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2015 Bookseller Resource Guide
Special Report

Composing a Collection

In 1956, some two decades after Oldman’s essay, British bookseller Percy Muir commented on Oldman’s final sentence in his very entertaining memoir, Minding My Own Business (London: Chatto & Windus): “Well, to some degree, that time has come. It is no longer possible to buy first editions of the score of Don Giovanni, or of the ‘Moonlight’ or ‘Kreutzer’ Sonatas for a fiver apiece. Schumann and Schubert first editions can no longer be bought for shillings: but bargains are still to be had, and few of the masterworks command prices comparable with some of the literary peers.”

Henry Purcell’s Orpheus Britannicus, 1698-1702. Courtesy of the Lilly Library.
Pictorial sheet music for Hoagy Carmichael’s “Star Dust.” Courtesy of the Lilly Library.
A film folio of Cole Porter music from the film At Long Last Love. Courtesy of the Lilly Library.

In 2010, the specific bargains that Muir had in mind are long gone. Several generations of private collectors, and a tremendous rise in music collecting by both new and long-established institutional libraries, have changed the market, especially for first editions of the most famous pieces of music. Collectors in all fields have had to adjust their expectations and find new collecting areas over the last half-century, and music is no exception. But music is a very broad area, and there are still many bargains to be found, and many opportunities for present-day collectors, especially if they’re willing to forego their desires for the musical equivalents of Gutenberg Bibles or Shakespeare First Folios.

John and Jude Lubrano of J. and J. Lubrano, Music Antiquarians had this advice for today’s collectors: “Although the market for antiquarian music has risen dramatically in some collecting areas, there are still plenty of opportunities to form a collection without having to spend large sums of money; good, interesting material is still to be had in the range of $200 or less to $1000 … The cost of first editions of important nineteenth- and early twentieth-century composers such as Brahms, Bruckner, Debussy, Liszt, Massenet, Mendelssohn, Offenbach, Puccini, Ravel, Satie, Saint-Saens, Schubert, Schumann, etc. remains relatively moderate. Likewise, first editions of the works of many significant composers both earlier and later (e.g., lesser composers of the eighteenth century and composers of the mid- to late-twentieth century) are not very expensive.” The Lubranos also recommended the formation of “thematic collections,” including those relating to a particular composer, genre, time period, publisher, or printing process.

Marianne Wurlitzer and Gene Bruck of Wurlitzer-Bruck, Music Antiquarians hold the same opinion. In a recent email, they wrote, “Can beginners, of relatively modest means, still collect in this field? The answer is a definite yes. This would be true for books, scores, and autographs—perhaps not for major composers or early editions but there is still plenty of room for acquiring material … We would advise new collectors to go after modern scores, both signed and unsigned, and modern autographs. There is a wealth of good twentieth-century material in particular, both European and American, which will certainly increase in value. There are dozens of new facsimiles of music which go out of print pretty quickly, so that also is a good area in which to form a collection.”

A single leaf from the 1457 Mainz Psalter, the first printed book to contain music. Courtesy of the Lilly Library.

Early Music Books

The earliest printed book containing music is the 1457 Mainz Psalter, but since a method for the printing of musical notes hadn’t yet been invented, the music in both the 1457 Psalter, and its successor, the 1459 Psalter, was written out in manuscript in the spaces provided for this purpose by the compositors who set the type for the books. Many other books produced over the next few decades used this same method for any music that they included, though in some of them, the staff lines were printed, but the musical notes themselves were added in by hand. By the end of the fifteenth century, woodblocks (and perhaps metal blocks) were being used to print music, and in 1501, the first book printed with musical type, Harmonice Musices Odhecaton, was issued in Venice by Ottaviano dei Petrucci. Musical type of various kinds was used to print music for several centuries, but this method was eventually superseded by the use of engraved plates, which in turn gave way in the nineteenth century to lithography. Much of the music published in more recent times is based on computer output, which is then reproduced using a variety of methods.

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