The Belle Brown Collection: An American Opera Student at the Turn of the 20th Century

Portrait of Belle Brown, Belle Brown Collection, Music Division.

Portrait of Belle Brown, Belle Brown Collection, Music Division.

The Music Division’s archival collections feature the archives and personal papers of some of the most significant and influential artists and figures in music history, particularly 20th-century composers, conductors, scholars, and publishers. When researchers and performers think of the Music Division’s archival collections, names like Leonard Bernstein, George and Ira Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Serge Koussevitzky, and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge jump to mind; however, the riches of our collections certainly do not begin and end with these big names. On the contrary, there are thousands of personalities and biographies waiting to be discovered and investigated throughout our entire collections.

When I first started working in the Music Division just about five years ago, I was thrilled to roam the stacks and start investigating our amazing collections. I started exploring small archival collections that sparked an interest, and the first collection that caught my eye was that of a woman whose name meant nothing to me: Belle Brown. The Belle Brown Collection was donated to the Music Division by Miss Belle G. Brown (1868-1940) in the 1930s, and it not only documents the beginnings of her opera career, but also documents the significant singers, teachers, composers, conservatory directors, and others who comprised a specific music scene at a particular moment in history. The collection is a small one that holds mostly portraits and photographs of noteworthy musicians and musical figures, some correspondence from Brown’s voice teachers (19th-century opera stars Désirée Artôt de Padilla and Pauline Lucca) among other colleagues and friends, and a few miscellaneous documents relating to Brown’s career such as her contract to sing at the Weimar Court Theatre from 1894-1899. Taking a look at the finding aid to the Belle Brown Collection, you can browse the contents of the collection and see what famous names are represented.

Photograph of Mme. Pessiak-Schmerling, Belle Brown, and Bessie Brown. Belle Brown Collection, Music Division.

Photograph of Mme. Pessiak-Schmerling, Belle Brown, and Bessie Brown. Belle Brown Collection, Music Division.

Tomorrow I’ll be discussing the Belle Brown Collection as part of the Music Division’s High Noon Lecture Series, sharing what I’ve managed to learn about Belle Brown (the aspiring singer) and her twin sister Bessie Brown Krause (an accomplished pianist and student of Leschetizky). Additionally, I am looking forward to providing an up close look at photographs from the collection, sharing some fun biographical information about those represented (with a little historical gossip where I can!), and drawing connections between this intriguing cast of characters. There will be a small display of photographs from the collection available to attendees after the presentation. Local readers – please do join us tomorrow, December 3, at noon in Whittall Pavilion!

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