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2015 Bookseller Resource Guide
Special Report

Composing a Collection

Both dealers noted that there is a great deal of attractive and interesting material to collect in the field in addition to musical first editions. As Wurlitzer-Bruck noted, musical autographs are now commonly handled by many dealers who are not musical specialists, and though “the big manuscripts are usually only affordable by big institutions or a small handful of collectors,” there is still a large amount of material available to collectors of more modest means. The Lubranos also recommended musical autographs, adding, “these, of course, can be very expensive, but, again, there are so many composers to collect, and once the ‘high points’ are removed (Mozart, Beethoven, and the like), it is still possible to obtain examples of such things as autograph letters or autograph musical quotations at moderate prices.”

Both the Lubranos and Wurlitzer-Bruck handle a great deal of ephemera, including programs and playbills, as well as iconographic material, such as engravings of early composers and musicians, and photographs and cartes-de-visites of later ones. This kind of ephemera and pictorial material can be found in many music collectors’ libraries, and these items, when framed or otherwise displayed, are often among the most prominent and attractive pieces in the room.

In additional to musical first editions, ephemera, and pictorial material, there are also books of music history, biography, and theory, and many of these books are still quite affordable, particularly from later periods. Another popular collecting subject is books related to musical instruments, with the most prominent (and expensive) area being books about stringed instruments, particularly violins. These lavish books are often well illustrated and are occasionally published in limited or special editions. Like collectors who collect books in other specialist fields—such as golf, conjuring, or automobiles—violin book collectors likely came into the field not through another area of book collecting, but rather through their interest in the subject matter itself, so some of the usual book-collecting rules or practices may not be followed as strictly with books about stringed instruments as they are in some other book collecting fields.

One of the most commonly collected areas in the field of music is a familiar one, and many people have examples in their homes already, though they may not consider themselves collectors. This is the area of sheet music, i.e., music for practical use and amateur or professional performance, and this kind of music has been marketed and published for centuries. A great deal of sheet music consists of single songs or pieces, while others are ‘folios’—collections of pieces by a particular composer or assembled for sale by a publisher. Sheet music can be quite interesting, and because it was intended to be sold to a wide music-buying public, it can be very attractive and colorful as well. Sheet music collectors have long assembled large collections, both general and specialized, and there has tended to be a great deal of private selling between collectors of sheet music. In the past, some of this activity took place through specialized newsletters, but today, a great deal of it takes place online on auction sites such as eBay.

Sheet music is a vast area, and while some pieces, such as the first appearances of famous songs, can be quite expensive, the vast majority of pieces can be acquired for a few dollars or less. With the wide availability of old sheet music for sale online, in used bookstores, and in antique shops, flea markets, and garage sales, it’s an excellent area for those interested in modern popular music to pursue without having to spend or shelve a lot, at least in the beginning stages.

Music collecting can be a fascinating and rewarding pursuit, and it’s still certainly possible to build an attractive (and even playable!) music collection on a reasonable budget. Though some high-spot areas of music collecting have been fully mined for years, the field is so much bigger than just a few major names, and a little bit of imagination can get you started in an interesting and affordable subject that you may not have considered before.

Further Reading

Though collecting music may seem unusual to purist book collectors, it does have one thing in common with all other collecting fields—the more you know, the better and more rewarding your collecting experience will be. There are many specialized catalogues and bibliographies for music collectors, but the largest and most useful general work for collectors is the 29-volume The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie, which was first published by Macmillan in 2001, and then reprinted with corrections in 2002. The New Grove is also online by monthly or annual subscription. The New Grove covers all aspects of music, and the articles contain very useful lists of works and additional bibliographical references. An important and handy source derived from the first edition of The New Grove, which was published in 1980, is Music Printing and Publishing, edited by D. W. Krummel and Stanley Sadie (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1990). This book provides a great deal of information on the many methods used over the centuries for the printing of music, along with brief biographical and historical information about music publishers and printers. For an authoritative, but concise, illustrated history of music printing, this is still one of the first places to look. Music collectors of all kinds can also make use of James J. Fuld’s The Book of World-Famous Music (Fifth edition, revised and enlarged; New York: Dover, 2000), which tells the stories of hundreds of famous songs and compositions, from Yankee Doodle to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Finally, though it’s now more than 75 years old, C. B. Oldman’s essay on “Musical First Editions” noted above is still helpful. Though there is a great deal more bibliographical material available today than there was in 1934, Oldman’s thoughts and observations still make interesting reading. In addition to its appearance in New Paths in Book Collecting, Oldman’s essay was also published separately by Constable in 1938 in its “Aspects of Book Collecting” series.

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Joel Silver is Curator of Rare Books at the Lilly Library.
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