Music at Columbia: The First 100 Years

The Online Catalog, 2012 > Introduction to the Online Catalog

The 1996 Centennial Exhibition of Columbia University’s Department of Music, Music at Columbia: The First 100 Years, mounted at Low Library as part of the department’s celebration, was a highly varied and eclectic collection of items from many different sources. The Music Library and the Rare Book and Manuscript Library were obvious resources, as were Columbia’s Department of Art Properties and the rich collections of Columbiana, a part of the University Archives. As the exhibition’s curator, I was given free access to Department of Music files and art works, and faculty members allowed me to use correspondence and records that would otherwise not be available. All the while, as the exhibition was taking shape, I was keenly aware that once the exhibition was over, many — if not most — of the materials on display would never be seen again. File contents and office records are not catalogued, and neither are numerous items in the collections of the University Archives, such as concert programs, newspaper clippings, and photographs, stored in labeled boxes in what was then quite literally the university’s attic in Low Library, now moved to Butler and merged with the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Items thus uncovered pique one’s interest, often because they are personal rather than official, and they helped animate the exhibition, giving it vitality and humanity. But their impact was destined to be short-lived, for they would be returned to storage once the exhibition closed.

The fact that so many of the exhibition items had never been displayed before, and might quite possibly never be viewed again, prompted us to produce a catalogue, and Department of Music faculty member Walter Frisch approached the New York Times Foundation, which responded with a grant that funded the publication in 2000 of Music at Columbia: The First 100 Years, An Annotated Catalogue of the 1996 Centennial Exhibition. It was clear, however, that we would not be able to include every item from the exhibition. The choices for the catalogue were therefore highly selective; the purpose was to give as complete an overview of the exhibition as possible, to show some of the most important items, and to provide a permanent record of the event.

Technology has changed the face of scholarship and librarianship, and it was exciting  news indeed that the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where a copy of the centennial exhibition catalogue had been deposited, had decided to publish a digitalized, on-line edition, which would make the catalogue accessible to a far wider audience. This project, which we could not have imagined ten years earlier, opened up the possibility of expanding the original publication and including images of every item in the catalogue. It is Curator of Performing Arts, Jennifer Lee who initiated the project, and who has guided it from start to finish. The daunting task of tracking down the items that had long since been returned to their unidentified hiding places was shared by Jenny and by Public Services Archivist, Jocelyn Wilk, with the help of three splendid student assistants over the past few years, Haruna Otsuka (Barnard College, Class of 2012), Maryn Rich (Pratt School of Library Service Intern) and Talia Thurm (Barnard College, Class of 2013). What had been a labor of love for the curator became a similar task for the library staff, and the exhibition is once again complete. That it is permanently preserved and accessible for viewing makes it a valuable resource for the Department of Music, and a source of deep appreciation for all those who were involved in the original project. It is my hope that it is equally satisfying for Jennifer Lee herself, to whom I am deeply grateful for making this project her own.

This Centennial Exhibition makes no claim to be comprehensive or complete. Rather, it is meant to give a sense of Columbia’s musical life and growth over its first century, of the paths of its exploration, and of the people who served it and helped to set its course.

The Acknowledgements page in the original catalogue cites those whose participation was essential to its publication, and I would be remiss were I not to point out the obvious:  that without their generous contributions of time, effort, and skill, the present project would not have been possible. The person who had been an active, supportive, and constant partner in the months of concentrated work on the exhibition, my husband Daniel M. Young, did not live to see the original catalogue, which was dedicated to his memory.  He would have celebrated its new life on-line.

The new on-line life of Music at Columbia has its genesis in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and this presents an opportunity to give an account of one of the exhibition’s most distinctive items: the Tiffany sterling silver presentation cup, given to Department of Music founder Edward MacDowell by his students upon his departure from Columbia in 1904.  The cup is held in the MacDowell Collection of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, so the story of its timely rediscovery is as much theirs as mine. The cup is mentioned in papers related to a 1938 Edward MacDowell Commemorative Exhibition, and upon discovering these papers in the collection at Columbiana, I immediately determined that the cup must be included in our exhibition, since MacDowell figured so prominently in the history of the Department of Music and in the exhibition itself.  But the cup was nowhere to be found, and I could find no record of its presence. Repeated inquiries at all possible venues on Columbia’s campus did not bear fruit. 

At the time, the Rare Book and Manuscript Library had just completed a major reconstruction and renovation project, and the staff was still occupied with setting up housekeeping in their new quarters. I decided nevertheless to approach them with my quest yet again, knowing that I might already have worn out my welcome, even from such patient, helpful, professional people. This time I encountered several staff members along with the Curator of Manuscripts, Bernard Crystal, now retired, who wondered aloud, upon hearing my inquiry, whether anybody knew what was in a cardboard box on the floor under one of the office desks. A staff person retrieved it and placed it on the counter in front of us, and there, among a number of items, was the very cup, in ordinary plastic wrap, in pristine condition, nearly a century old, every letter of the embossing and engraving as clear as on the day MacDowell had first seen it. Any laborer in the vineyard of research can appreciate the pleasure that accompanies a discovery that is hoped for, but not really expected. In the interests of security, however, it was decided that so valuable an object could not be exhibited, but that we would be given a high quality professional photograph to display instead. And so we were; the elegant black-and-white photo of the front of the cup was the final item in the exhibition, where it took pride of place, and it was reproduced in the original catalogue. I am told that viewers of the on-line catalogue will see the cup photographed on all sides, in images taken, this time in digital form, by the same library photographer, Enrique Ortiz.

Because this new chapter in the life of Music at Columbia: The First 100 Years owes its being to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, it seemed only fitting to let the generally unknown account of their unplanned role in the little drama of the silver cup — which one suspects has been transferred from the cardboard box to a more suitable repository — bring my foreword to this chapter to a close. It would have been ungenerous to do otherwise.

Mary Monroe, Ph.D. 1994 GSAS

Centennial Exhibition Curator

October, 2011


Rare Book & Manuscript Library / Butler Library, 6th Fl. East / 535 West 114th St. / New York, NY 10027 / (212) 854-5153 /