire microfilm collection from the 1870-1885 period consists of 441 reels. This first release from the 1870s includes approximately 150,000 images (22,000 items), which appear on a total of 204 reels of microfilm.
These documents were scanned as bitonal TIFF images, with many of the highly illustrated covers scanned as JPEG File Interchange Format (JFIF) images. Further technical information about the scanning process can be found at the Web site under "Digitizing the Collection."
There are many uses, both casual and academic, for the online collection. According to Mr. Shirley, "This site becomes particularly useful if someone has an interest in performing popular music of the period. For example, this would be a great resource if you were doing a play set in that era and needed to find music for the production."
Members of the academic community are reporting that the collection of musical Americana is a useful research tool. Joan Catoni Conlon, director of Graduate Choral Research at the University of Colorado in Boulder, says "The site is both practical and didactic. ... It's been great for the students to have easy access to this part of their cultural heritage." She added that one of her students used this as the centerpiece of a presentation.
The site can be used to search on specific subjects, by title or by author.
To date, the statistics indicate significant overall use of this collection. So far, more than 200,000 "hits" have been related to this collection.
The next installment of "Music for the Nation" will feature the remainder of this collection of copyright deposits covering the years 1880-85, and is slated for release this fall. Expected future installments will be added from the copyright deposits of the years 1820-1860.
Ms. Manus is a music specialist with the National Digital Library Program.