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New Exhibition Spans 200 Years of American Sheet Music

March 22, 2022 by Samantha Mitchell

Levy Family Curator Explores Sheet Music as Cultural History

In the first major public exhibition of the Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection in decades, the public will be able to see firsthand the breadth of this collection which offers a unique cultural perspective on American history, from songs about suffrage to the music of the Harlem Renaissance.

Grace Notes in American History: 200 Years of Songs from the Lester Levy Sheet Music Collection is now on view through July 31, 2022, in the George Peabody Library’s exhibit gallery. The special exhibition features approximately one-hundred scores that were broadly popular in 19th and early 20th-century America.

The Levy Collection is one of the largest digitized sheet music collections in the world and is now stewarded by Sam Bessen, Peab ’17 (MM), the inaugural Eleanor and Lester Levy Family Curator of Sheet Music and Popular Culture at the Sheridan Libraries.

Levy Family Curator Sam Bessen at a tour of the exhibition with Ellen Levy Patz, middle, and her daughter Susan Patz (Lester Levy’s daughter and granddaughter respectively).

The more than 30,000-piece collection was compiled by Lester S. Levy, alumnus of Hopkins class of 1918. “In about 1929 I spied a few illustrated song sheets of the mid-nineteenth century in a shop window on Charles Street,” Levy later recalled. “Just a few weeks later, a lady came to see me carrying several bound volumes of popular songs from the early 1800s. Twenty-five dollars changed hands, and suddenly I was embarked on a project that was to alter my lifestyle.”

Levy began donating his beloved collection to Johns Hopkins in 1976. He passed in 1989 leaving behind his wife, Eleanor Kohn Levy, who had assisted him with amassing the collection and later served as its advisor, and four daughters.

With the newly endowed curatorship Bessen will have the opportunity to make the Levy Collection a more accessible resource for students and faculty. He is excited to increase general access through public programming, including performances, K-12 educational events, and exhibitions such as this one which opened earlier this month.

“Even some Peabody Conservatory students, who are used to looking at music as a set of instructions, haven’t interacted as much with the historic sheet music,” says Bessen. “It’s been very interesting to work with students and teach them about how sheet music is a part of our cultural history.”

Grace Notes in American History highlights the intersection of popular music and American history, from the Civil and World Wars to love songs. “We have a tremendous amount of music from New York’s Tin Pan Alley era from around 1880 to 1940 when sheet music was really at its heyday of mass production,” Bessen explains.

The collection also includes music from darker moments of America’s racism and xenophobia. In the exhibition, sheet music from minstrel shows and Ku Klux Klan waltzes are represented with context and care. “I’m very grateful that Lester collected these songs so that students and scholars today could really confront them and learn about how they shaped our popular culture,” says Bessen.

Personal correspondence and historical photographs on display provide fascinating insight into Levy’s collecting practices and convey his passion for his collection. Bessen, who has previously hosted a Hopkins at Home online lecture about Levy’s “Love for Collecting,” says he shares Levy’s devotion to this diverse archive of sheet music — and to the Levy family’s ongoing commitment to make it accessible to all.

“In his wildest dreams Dad could never have imagined how his wish has come true, that here at his beloved Johns Hopkins his collection can be viewed from anywhere in the world, and with a special curator whose job is to fulfill that wish,” says Ruth Levy Gottesman.

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