All The Sounds Of The Earth: A Visit To The R&h Archives Of Recorded Sound

Our indefatigable receptionist fields a lot of strange calls salesmen asking for Oscar or Irving, for instance. (She gently breaks the news that the gentlemen in question are currently unavailable).

But there is a frequent category of errant calls that she finds entirely reasonable: the misguided souls who assume that we are the Rodgers & Hammerstein Archives affiliated with the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. For the record, we are not one and the same but who they are, what they do, and our longstanding connection to them, prompted R&H President Ted Chapin to delve into the history and file this report:

Recorded sound. Think about the concept of capturing and recording sound. Think about just how many forms of capturing sound there have been and how the technology has changed through the years: wax cylinders, shellac discs at 78 rpm, vinyl discs at both 45rpm and 33 1/3 rpm (LP, or Long Playing albums), magnetic tape, cassettes, reel-to-reel tapes, 8-track cartridges, CDs, mini discs, DAT, hard drives, etc. And think about what sounds are worth capturing: music, lyrics, the spoken word, live performances, broadcast performances, oral histories, etc. Now youll start to get a sense of the breadth of the collection at The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center.

And then ask the next question: What is the connection between that archive and Rodgers and Hammerstein?

The answer lies partly in being at the right place at the right time. Lincoln Center was one of New York Citys major cultural initiatives of the 1950s. Assembled on a tract of land on the mostly-ignored mid-west side, it provided long desired new homes for the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, and the Juilliard School. Along the way, new ideas became part of the plan. One was to centralize the New York Public Librarys collections in the performing arts. In addition to a circulating branch, this new entity would also include all the research divisions focused on the various disciplines on display at the new cultural center, and a place for the Librarys collection of recordings.

Richard and Dorothy Rodgers were supporters of Lincoln Center from the beginning. They are the only representatives of the musical theater in Founding Patrons of Lincoln Center 1957-1969, a list that has been included in every single program at Lincoln Center to this day. (Mr. and Mrs. Roger L. Stevens are the only other Broadway names on the list.) From the files, we can deduce that conversations culminated in a letter from Rodgers, dated April 22, 1963, outlining an understanding that a grant of $150,000 to be applied towards the establishment and support of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Record Archive. Rodgers sent a check from the nascent Rodgers & Hammerstein Foundation with the hope that we will all be mutually successful in this enterprise.

When the newly-formed New York Public Library for the Performing Arts opened at Lincoln Center in November of 1965, the archives were part of it. (By that time, Record Archive had been replaced by Archives of Recorded Sound.) Its collection had begun officially in 1930, when the Library purchased a number of record catalogues and periodicals from Louis Jay Gerson, the man in charge of Wanamakers phonograph department. In 1937, Columbia Records gave 500 discs to the collection, and soon thereafter other record companies began to donate their releases on a regular basis. While these were housed in the main branch at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, those in charge didnt want to circulate the albums (remember, this was a time when you could play a record at a record store before deciding whether to buy it). Instead, a simple record player was made available for listening in the Library; occasionally in the summer months, records were broadcast out in Bryant Park behind the Library. But the move to Lincoln Center provided an opportunity to organize and expand the collection, and make it more accessible. Obviously that was attractive to Rodgers, who felt it appropriate that it should also bear the name of his recently deceased partner.

Today, The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound have a spiffed-up new home that was part of the librarys overall renovation completed in 2001, named in honor of benefactors Dorothy and Louis B. Cullman. It is now about as high tech as you can get. Don McCormick, the curator, has been there long enough to have lived through technology changes, funding rise and fall, and renovations both large and small. The current long-range project is to digitize many of the unique recordings in the collection. Even though that thought is daunting, McCormick remains resolutely cheerful. I love it here, he says. He explains how he arrived with virtually no experience in technology, but simply learned on the job from the extraordinary people who came before me. I just became an expert, I guess, in a niche that suited me.

So whats in the collection today? A large percentage of all the albums released from the 1930s to the present day by virtually every record company; almost every Saturday afternoon radio broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera, from the 1930s to today; personal collections donated by composers both classical and popular including wonderful demo tapes and work sessions, and the recently announced acquisition of papers from Kander & Ebb and Bock & Harnick; and oral histories created specifically for the Archives of people involved in all kinds of music.

All in all, there are about 600,000 items and counting. Perhaps the quintessential Archives project, and one that clearly isnt done every day, was the restoration of the Mapleson cylinders. These are wax cylinders of live recordings made by Lionel Mapleson, a stagehand at the old Metropolitan Opera House who was fascinated by sound recording at the turn-of-the-century. The last century, that is. The performances captured are from 1900 to 1904. In the early 1980s, the Archives helped invent a machine that could pull the sound off these wax cylinders, clean them up with modern techniques, transfer them to tape, and release them on LPs. It was an astonishing accomplishment Grammy nominated, no less and when you start to listen to these recordings and realize you are listening to the likes of Nellie Melba during actual performances, the historic nature becomes all the more astonishing.

Anyone interested in listening to anything in the collection need only go to the third floor of the Library, check in with the librarian, and sit expectantly with headphones in a listening carrel connected to a computer terminal in the basement. There, a cheerful staff finds the item and places it on the appropriate playback device. It is open to everyone, but McCormick scowls slightly as he says, We discourage people coming in to listen to albums that are available up the street at Tower Records. That takes up time that could better be used by people examining the depth and uniqueness of the collection.

Of course, The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound is but one element of the extraordinary place that is the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Currently under the leadership of Jacqueline Davis, the Library is a hot bed of constant activity, including new exhibits in the several galleries, events in the Bruno Walter Auditorium, and behind the scenes maintenance and preservation of the collections. It has become one of New Yorks most loved and admired places, a Mecca for everyone from the casual enthusiast to the die-hard researcher.

So whats in a name? We are proud that the Rodgers & Hammerstein moniker continues to be attached to this extraordinary collection. And if a SOUTH PACIFIC LP and a CAROUSEL CD are included within the 600,000 other titles, thats fine with us.

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is located on the plaza at Lincoln Center; to learn more about the NYPLs Rodgers & Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound, visit

Leave a comment
You must log in before you can post comments. You can login here.