by Madeline Dietrich, Music Special Collections and Research Specialist
ODU Special Collections and University Archives is currently processing a collection of musical compositions from the mid-20th century known as the Archive of Virginia Composers. Back in 1975 a project was undertaken to collect the musical works of Virginia composers into a single repository for the purpose of promoting the work and preserving it. The idea was the brainchild of former ODU music major Fred Strong. He had been recording interviews with local composers to air on the radio and decided to donate these recordings to the Norfolk Public Library, where he met Audrey Hays, head of the Feldman Fine Arts and Audio-Visual Department. Between the two of them the idea of creating an archive of Virginia composers developed, and in 1976 funds were secured and the project proceeded.
According to an official statement, “The Archive of Virginia Composers was begun by a matching grant from the Virginia Commission for the Arts and Humanities and the Norfolk Public Library System for the purpose of accumulating biographical, historical, and musical information on all serious Virginia composers (living and deceased), so that we may act as a reference source to the public at large. By doing this, we hope to spur an abundance of interest toward their music which could result in more performances, commissions, etc., thereby making their livelihood more rewarding, and their value more substantial.” Strong adds, “The criteria used for selecting composers for inclusion in the archive is basically very simple. He or she must be a noted composer of serious music and must reside within the state.”
Undaunted by the prospect of collecting written and recorded music from every person in Virginia who considered themselves a composer of “serious” music, Strong and Hays began by compiling a list of composers gathered from colleges and universities, church ministries, and word of mouth. They then sent a questionnaire asking for information about where a person studied composition, who they studied with, where their music had been performed, and what their current occupations were. Out of over 100 questionnaires sent out, they received around 50 responses, though not all were accepted. One person wrote in saying, “I have composed a good many songs (words and music) …” to which Strong replied “The archive is open to include composers who write music of a serious caliber (symphonies, opera, concertos, etc.). I sensed from your letter, however, that your music may be in a somewhat different class.”
From those composers who passed muster Strong and Hays requested a list of items including biographical data, a recent photograph, and a list of compositions. They also requested copies of scores (sheet music) and recordings. The idea was to collect two of everything, one copy to secure in the archive and the other to circulate among library patrons wishing to check the materials out.
Not every composer was eager to participate. One such individual wrote, “From my vantage point…there is no desire to be ‘encased’ in the Norfolk Library System – if my compositional efforts are worthy, I have little doubt that it will be necessary to expend other energies to make them available to future generations – if they are not worthy, then they should be allowed their natural demise.” Regardless, most composers contacted willingly submitted materials.
Fred Strong’s interest in interviewing composers continued. Between 1976 and 1978 he drove across the state visiting composers and recording one to two hour interviews on cassette tape. Back at the library over 500 scores were collected and processed by Audrey Hays and her staff, along with more than 75 audio recordings. The effort culminated in a grand opening on Saturday, May 13, 1978, at the Kirn Memorial Library and a public concert performance of select compositions was held the next day at Norfolk’s Center Theater. In recognition of the event, Governor John Dalton declared the week of May 8-14 as Virginia Composers’ Week.
Following these events collecting efforts virtually ceased with no new material being added to the archive after 1979, though a backlog of previously collected materials continued to be processed into the early 1980s. Years later the archive was taken out of active circulation and placed in storage, where it remained until ODU SCUA agreed to take it in 2019.
In receiving the Archive of Virginia Composers from the Norfolk Public Library, SCUA inherited a musical time capsule from the 1970s. The archive as received was in unusable condition and needed to be rearranged and processed for use by today’s researchers. The work involves moving each item into a new storage container and recording the details into a database which will serve as the foundation for a searchable finding aid to be made available to users online.
While there is no doubt of the enthusiasm behind the original project and the tremendous amount of work that went into it, the archive ultimately fell short of the stated goal of collecting compositions and materials from “all serious Virginia composers (living and deceased).” In fact, the archive is limited to just 34 composers, though there is an extensive amount of material included for those represented, including of biographical information, taped interviews, audio recordings on vinyl discs, open reel and cassette tapes, copies of published works, original and photocopies of manuscripts (including sheet music), photographs, programs, newspapers, and magazine articles. Additionally the collection includes extensive correspondence relating to the history and development of the archive.
Most of the composers represented were unknown to the average Virginian in the late 1970s and remain so today except perhaps to those engaged in the narrow field of mid-20th century music composition. Nevertheless a few names stand out, including Tom Rice, F. Ludwig Diehn, Walter Ross, and Johan Franco.
The music itself consists of chamber works, major works for large ensembles, and sacred works (typically single-movement pieces intended for a church choir). Of these, the majority are representative of conventional styles, with some dating back to the 1930s. Perhaps of more interest to the scholar are the many examples of works featuring exploratory compositional techniques of the 1970s. By preserving this music, at this time, is to take a collection of genuinely obscure music from the mid-20th century and bring it to the attention of current researchers.
But what would it take for this music to be heard again? To perform it live, a person organizing the concert would need to secure performance rights from the publisher (or the entity who holds the rights to a given work). Then they’d need to arrange for a venue and hire the necessary musicians. Only the conductor’s score is available for most of the works in the collection so if individual parts are needed, they would have to be acquired elsewhere. If live performance is not feasible, there are recordings in the collection representing ten to fifteen percent of the works in the archive, but for widespread listening to be possible steps to preserve the audio recordings would need to be taken which involve digitizing the recorded content and making those audio files available online. The decision to take such steps would be based on projected demand for the content, something that ultimately will require demonstrated interest on the part of the public and of researchers. Suffice to say that for this music to be heard again a considerable expenditure of time and funds will be required. For now, our job in SCUA is to store the materials in a safe environment and make their existence known to the public. From there it is up to interested parties to make the music come alive once more.