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Collection Books About Music Before 1800

About this Collection

Shortly after the Music Division was established 120 years ago, a handful of acquisition priorities were agreed upon: early writings about music published before 1801 were identified as having both historical significance and a high research value and consequently gained top priority status in our collection development. Because of the persistent and successful efforts of our predecessors, well over fifty percent of all books written about music that are listed in the RISM B VI volumes are now held at the Library of Congress. These treasures range from incunabula such as Johannes Tinctoris' Terminorum musicae diffinitorium of ca. 1474 (one of the earliest examples of a glossary of musical terms) to Franchinus Gaffurius's Theoricum opus musiche discipline of 1480 (the first printed book principally devoted to the study of music).

Woodcut used by Franciscus Gaffurius to illustrate how simple ratios could generate consonant musical intervals regardless of medium source – anvils, bells, water, strings or pipes.

In the early 1970s, the International Musicological Society and International Association of Music Libraries compiled a comprehensive inventory of all known extant writings about music that had been published between ca. 1474 through 1800. Their resulting two volume catalog, Écrits Imprimés Concernant la Musique, is part of the Répertoire International des Sources Musicales Series B (RISM B VI) and comprises more than 3800 entries of literature related to the theoretical, historical, aesthetic and technical aspects of music.

This online presentation includes digital scans of well over 2000 pre-1801 publications about music that are reported in the RISM B VI series with the Library of Congress sigla (US Wc).  Much of the groundwork for this project was laid back in the early 1980s when Music Division staff, fully understanding the scope of and scholarly demand for this outstanding collection, made the decision to create preservation microfilms for the collection using RISM B VI as a checklist; the digital scans presented here were, in turn, generated from those preservation microfilms.