The Legacy of Carleton Sprague Smith: Pan-American Holdings in the Music Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

By Shepard, John | Notes, March 2006 | Go to article overview

The Legacy of Carleton Sprague Smith: Pan-American Holdings in the Music Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts


Shepard, John, Notes


Carleton Sprague Smith (1905-1994) was chief of the Music Division of the New York Public Library (NYPL) from 1931 to 1959. The first fifteen of those years are remembered as a period of economic turmoil and war, yet Smith-through his vision, broad education, and keen intellect-helped turn the challenges of his time into great opportunities for the New York Public Library and the communities which it served. While chief of the Music Division, he helped expand the repertoire of music available to the public, and through public programs and special projects he enlarged the audiences for a variety of repertoires, such as early music from England and America. He not only promoted awareness of the music of the United States, but as a diplomat he also facilitated cultural exchanges with Latin American countries, and enhanced the Music Division's holdings of music from those nations. In 1932, Smith conceived of a music museum in New York City;1 through his dogged persistence, this idea was expanded and realized as the Library and Museum of the Performing Arts, which opened at Lincoln Center in 1965.2 Smith was directly responsible for the creation of the Americana Section and Dance Collection within the Music Division. The Americana Section (now known as the American Music Collection) has steadily grown into an indispensable resource for American music history, with holdings that now include the twentieth-century score collection of the American Music Center-the official music information center of the United States -and archival collections devoted to jazz, popular music, and musical theater. Ultimately, the world-class Dance Collection-now the Jerome Robbins Dance Division-became independent of, and on an equal administrative footing with, the Music Division. A founding member of both the Music Library Association (MLA) and the American Musico-logical Society (AMS), Smith became president of each organization, from 1937 to 1939 and from 1939 to 1940, respectively. Smith was a consultant in the formation of the International Music Council of UNESCO, and in the planning for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, as well as serving on the boards of directors of several cultural institutions and performing organizations.

Carleton Sprague Smith's achievements in collection development-and, indeed, in library development-were made possible partly by his upbringing in homes (the family had residences in Manhattan and in Washington, Connecticut) where literature and the arts were cherished, and by his broad and deep education, which included music but ranged far beyond it. His father, Clarence Bishop Smith, was a New York admiralty lawyer, and his mother, Catharine Cook Smith, was an author of two books,3 and a patron of the arts.4 (The following short summary of Carleton Sprague Smith's education is drawn from a tribute by Israel J. Katz, who drew from an unpublished essay by Smith himself.5) At the age of twelve, Carleton Sprague Smith began studying flute at the Institute for Musical Art (later to become the Juilliard School) with a student of Georges Barrère. In 1922, after graduating from secondary school (the Hackley School for Boys in Tarrytown, New York), he continued flute studies with Louis Fleury in Paris while studying French at the Ecole Yersin. He entered Harvard University the following year and broadened his study of music history and literature, while studying flute with Georges Laurent, the principal flutist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He also continued his study of French language and literature, but his studies moved increasingly in a new direction-Spanish and Portuguese literature and history. He enrolled at the University of Vienna in 1928, and in 1930 completed his doctorate in history with a dissertation in German on the seventeenth-century Spanish Habsburgs. In January of 1931, after his return to New York, Dr. Smith accepted two concurrent appointments-as an instructor in the History Department of Columbia University, and as chief of the Music Division in the Reference Department of the New York Public Library.

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