In Memoriam: Dr. Cyrilla Barr

The following is a guest post from retired Senior Music Reference Specialist Kevin LaVine, in remembrance of musicologist Dr. Cyrilla Barr (1929-2021), who passed away on New Year’s Day. In 1997 the Library of Congress published Dr. Barr’s The Coolidge Legacy, an abridged biography of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (click the link to the online catalog record to access a PDF version of the book).

Photograph of Cyrilla Barr giving a lecture in Coolidge Auditorium c. 1997.

Photograph of Cyrilla Barr giving a lecture in Coolidge Auditorium c. 1997. Credit: N. Alicia Byers. Library of Congress Information Bulletin, December 1997 (Vol. 56, no. 17).

One of my first assignments after joining the staff of the Music Division was the daunting task of organizing its voluminous archive of the papers of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, one of the most significant benefactors of the Division, the Library, and in retrospect, of the very course of twentieth-century art music and culture.  At that time, to my good fortune, Dr. Cyrilla Barr had begun to consult this very archive as part of her research on Mrs. Coolidge’s life and legacy, allowing me the privilege of assisting her for several years during the completion of what would ultimately be the first scholarly biography of Mrs. Coolidge.

At that time (some thirty years ago), Dr. Barr was a faculty member at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, a position which afforded her the opportunity to explore her primary research interest, that of the role of women in shaping cultural history, thereby becoming among the first academics to bring scholarly attention to this previously neglected field of study.  Dr. Barr’s broad historical perspective made the leap from her initial studies of women in Renaissance Italy to the life of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge — born in the age of American nineteenth-century industrialism, and one of the nation’s first female philanthropists (and of the arts, no less) — seem an entirely natural progression.  Dr. Barr’s advocacy of women’s studies and women in the arts continued with her editorship (with Ralph Locke) of Cultivating Music in America in 1997, an anthology which remains a valuable scholarly resource.

During the time when I assisted Dr. Barr in identifying material within the Coolidge Archive for her use, her meticulous approach to research, her ceaseless inquisitiveness, and the wide-ranging, open-minded intellectual perspective she brought to her task made a deep and lasting impression on me, providing an example of professional excellence which I sought to emulate throughout my career at the Library.  Viewed in hindsight through the lens of post-Library retirement, it was the lessons learned – all without a word of instruction – through Dr. Barr’s example which have proven to be the most inspiring, insightful, and enduring.

As a respected scholar, beloved educator, talented writer of historical novels — to say nothing of her generosity of spirit, endless willingness to assist and encourage, her immense creativity, unassuming nature, quiet (yet occasionally devastating) wit, and complete dedication to her profession — Cyrilla Barr has left a legacy that endures as a monument both to scholarship and to a life admirably, and enviably, lived.

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