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View of Music Division's temporary quarters circa 1900, with piles of bound music on the floor

A view of the temporary quarters of the Music Division in the Library of Congress, circa 1900. The bound up piles of music on the floor are undoubtedly part of the vast numbers of copyright deposits that formed the nucleus of the Library's music collections

About the Music Division

In 1870, seventy years after the Library of Congress was established, the number of music-related works in its collection numbered about 500. Among them were thirteen works of music literature and theory that were formerly part of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, purchased by Congress in 1815. These 500 music-related works, however, were clearly outside the scope of the Library’s acquisition guidelines, which specifically excluded “books of entertainment.” The eventual establishment, in 1896, of a Library division dedicated exclusively to music was the result of three chronologically overlapping factors: the centralization of all copyright functions at the Library of Congress beginning in 1870; a reorganization of the Library in 1896 which endorsed a broader collection policy extending to intellectual and cultural works in all subject areas; and, most importantly, the unanticipated creative impulse of the American musician.

The first two factors laid the necessary groundwork for the division’s establishment: the deluge of music deposited for copyright protection before 1896 numbered some 400,000 items – accounting for about 25% of the total submissions among all subject areas. The massive accumulation of music stacked in the basement of the U.S. Capitol provided sufficient justification that a separate division and staff with musical expertise would be needed in order to manage the volume of material that continued, and would increasingly continue, to pour in. But it was the underestimated and prodigious musical creativity of both amateur and professional American composers that ultimately convinced the Congressional committee to approve a separate division of music.

On the first of November 1897, the Thomas Jefferson Building, including the new Music Department, officially opened. In that year’s annual report, Librarian of Congress John Russell Young wrote that “with proper care …it may become one of the most important [divisions]…” The following year, Mr. Young predicted that the Music Department was “destined to be one of the great musical libraries of the world…”

In the early twentieth century, the goal of transforming the Music Division into a national research center on a level with the world’s greatest institutions was championed by Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam (1861-1955) and by the foresight and efforts of Music Division chief Oscar Sonneck (1873- 1928). Upon his arrival at the Library in 1902, Sonneck forged an ambitious acquisition policy to acquire both historical and current publications, and implemented a public reading room environment equally friendly to both performers and scholars. One of nine special format divisions in the Library today, the Music Division was initially intended to collect musical scores – notes on paper – and secondarily, books about music and music instruction. Over the decades however, the scope of the division’s collection priorities has evolved, often reflecting the interests and passions of the division’s chiefs and staff themselves. Sonneck, first and foremost, promoted American music and was committed to supporting contemporary composers, a legacy that has survived for over a century. His enthusiasms also included opera, leading to the 1908 purchase of the division’s first archival collection, the research papers and library of Albert Schatz, which comprise over 12,000 rare opera libretti and supporting documents related to the history of opera. To complement this purchase, he acquired close to 7000 operas in full score.

L'enquerant plus n'eut joye ne bien

"L'enquerant plus n'eut joye ne bien," by an anonymous composer, in the Chansonnier de M. le Marquis de Laborde, fol. 56v-57r.
Under the leadership of Sonneck’s successor, Carl Engel (1883–1944), there was a greater inclination to collect early imprints, a variety of early music notations and tablatures, as well as musicians’ correspondence and holograph manuscripts. During his tenure Engel instigated both the collecting of sound recordings and the formation of the Archive of American Folk-Song in 1928; both collections were reassigned in 1978 to other Library divisions. Most importantly, Engel’s collaboration with music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864-1953) substantially enlarged the scope of the Music Division, and in a larger sense, advanced the cause of Western musical culture.

With Engel’s encouragement, Mrs. Coolidge successfully proposed to Congress in October 1924, “a comprehensive plan … toward establishing in our Government a permanent musical influence.” This proposal included financial support for an auditorium to support musical performances, as well as the creation of a foundation to sponsor a chamber music concert series, which for over ninety years has continued to set international standards of performance, composition and broadcasting. Since its establishment, the Coolidge Foundation has also supported hundreds of commissions for new musical works that might never have been created otherwise, many of which are now universally acknowledged to be landmarks of twentieth-century music. It is not incidental that composers such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky, in consequence of their association with the Library through Mrs. Coolidge, later bequeathed important collections of their works to us.

Following in her footsteps, Mrs. Gertrude Clarke Whittall (1867-1965) donated to the Library five Stradivari instruments, financed the construction of the Whittall Pavilion to house these instruments, initiated a string quartet in residence program, and established a foundation that enabled the Music Division to purchase dozens of what are now our most treasured manuscripts. By mid-century, conductor Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951) and violinist Leonore Jackson McKim (1879-1969), among others, created foundations that continue to enrich the division’s collections.

Building upon the momentum gained from acquiring the archival collection of composer Victor Herbert in 1935, Music Division Chief Harold Spivacke (1904-1977) encouraged a significant expansion of our musical theater holdings by procuring manuscripts by George and Ira Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Frederick Lowe, and Richard Rodgers; these prestigious additions, among others, served as incentives that attracted similar donors. The cultivation of the division’s musical theater and dance archives remained a high priority, one that today includes not only the works of composers but also of lyricists and librettists, directors, choreographers, designers, performers and producers.

Today the Music Division’s collections comprise nearly 25,000,000 items: its general collections (items with LC classification numbers) contain musical and literary manuscripts spanning the tenth through twenty-first centuries, printed scores, books, periodicals, ephemera, iconography, photographs, scrapbooks, etc., that document western and American musical traditions. The division’s nearly 600 archival collections encompass all genres of music, theater and dance, ranging in content from the archives of composers and performers to those of music historians and theorists, conductors, photographers, collectors, associations, foundations, as well as significant collections of musical instruments. The division’s copyright deposits, the foundation of the collections, now exceeds 12,000,000 items.

The Music Division of the twenty-first century maintains its commitment to America’s musical community – those who played such a crucial role in its creation – by continuing to not only preserve and expand its holdings, but also through its public outreach programs, its internationally renowned concert series, its active presence on social media, by its support of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Music, and by developing an outstanding digital library. Our enterprises have evolved, but our goal remains the same: to be one of the great musical libraries of the world.

For more information about the Music Division, see Music, Theater, Dance: An Illustrated Guide.

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  December 5, 2022
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