Secular Music

The Secular Music collection of the American Antiquarian Society consists of American nonsacred vocal and instrumental music, published as compilations and instruction books. The secular music collection comprises approximately 1,500 volumes and runs from the late eighteenth century through 1890. Several of the works are from the collection of the late Irving Lowens.

The bulk of the collection is formed by four principal types: instructional manuals of music and song books that were intended to be used in schools and Sunday schools (written and compiled by such masters as Lowell Mason and George F. Root); the omnipresent piano music, piano exercises, and piano instructional books that were popular throughout this period; instructional manuals for voice and for other instruments; and opera selections and scores, including both European works and American ballad operas. Also included in the collection are compilations of dance tunes, military tunes, college songs, minstrel tunes, national songs, and temperance songs, all including musical notation.

Clearly, the published works reflect the musical taste of Americans in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and at the same time they provide social, historical, and moral insights. While instructional works of music were published in America as early as 1721, they continued to have a decidedly sacred flavor throughout the century. Secular collections were not abundant until the end of the eighteenth century. The earliest such work at the Society is probably Chauncey Langdon's The Select Songster or a Collection of Elegant Songs With Music, published in 1786, which fits the bill as both a songster and as secular music. The growing importance of secular music in the nineteenth century is manifested in the collection. As might be expected, both the volume and diversity of publications increased as the century progressed. By the mid-nineteenth century, works such as Mendelssohn's Four-Part Songs stand side by side with Wood's Minstrel Songs and the Ole Bull Violin Instruction Book.

Secular music for the 1821-90 period makes up the greatest number of works in the collection. Although not cataloged in the main card catalog of the Society, all of these works are included in a checklist, entered by either author or title. Pre-1841 volumes of secular music are fully cataloged online.

The Society has an excellent collection of secondary sources concerning the history of music in America, including biographies, periodicals, reference works, and sound recordings. Two bibliographies are of particular importance. Oscar G.T. Sonneck's A Bibliography of Early Secular American Music (Washington, D.C. 1945), revised and enlarged by William T. Upton, is still the definitive work for secular music of the eighteenth century, providing locations of works, including annotations of recent AAS acquisitions, and listings of the contents within collections. Richard J. Wolfe's Secular Music in America 1800-1825 (New York, 1964) is a vast, three-volume bibliography that also provides locations of works and annotated with recent AAS holdings.

- Pamela Meizler, former Cataloger, North American Imprints Program

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