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History and Collections

History of the Music Library

The Building

The history of the Music Library is closely linked with the personality and vision of  ts first Music Librarian,  George Sherman Dickinson, for whom, in 1961, the collection was named. Upon Dickinson's retirement, one alumna referred to Skinner Hall as "[Dickinson's] personal Valhalla, the design and planning of which is a monument to Dickinson's ingenious  experting  and imagination." [1]

Letters between Dickinson and Skinner Hall architect, Charles Collens, document the exacting precision with which Dickinson oversaw the details of almost every aspect of the building. The earliest sketches show that a library and attached museum were integral parts of Dickinson's plans for the new building. The extensive collection of the Dickinson-Collens correspondence and Dickinson's early sketches for Skinner Hall are housed in The Catherine Pelton Durrell '25 Archives and Special Collections, ground floor, Ingram Library.

The Skinner Hall of Music was built in memory of Belle Skinner, class of 1887, by her brother, William Skinner, the silk manufacturer from Mount Holyoke, Massachusetts. The French town, Hattonchatel, was restored through the benevolence of Belle Skinner after World War I.

At the request of her brother, Belle Skinner's Hattonchatel chateau served as a model for the building created in her honor. Many of the architectural features of her chateau in Hattonchatel were mirrored in the Skinner Hall design. 

The Library

The Music Library is situated on five levels on the southeast side of the Skinner Hall of Music, which it shares with the Department of Music. On the first floor of the facility is the Music Library Circulation and Reserves Office, the card catalog and computers to access the Libraries' Online Library Search Catalog, a Reading Room, the current periodical and reference book areas, an individual listening/viewing space and the Music Library Listening Classroom (MLLC).  Two tiers of stacks (floors 2a and 2b) adjoin the Reading Room and house sound recordings and part of the score collection. On the ground floor of the library are circulating books, the remainder of the score collection and older issues od Music-related periodicals. On the third floor of the library is the Treasure Room museum of historical musical instruments and the Music Library's special collections.

The Music Library is Vassar's largest departmental library. Its services include reference, bibliographic instruction, reference consultations, audio-visual facilities, circulation and reserves operations, cataloging, acquisitions, and an in-house workroom bindery and processing area. Please note: Music Library services and policies. The library supports the spectrum of music topics covered in the curriculum of the Department of Music, as well as music topics covered in a wide variety of departments and programs on campus.

The Collection

The Music Library collection dates back to the earliest days of the College, founded in 1861. Even before the Skinner Hall of Music was built in 1931, the collection was one of some renown. In an article written in 1930, Dickinson noted that "the library [in the new building] will house the music now in the old music hall and the books about music in the general library. . . These quarters are deserved by what has grown to be one of the best diversified and most closely classified college music libraries in the country." [2] Over sixty years later, in an article on Dickinson in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Jon Newson wrote of the collection, "At Vassar [Dickinson] developed one of the best college music libraries in the country". [3]

As the music section of the Vassar College Libraries, the Music Library collection totals over 80,000 items. Holdings include books, current periodicals on music, over  musical scores, and sound and visual recordings. Much of the collection can be accessed through the Vassar Libraries Online Catalog.

The collection is strong in early facsimiles, thematic catalogs and collected works. Other collection strengths and highlights include the music of women composers, American music, piano music, and opera. The library maintains growing collections of world musics, musical theater, and jazz and supports the variety of music topics covered in the curriculum of the Department of Music, and other departments and programs on campus.

Several important gifts and acquisitions have strengthened the Music Library collection during its long history. In 1919-20 a gift was made by Gustav Dannreuther of the complete chamber music library of the Dannreuther String Quartet. This gift included chamber music parts and greatly enhanced the Music Library score collection. A gift in 1965-66 of the record library of Howard Barlow, conductor of the Voice of Firestone Orchestra, included some 20,000 78 and LP recordings. These discs were incorporated into the existing collection.

