Musical Instruments at the Library of Congress
About the Library's Musical Instrument Collections
The mission of the Library of Congress, the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and the largest library in the world, is to serve Congress and preserve its resources for the future. In 1815 Congress purchased Thomas Jefferson’s library, a rich collection universal in scope, knowledge, and creativity. Jefferson, a keen admirer of music, was also a violinist. His library collection held 13 books on music literature and theory, thus laying the foundation for the future music division.
The Library’s Music Division was established by 1896. From 1924 to 1935, aided by the philanthropy of two remarkable women, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and Gertude Clarke Whittall, the mission of the Music Division included musical performance and music commissions. The unprecedented generosity and foresight of these two patrons furthered the Library’s musical activities. There were chamber music concerts (which included the legendary Gregor Piatigorsky, Artur Rubinstein, the Budapest String Quartet, the Beaux Arts Trio, and the Juilliard String Quartet), a broadcast series, commissions, lectures, festivals, and the gift of musical instruments, commencing with Whittall’s gift, in 1935, of a quartet of stringed instruments by Antonio Stradivari. This quartet of instruments, most likely the first such quartet held by a public institution in the United States, along with the subsequent addition of a fifth Whittall Stradivari violin, formed the cornerstone of the Library’s “Cremonese” collection, as it is now sometimes called.
Gertrude Clarke Whittall (1867-1965, born Gertrude Littlefield Clarke, of Belleview, Nebraska) moved to Washington, D.C., in 1934 after the death of her husband, Matthew John Whittall, a dealer in fine carpets. Apparently affected by a vivid memory of the Flonzaley String Quartet playing a private concert for her family in 1908, she became well known for the soirées held in her Washington apartment. Mrs. Whittall’s choice to donate to a library, and not to a museum, assured her that the instruments would not become mere relics. According to her bequest, they would be played from time to time, as they were intended. To that end, she established the Whittall Foundation, an endowment to finance professional in-house use of the instruments and concerts for the public.
Mrs. Whittall’s enthusiastic support of the Music Division continued for another thirty years until her death in 1965. The first “Strad” concert was played in the Library in January 1936. A few years later, in 1941, she purchased portions of the Jerome Stonborough (of Vienna) collection, thus expanding the Whittall Foundation activities to include the acquisition of original 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century music manuscripts and correspondence (with European composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Berg, Brahms, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Mozart, Schoenberg, Schubert, and Wagner). The manuscripts and correspondence complemented and completed her gifts of musical instruments.
The five Strads, under the care of then Honorary Curator Henry Blakiston Wilkins, were soon joined by the early stringed instruments of his own collection. Originally offering five instruments (the Guersan Pardessus de Viole, a 7 String Bass Viol attributed to Rombouts, a Gagliano Viola d’Amore, a German Viola d’Amore, and a Quinton by Le Jeune,) a Bass Viol attributed to Tielke was later added to the gift from Wilkins. They were, like the five Strads, offered to provide a practical performance group and focus attention on the musical literature at the Library of Congress.
The growing musical instruments collections were enriched in 1937 by the addition of a fifth Stradivari (the “Ward”) with bow, again from Mrs. Whittall. Rudolph H. Wurlitzer, president of the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, of Cincinnati, Ohio, presented the collection with a pochette and bow (or kit, or dancing master’s fiddle) with label “…a paris 1685,” a miniature (fixed frog) bow, and a period leather-covered wooden case.
In 1938, Mrs. Whittall sent a check to the Librarian to construct a specially designed room, a Stradivari sanctuary, adjacent to the Coolidge Auditorium. According to her wishes, the Whittall Pavilion would be designed with furnishings from her home, or other custom-made furniture specifically purchased for the room, and ornamented by iron grillwork with a violin motif. The room was two stories high, fireproofed, and had a roof and floor of steel and reinforced concrete. Finished in 1939, it was informally introduced to the public with a concert of violin and piano sonatas played by Adolph Busch and Rudolph Serkin.
In February 1938, Mrs. Robert Somers Brookings presented the Library of Congress with a 1654 violin made by Nicolò Amati. It had been owned and used for many years by her husband, Robert Somers Brookings, founder of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Mrs. Brookings accompanied the gift with the stipulation that the violin was for “useful service at the Library.”
