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Music and Books on Music from the Russian Imperial Collection in the Library of Congress

This guide provides information on approximately 150 music items from the Russian Imperial Collection at the Library of Congress.


The information in this guide is based on a 2011 publication and has not been updated.
Book plate for items in the Russian Imperial Collection. Designed by the Baron Arminius von Voelkersahm (1864- 1918), a Baltic nobleman who designed approximately fifty bookplates for the Russian Imperial family. Library of Congress.

The music material contained within the Russian Imperial Collection, numbering approximately 150 titles, is primarily held within the collections of the Library’s Music Division, with a handful of titles held in the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division. This material is diverse in nature, ranging from smaller scale works of chamber music to full scores of operas, and encompassing liturgical music, folk song and military music.

Nearly one-third of these volumes consist of musical scores of works for piano solo (39 titles) and for voice and piano (31 titles, encompassing over 600 separate songs), which by their intimate nature may have conceivably been performed by members of the Imperial family (several of whom possessed considerable musical talents) and/or their entourage for their own enjoyment. (Significantly, several of the songs mentioned above are scored or arranged for contralto, reflecting Empress Alexandra’s vocal range.) Twenty-two volumes consist of Russian Orthodox Church hymnals and books about the history and practice of the Church’s liturgical music; 22 additional titles consist of collections of folk music, primarily of Russia and other Slavic cultures. The remaining material in this Collection consists of orchestral and operatic scores, large choral works, compilations of military music, instrumental method books, and musical biography. Twenty-two original music manuscripts (both holograph and copyists’ manuscripts) are represented within this material. In all, the music-related component of the Russian Imperial Collection consists of 155 distinct titles, in 174 volumes, and containing over 1000 separate works, publications or arrangements.

The larger Russian Imperial Collection at the Library of Congress is comprised of approximately 2,800 volumes which were originally held within the personal libraries of the Russian Imperial family. This Collection contains publications and manuscript material on a diverse range of subjects, including Russian history, military and naval history, law, religion, geography, Russian and foreign (largely French) literature, children’s books, as well as musical scores and books on music-related subjects, all of which are housed in their respective subject area divisions within the Library.

Most of the music and music-related works held within this Collection were created by Russian composers and authors, although the creative product of several nationalities and cultures is also included. The most surprising statistic encountered on examining this material, however, is that the works of at least 20 women composers, compilers and editors, and another 20 women as librettists, lyricists and/or translators, are represented within it – a fact that is even more unexpected considering that music education in mid-nineteenth-century Russia was in its infancy, and that even in Western Europe at that time, women composers had only barely achieved recognition, much less encouragement.

Most of the music-related scores and books that are held within the Russian Imperial Collection consist of elegantly bound presentation copies which were evidently produced, in many instances, by those seeking favor with the Imperial family. These scores abound in lithographs and graphic material; several even include original watercolor or pencil drawings. Nevertheless, the degree of skill and invention applied to the creation of these volumes, where influences from traditional Russian motifs to that era’s emerging Art Nouveau style are easily discerned, may in itself be appreciated as a reflection of the development of Russian decorative arts in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

In the current absence of comprehensive holdings records for the original Imperial libraries, it is impossible to determine with any accuracy the extent of their contents during the reigns of their owners, and consequently also the degree to which the Imperial libraries’ integrity has been maintained in comparison with the Library of Congress’s Russian Imperial Collection. We do know, however, that volumes from the original Imperial libraries were also acquired by various American libraries (Harvard University, New York Public Library, Stanford University, etc.); other scores and volumes by more significant Russian composers and authors (who also dedicated works to the Imperial family) were undoubtedly retained in Russia out of respect for its cultural patrimony (the establishment of the Soviet State notwithstanding). Nevertheless, the breadth of subject matter represented within the Library’s Russian Imperial Collection as a whole would appear to lend support to the idea that the Collection has retained at least some degree of integrity from its source libraries. Assembled over the course of three generations by members of the Imperial family, the musical scores and music-related books retained within this collection likely reflect, through the sheer diversity of its content, the varied musical interests of the last Tsars of Russia.

The Library purchased this Collection from Russian-born New York book dealer Israel Perlstein (1897-1975) in several installments throughout the 1930s. The acquisition of this material by the Library coincided with the particular moment in history when the recently formed Soviet government was liquidating Tsarist property – the same moment when, as fortune would have it, then Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam was devoting significant effort and resources towards shaping the Library into a world-class research institution. Putnam’s recognition of the value of this material, and his immediate efforts to acquire it, secured for the Library at a stroke a unique and substantial addition to its remarkable collections of Russian material, today regarded as the largest such collection beyond Russia itself.

About the Performing Arts Reading Room

The Performing Arts Reading Room is the access point for the collections in the custody of the Music Division at the Library of Congress. Numbering approximately 20.5 million items and spanning more than 1000 years of Western music history and practice, these holdings include the classified music and book collections, music and literary manuscripts, iconography, microforms, periodicals, musical instruments, published and unpublished copyright deposits, and close to 500 special collections in music, theater, and dance.