The greatest single impact on the collection is undoubtedly the materials from the Carreño estate, purchased in 1941. Teresa Carreño (1853-1917), Venezuelan pianist, composer, conductor and singer, pictured here, studied with Gottschalk and Rubinstein. She enjoyed a particularly successful European career as a pianist. A large portion of Carreño's personal collection of printed music was added to the Music Library collection. Special items such as music manuscripts and letters by contemporary musical figures of the turn-of the century, both well-known and little known to us today, were major additions to the Music Library Treasure Room collection. Most of these have now been moved to the Archives and Special Collections Department, ground floor, Ingram Library. For detailed information about the Carreño collection see the MLA Notes article, cited at the end of this essay, by Vassar Professor of Music, Brian Mann. [4]

Since Vassar College is the oldest of America's women's colleges it was natural that special attention would be placed on the collecting of music by women composers. In 1963 a women composers' card file was initiated to identify scores and sound recordings of music in the collection by women composers. Today this file, now partially online, identifies over 1,100 scores and recordings representing the compositions of women composers in the collection. To view the online portion of this list, type the subject "Women Composers Collection" in the Vassar Libraries Search Online Catalog. Included in the Vassar College Libraries collections are letters and autograph manuscripts of Miriam Gideon, Netty Simons, Martha Alter, and Louise Talma, among others. Published scores are housed in the Music Library. Music manuscripts and correspondence are now housed in the Archives and Special Collections Department, ground floor, Ingram Library.

A substantial representation of musical Vassariana has been collected. A complete run of Vassar College Music Programs has been attracting the attention of researchers interested in early collegiate musical life and early musical training for women. A portion of this collection, from March 1866-June 1887 and October 1953-May 1969, is available online as part of an ongoing effort to digitize the entire collection. In the digital collection, rich data details each performer's status while at Vassar and identifies world premiers, concert series, and the use of special instruments.  The digital collection of Music Programs is currently being transferred to a new platform and should be available Fall 2022.

Vassar has a rich tradition of collegiate a cappella groups. An oral history and archive of Vassar College a cappella groups, of which the "Night Owls" are one of the oldest continuous groups in the country, is currently being collected. We are interested in collecting any sound recordings, member lists, or other material about Vassar music groups. Please contact us if you have any information or materials to contribute to the archive.  A project was undertaken in 2019 to digitize Vassar's older recordings

Books, articles, compositions and recordings written and recorded by former members of the Vassar Music faculty are also housed in the collection. The works of Boris Koutzen include recordings, scores, and some 50 boxes of music manuscripts. The writings of Vassar professors Ritter, Harold Gleason, and of, course, Dickinson, are also represented, including some of Dickinson's detailed, handwritten class notes. Many scores, recordings and writings by current Vassar music faculty can be accessed through the Vassar Libraries Online Catalog.

George Sherman Dickinson

A quick sketch of Dickinson's character and background reveals much about the collection upon which he created such a lasting impression. Dickinson was a teacher well-loved by his students. Ms. Alelaide Ferry Hooker '25 wrote of her memories of "Dickie" during the 1920's when "the popularity of his various courses had snowballed into a cult." "He inspires a certain awe in the classroom but has. . . an immeasurable capacity for sharing ideas. . . His energy is boundless." [2]

Educated at Oberlin and Harvard, Dickinson studied theory and composition in Berlin, then taught organ and theory at Oberlin before coming to Vassar in 1916. He became Music Librarian in 1927 and was Chair of the Music department from 1932-1944. One of the founders of the American Musicological Society (AMS), he was active in both the AMS and Music Library Association (MLA), serving as president of MLA from 1939-41. Author of a host of articles on music education and the study of music as a liberal art, Dickinson also created a score classification system still in use at Vassar, the University of Buffalo and elsewhere.

