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Northwestern’s Renowned Music Library Offers Haven for Scholars

Greg MacAyeal

Greg MacAyeal, music Library curator

Members of one of rock and roll’s greatest bands used crinkled paper from ordinary notepads to jot down lyrics for their hits. The proof is on the wall in the listening room of Northwestern’s Music Library, where high-quality reproductions of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s words for the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and “Good Day Sunshine” are framed and displayed. (The originals, pictured below, are stored nearby in an environmentally controlled vault.)

The lyrics are among the 300,000 items — ranging from books, scores, and sound recordings (including 30,000 LPs and 40,000 CDs) to letters, photos, and journals — that make up Northwestern’s prestigious music holdings. Occupying the main level of Deering Library, the collection is especially famous as a treasure trove of 20th-century and contemporary classical music and includes at least one copy of nearly every new score published since 1945. Of special note are the John Cage and Fritz Reiner collections, as well as such rare and unique items as medieval-era scores written on calf and goatskin.

“It’s all available to students and scholars,” says curator Greg MacAyeal, who clearly delights in sharing the collection. “Some of the rare materials can only be used in the library, but most of what we have can be checked out.”

In War’s Aftermath, a Sonic Boom

Northwestern established the Music Library as a separate entity in 1945, but not until the tenure of Don Roberts, who headed the library from 1969 to 2002, was it transformed into an internationally known resource. Aspiring to create a collection of distinction, he focused on music composed after World War II — an area that was largely ignored at the time.

“Modern music wasn’t being treated very seriously for academic study, so it was fertile ground,” MacAyeal says.

Roberts eventually amassed the most extensive collection of contemporary music held by any academic library, centered around the works of Cage. Those materials include hundreds of scores and manuscripts as well as decades of letters between Cage and various composers, performers, and artists, much of it collected by Cage for his book Notations. (The Beatles lyrics, for example, were given to Cage by his friend Yoko Ono.) The windfall donation came about after Cage learned of Northwestern’s interest in his work, phoned Roberts, and introduced himself.

A second key collection is memorabilia — including years of weathered, red leather datebooks — from conductor Fritz Reiner. Wondering what the future leader of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra did on February 13, 1949? Reiner had lunch with legendarily caustic arts critic Claudia Cassidy. The room housing his materials includes his desk, scores with his notes, and even a harp that once sat in Reiner’s office.

A Magnet for Scholars

Students and scholars flock to the library for several reasons. A former PhD student at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music focused on a 15th-century music manuscript for a research paper, studying the ink used and the animal skin it was written on, then translating the Latin text and music notation to create a practical edition for modern musicians. “It’s a great example of how the collection enables that experience of engagement for our students,” says MacAyeal.

Music students seeking repertoire to perform for juried competitions spend hours exploring the vast collection of scores. And faculty from other disciplines, such as history and anthropology, often check out sound recordings — for example, indigenous music for global studies courses or 1960s albums to illustrate that era.

The Cage archives have attracted the greatest number of scholars, and for the past few years the Music Library has awarded a Cage research grant that covers travel and lodging to study here. Last year’s winners were Cage experts from two British universities who were researching Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra for a forthcoming book, website, and other teaching tools. “They came to Northwestern specifically to do research on materials they can’t find anywhere else,” says MacAyeal.

As with any library, the four full-time staff members — all with master’s degrees in music — and up to 10 student workers respond to diverse research inquiries. “Not infrequently, people will sing to us over the phone and ask ‘What’s that song?’” explains MacAyeal.

“And believe it or not, there are reference books with pages of different music intervals to help us figure that out.” But the staff doesn’t always consult the references. “Every now and then,” he adds with a smile, “one of us will know the song without looking it up.”

By Anne Stein