The following is a guest post from Senior Music Reference Specialist Kevin LaVine.
Throughout the 1930s, as the developing Soviet state was liquidating Tsarist property in order to generate funding for its ambitious projects, Herbert Putnam, the Librarian of Congress at that time, seized the opportunity to purchase approximately 2800 volumes which were formerly held in the personal libraries of the Russian Imperial family. Although these volumes are now held primarily in the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division, European Division, Law Library, and in the general collections of its Main Reading Room, 155 titles (in 174 volumes, and containing over one thousand separate works) of this material represent musical scores and books on music and music-related topics which are held within the Library’s Music Division, with a handful of these titles held in the Rare Book Division.
Although the contents of the Library’s so-called Russian Imperial Collection have long been documented in other Library divisions, the first systematic descriptive bibliography of the Collection’s music-related component has now been compiled. This bibliography, which includes a brief history of the Collection, a description of the music material held within it, and indices of its contents by subject, format, and names of composers, authors and lyricists, may be examined online via the Library’s website, via the “Catalogs, Bibliographies and Guides” link on the webpage of the Performing Arts Reading Room, or via the direct link to the bibliography that appears on the Performing Arts Reading Room’s webpage.
This material is diverse in nature, ranging from smaller scale works of chamber music to full scores of operas, and encompassing liturgical music, choral music, folk song, and military and ceremonial music. Twenty-two original musical manuscripts are represented within this material; several even include original watercolor or pencil drawings. Most of these volumes consist of elegantly bound and elaborately decorated presentation copies, attesting to a high degree of skill and invention in the bookbinder’s art, and that of Russian decorative arts in general, in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Not surprisingly, nearly-one third of the music-related volumes held within this collection consist of musical scores of works for piano solo or for voice and piano, which by their intimate nature were likely performed by members of the Imperial family (many of whom possessed musical talents of their own) and/or their entourage. (Significantly, several of the songs mentioned above are scored or arranged for contralto voice, reflecting the vocal range of Alexandra, the last Empress of Russia.) Assembled over the course of three generations by members of the Imperial family, this material likely reflects, through the sheer diversity of its content, the varied musical interests of the last Tsars of Russia.