Robert Somers Brookings had obtained the violin through the mediation and advice of the great violinist Joseph Joachim. Fascinated by music, Brookings went to Berlin in 1884 to study, and was allured by the weekly soirées that he attended in Joachim’s apartment. The two men recognized that Brookings’ talent was not as a violinist, however, but in his future as an economist. Joachim, knowing that the Amati was for sale, suggested that Brookings return to America with a souvenir, his own musical gift. Thus, another musical instrument was added to a burgeoning performance and research collection of musical instruments.
In 1941, the Library received a large collection of flute and other wind instruments from Dayton C. Miller to add to its instrument collections. Dayton C. Miller, who received his doctorate in physics from Princeton University, was a consummate collector. He gave his collections of wind instruments and related items to the Library of Congress to encourage scholarly interest in the flute. He had planned to come to the Library as curator of the collection, but died suddenly on February 22, 1941. His bequest arrived at the Library three months later, on May 22, 1941.
At the time of his bequest, Miller’s collection of materials relating to the flute comprised more than 1,426 instruments (flutes and other wind instruments). Of approximately 3,000 books about music, there were more than 10,000 titles of music, as well as numerous patents, trade catalogs, news clippings, autographs, articles, correspondence files, and drawers of iconography. There also were many bronzes, ivories, statuary, and figures, all depicting flutists, fife, or pipe players.
Starting in the 1920s, Miller deliberated for many years over where his collections could find a permanent home. He considered donating his collections to the then National Museum (now the Smithsonian Institution), but had also been in touch with the Library of Congress as a reader, advisor, and potential donor.
In 1933 Miller wrote to Dr. Carleton Sprague Smith of the New York Public Library that he had catalogs of musical instruments from 50 museums. He had visited most of these museums, as well as many of the music libraries in the United States and abroad. Miller was very interested in having his collections in one location, but had not yet found a suitable home in America. He was especially impressed with the Deutsches Museum of Munich, but found that it lacked a great collection of music to supplement the instruments.
By 1934 Miller felt that his collection was too large to maintain in Cleveland. He wrote to Frances Densmore, an ethnomusicologist, that he feared that his collection would be dispersed and his efforts wasted. Finally, Miller made his decision; his will, drafted in 1939, gave his entire collection to the Library. He further stipulated that his collections be preserved intact as a whole, and not subdivided, so as to illustrate directly the history of the flute.
Recent instrument additions to the Miller collections include an early 20th-century silver Boehm system flute by William Meinell, New York, with its original case; and a pair of silver clarinets (A- and B-flat) by William S. Haynes, Boston, with original case. Robert Sheldon, former instrument curator at the Library of Congress, donated to the Miller collections an important early clarinet in A-flat, by Jakob Anthony of Philadelphia (DCM 1662). Two additional Anthony instruments (a concert flute and a walking stick flute) also are preserved in the Miller collections.
Additional significant instruments have joined the Library’s collections in recent years for use in performance or as museum objects. They include:
The “Kreisler” Guarneri (ca. 1730), formerly owned and used by Fritz Kreisler, who gave the violin in 1952;
A collection of ten elegantly crafted Siamese-style folk instruments, all ornamented with inlay and in beautiful plush covers, given in 1960 from King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand;
A Stroviol, or Stroh violin, donated in 1994 by George D. Powell that he had used as a practice violin;
A violin and bow, made by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, ca. 1870-71, and owned and played by James Corbett French, a violinist and curator of an Egyptian museum. His widow, Mildred B. French, donated the violin in 2000, stating it was her husband’s wish that it be played by accomplished musicians.
The “Tuscan-Medici” viola, by Stradivari (1690), on loan to the Library from Mrs. Cameron Baird. The Tuscan, also known as the Medici contralto or as the de Rougemont, was purchased in 1957 by Cameron and Jane Baird. It is one of a matched quintet of stringed instruments commissioned by the Medici family in Tuscany and delivered to Prince Ferdinand. The Bairds were instrumental in bringing the Buffalo Philharmonic to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s. The couple sponsored chamber music concerts in Buffalo and were friends of the Budapest String Quartet. Since the Budapest String Quartet disbanded in 1967, the viola has been on loan to the Library for use by the Library in its service to the public.
The “Baron Vitta” violin, by Guaneri (ca. 1730), owned by violinist/conductor Szymon Goldberg. This violin was donated to the Library in 2007 by Goldberg’s widow, pianist Miyoko Yamane, with the stipulation of that it be loaned to violinist Nicholas Kitchen, a former student of Goldberg’s. Kitchen is an eminent soloist and a founding member of the Borromeo String Quartet. The “Baron Vitta” is a twin violin to the “Kreisler” Guaneri violin, also held at the Library.