Dickinson's musical intuition, shaped by a reverence for the European masters, and his ideal regarding liberal arts music education were forces which have had a strong impact on the curriculum of the Department of Music and of the library collection which supports it. In an address, which Dickinson called "The Living Library," given before the National Association of Schools of Music on February 19, 1946, he set forth the scope of the ideal liberal arts music library. [3] Someone familiar with the Dickinson library will quickly see that the "living library" is based on Dickinson's own collection--down to the special trucks for the listening rooms, designed by Dickinson himself. For Dickinson "the quiet place called the library has a part which, if thoughtfully played, is far from the unassertive and sometimes static role which the library is accustomed to accept. For the library is not only a place were things are kept; it is still more a place where ideas are kept. . . Without realization that the library is a boundless source, we and the library are both the poorer. The only significant conception of the music library is. . . one which acknowledges it as a fundamental, comprehensive center of materials of all sorts for the teaching and learning of music". [4]

Dickinson ended his "Living Library" address with the conviction that "a healthy music education is not seriously possible without a healthy library." Dickinson's emphasis on the importance of the music library in the world of music education continues as our goal today, to maintain "a living library in the service of a living education."[5]

Music Treasures in the Vassar Collections

On the top floor of the Library is a museum which George Sherman Dickinson named "The Treasure Room." This area of the library is significant not only for the special collections housed here but also, as Carol June Bradley has noted, because the Vassar Music Library Treasure Room was probably the first museum within a music library in the United States. [5] Here are located two important collections which George Sherman Dickinson assembled to "bring into the range of experience of the student," [6] the Department of Music's Historical Musical Instrument Collection and the Music Library special collections.

The Music Library special collections include those manuscript and published musical treasures which Dickinson was able to secure from dealers, such as Otto Haas, or during his frequent trips abroad. Currently there are some 380 books and over 1,200 scores in the Treasure Room collection. Dickinson was systematic in his acquisitions and selected areas of the Treasure Room collection are quite comprehensive. For example, the early music dictionaries of Brossard, Walther, Grassineau, Rousseau, Lichtenthal are all found in the collection in early editions. Early treatises by Zarlino, Tartini, Descartes, Mattheson, Marpurg and Rameau and early editions of works important to the historical study of music, such as the descriptive travels of Charles Burney, are also found here.

Of the early score editions in the Treasure Room collection, over 70 titles, about 7% of the collection, have been identified as first editions. These include works by Bach, Beethoven, Gluck, Liszt, MacDowell, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Wagner, and others.

During the history of the collection over 2,000 samples of popular American sheet music have been acquired. The current collection ranges in scope from the early 1800's through early 1900's. Beautifully illustrated title pages of the period and representations of the works of important composers in the history of American popular song, including Root, Work, Foster, Harris, Dresser, and others, are found in the collection.

Music-related materials in the Archives and Special Collections Department, ground floor, Ingram Library, include some fifty autograph letters of famous musical figures such as Mozart, Haydn, and Rossini. The letter pictured above was written by Mozart in 1782.

The Vassar Libraries Archives and Special Collections Department now houses a modest collection of autograph music manuscripts, formerly housed in the Treasure Room. The Edward MacDowell manuscript of Humoureske, Op. 24, is dedicated to Madame Teresa Carreño-Tagliapietra, and is dated "Leipzig, 1886." Other MacDowell autograph manuscripts in the collection include the Fantasiestücke Op. 18, Stücke für das Pianoforte Op. 19, and Concert-Etude für das Pianoforte Op. 36. Also included in the collection are autograph manuscripts of a Serenade, the only known chamber work by Teresa Carreño, Horatio Porter's Quartet for 2 violins, viola, and cello, Quincy Porter's The Silent Voices for voice and piano, Virgil Thomson's Hymn and Variations for organ, and sketches from parts of The Black Maskers Suite for voice and piano, by Roger Sessions. The music manuscripts and papers of Frédéric Louis Ritter, Vassar's first professor of Music, and Teresa Carreño may be found there as well.

Also housed in the Vassar Libraries Archives and Special Collections Department are George Sherman Dickinson's early sketches for the Belle Skinner Hall of Music and his correspondence tracing the building of the Belle Skinner Hall of Music.