I decided to celebrate my new U.S. citizenship with a trip to Washington D.C. Since all the news these days seems to be about the bad things in the economy, it’s important to recognize the incredible cultural wealth we have accumulated as a country, for instance in our nation’s Library of Congress. Besides, there are so many other monuments and sights to see in Washington.
The Library of Congress was founded with the personal collection of Thomas Jefferson. Today, it is contained in three buildings, right next to the Capitol: the Jefferson (with the awe-inspiring main reading room), the Madison (home of the Music Division), and the Adams buildings. All are open to the public and free of charge. If you want to go further, with just two pieces of ID, you can in minutes obtain a reader’s card good for two years, and really go to town!
For fans of high-tech, the Library has enormous amounts of material online. See www.loc.gov for that, though I always feel that a “real” visit is best. The hours are Monday through Saturday, 8:30AM to 5 PM (no materials pulled after 4:15), closed on Federal holidays.
Thomas Jefferson’s music holdings were a mere thirteen volumes, but by 1896, the year the Music Division was founded, there were 400,000 items. Today, Jefferson’s baker’s dozen has grown to over twelve million! Its mission statement reads in part: “Music in its best sense is a science belonging to all ages, as well as all nationalities and conditions of men, and the Library of Congress should contain its earliest as well as its latest and most complete expression.”
And boy is it complete! Here’s a small sampling of what I was able to see in just a few hours on my first visit.
The autographs of Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo” and “Appalachian Spring,” Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and “Porgy and Bess,” Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” Jerome Kern’s “Showboat,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma,” Bach cantatas, Beethoven piano sonatas, Samuel Barber’s “Adagio” for strings in its original form as the slow movement of his Quartet, and Ravel’s “Chansons madécasses” (which was a commissioned work, another facet of the Library’s work).
And instruments! They have a famous quintet of Stradivarius strings (two violins, viola and cello, plus an “extra” violin) that are played by the quartet-in-residence in concerts within Coolidge Auditorium in the Library, where music is brought to life, not remaining a theoretical thing “on paper.”
In the Performing Arts Reading Room, you can search the huge database, fill out a call slip, and within a few minutes an assistant will bring your books and music right to your table. There are even soundproof modules with grand pianos in them so that you can bring your own treasures to life right there. You can listen to historic recordings or watch video on a number of terminals. You can’t check books out, however, so all listening, looking and research must be done while there. It’s sure worth your time. Photocopying is available, if the work is free of copyright restriction.
Practically every important figure in the arts in America (and overseas too) left some or all of their collections to the Library, resulting in a huge amount of rare photographs and intimate correspondence. These are found in the over 500 “named” collections, such as the Koussevitzky, the George and Ira Gershwin, the Irving Berlin, and so on. Not just musicians but publishers, agents, patrons, and many others. So you can get the whole range of transactions via letters, pictures, concert programs and more.
Posters, playbills, Gershwin’s metronome, even a lock of Beethoven’s hair! Want to see a photograph of Rachmaninoff smiling? Look no further. How about Irving Berlin’s typed lyrics to “Anything You Can Do” (from “Annie Get Your Gun”) with rhyming words in the upper left-hand corner? It’s there. Bob Fosse’s and Gwen Verdon’s choreographic notes? Yep. Even 1600 flutes in the Dayton C. Miller Flute collection! That’s a lot of embouchure!
Maybe you’re interested in a few of the 12,000 opera libretti, or one of the 120 songs written about the “Titanic”! How about everyone who applied to be on “Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour” or the archive of the American Harp Society? There are no “small” numbers in the Library.
So, if you live within easy reach of Washington, why not explore this enormous and rewarding treasure trove? If you are farther away but planning a trip, how about staying “domestic” and taking the family to DC? Thomas Jefferson would be proud.
© 2009 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs