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Historical harmony; The Central Library boasts one of North America's largest music collections, including treasures that date back centuries

It was a good day for Buffalo, the day in 1958 when the library of the NBC Symphony went on the auction block. The NBC Symphony, known for its mighty broadcasts, was the stuff of legend. Its music director had been Arturo Toscanini.

Adding to the glamour, included in the cache were scores that had belonged to Walter Damrosch, the longtime music director of the New York Symphony, later merged into the New York Philharmonic.

That is a lot of history.

And Buffalo wanted it.

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, then led by Josef Krips, began raising money. Alas, it was a few dollars short.

Then the Buffalo and Erie County Central Library stepped in -- with cash.

And so it happened that Buffalo representatives went to the auction and, for $25,000, nailed a good part of the collection.

Over a half century later, the NBC Symphony trove anchors a music collection that Buffalo's library can boast is one of the biggest in North America.

Many of its treasures go back to Buffalo's old Grosvenor Library, established in 1898, and the public library music department, dating to 1922.

Huge tomes from the 19th century contain custom collections of sheet music. There is a collection of 300,000 songs, organized within a vast, old-fashioned card catalog, with Tina Turner's "Private Dancer" rubbing elbows with a ditty called "When Springtime Brings the Roses, Jessie Dear."

The sheer quantity seems, on the surface, to defy current library practice. A huge library sale is going on this weekend. Doesn't the library tend to discard, or "weed," material not often checked out?

Not in this case.

"This area has not been weeded," says Mary Jean Jakubowski, the library's director. She is standing in the Grosvenor Room, where special collections, including the music library, are accessed.

"We have the uniqueness and honor of holding this collection. It is an honor to have what we have."

>From Tchaikovsky with love

The library's collection might not be seen -- but it is heard.

John Landis, the music director of the Cheektowaga Symphony, was thrilled not long ago to find himself conducting from the very score Tchaikovsky had used when, in 1891, he was the guest of honor at the grand opening of Carnegie Hall.

"Tchaikovsky brought the music with him from Russia and it ended up in Damrosch's library," he explains. "The music is stamped by Damrosch. It's falling apart, but we used it."

But the value of the music collection goes beyond nostalgia.

"It is a very wonderful resource," Landis says. "The community orchestras could not exist without that library. And we can play some works we wouldn't ordinarily be able to play." Renting or buying music, he explains, can be costly.

BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta once conducted a concert that was a tribute to the library's riches. The orchestra was intrigued to locate, in the library, a rare score for the Suite for Orchestra by the elegant 19th century composer/virtuoso Ernst von Dohnanyi. The discovery fueled the orchestra's exploration of the music of Dohnanyi, which culminated in a Naxos CD.

Folk singer Dave Ruch finds himself returning to the music collection again and again for the rarities he finds there.

"In the stacks, they have a bunch of old published collections of folk songs from different regions -- in other words, songs from the hills of Vermont, collected in 1929," he said. "Someone went around interviewing old-timers, people who had songs they had sung in their homes and passed around from relative to relative.

"Those obscure collections of American folklore, most of those books are out of print, and they're real hard to find online. You can find used copies, but they're often $100 or more. It doesn't appear that they get used often," Ruch admitted. "But I use them."

>Ghosts reported in the Grosvenor Room

Ghost hunters visited the library, Peggy Skotnicki, assistant deputy director of special collections, mentioned. "They said there were ghosts in the Grosvenor Room."

The closed stacks, too, have elicited strange feelings.

"The pages get creeped out," Skotnicki said. "They say it's like 'Ghostbusters.' They swear that chairs get moved, and they have to put them back where they were." She laughs. "I think they're just impressionable."

Entering the closed stacks, though, it is easy to sympathize, secretly, with the pages.

You are hustled inside, warned that if the door is open a second too long, a "silent alarm" will sound, summoning guards.

The stacks -- also called "the tiers" -- are low-ceilinged, with fluorescent lights. They are in a no-man's land between the ground floor and the first floor.

Curiosities are everywhere. There are books of presidential campaign songs, a funeral march for John Quincy Adams and a tiny, quaint book from 1865 called "The Double Casket of Sunday School Memories."

There are programs from the BPO and the prestigious Zorah Berry concert series. BPO scrapbooks preserve decades of clippings. There are ancient,elephantine sets of Palestrina, Praetorius and Purcell. And Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff, identified in Cyrillic writing.

Most exotically, there are programs for the NBC Symphony written on white satin and gold linen. Because the orchestra played for broadcasts, it experimented with cloth programs. "So they would look classy, but not rustle," said music librarian Carol Pijacki.

The NBC scores craved by Krips -- "Dr. Krips," to librarians -- occupy long aisles. They are stamped "New York Symphony" and "Library of the National Broadcasting Company, N.Y." Labels read "St. Saens" and "Robert Alexander Schumann."

"They're a little bit dog-eared," Pijacki said.

Toscanini's handwriting is in some of them, says Pijacki. But the Italian maestro did not conduct from them.

"When Toscanini conducted in public, he memorized things," she said.

"He was vain, according to what I've read. He didn't want people to see him in his glasses."

>A engrossing piece of the 13th century

Items from the closed stacks must be requested from a librarian, who will go down and fetch them. The treasures in the Rare Book Room are even more closely guarded.

Among them is a translucent manuscript of Gregorian chant, from the early 1200s. A song by Giacomo Meyerbeer, elaborately autographed. Ancient sheet music for legendary Stephen Foster songs.

In the Grosvenor Room on the first floor, where the public may browse, the scores can make you dizzy. There are piano rarities. Music for chamber ensemble. Comprehensive editions of Mozart concertos, Bach cantatas and Schubert songs.

"Musicians are thrilled with this," Pijacki said.

Looking around, you feel the presence of the past.

Catering to research, to scholarship, to silence, this room is increasingly at odds with the rest of the library. With money getting tighter and tighter, what can the future hold for it?

The librarians make no concrete promises. Still, the collection survives -- and thrives.

The vinyl -- the library held onto its huge trove -- is growing. A benefactor donated his huge jazz collection, and the librarians are adding and cataloging it. (They can't take everyone's old vinyl, they emphasize, but this set was impeccable.)

In July, the library got a call from the Hamlin House on Franklin Street. They had discovered, in the attic, a wealth of ephemera relating to Buffalo's 19th century German singing societies. The library excitedly accepted it. An Austrian researcher had recently visited, exploring this very topic.

"We hold onto material that makes people think, what is this?" Pijacki said.

"But years down the line, people want to find out about it," she added. "Now we are grateful that the librarians before us thought to preserve them for our community."

email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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