The Score’s the Thing: Humour and the Absurd in the Music of Brian Cherney: new exhibit

The Marvin Duchow Music Library’s latest exhibition entitled, The Score’s the Thing: Humour and the Absurd in the Music of Brian Cherney celebrates the Canadian composer Cherney’s recent 75th birthday and focuses on five theatrical pieces written over a thirty year span.

Three of the first four works (Tangents I, Group Portrait with Piano and Playing for Time), composed between 1975 and 1981, explore and expand upon several integrated and overlapping themes. Cherney examines, in various humourous and improbable ways, the influence of nineteenth-century Romantic music on late twentieth century performers and composers who share a love for its beauty but also must bear the weight of its unshakable influence. He also critiques classical music performance traditions and pokes fun at the absurd relationships between live performers and seemingly inanimate musical instruments.  The “irrational” and “ghostly” appearances of 19th century musical excerpts and the theatrical conjuring of the composers themselves reinforce expressions of anxiety and ambivalence. The fourth theatre piece from this period is born out of Cherney’s frustration with the lack of live and recorded performances of Canadian music.  In Trois petites pièces, the second movement joins together snippets of traditional music notation with a collage of 19th and early 20th century lithographic images thereby creating a score that is according to the composer, “so visually interesting that it doesn’t need to be played.”   Decades later, Cherney combines the fruits of these early theatrical and absurdist experiments in the 2009 piece entitled Brahms and the German Spirit.  In this extended and complex work he expands his examination of 19th century German high-art music and culture and contrasts it with Jewish musical traditions and history, culminating in the powerful imagery of the Holocaust.

We hope you will take the time to look carefully at the scores and read the small essays or captions (English, French, Yiddish) accompanying each work in the display cases facing the elevators and on the third floor wall north of the Library front entrance. For your convenience, there are also two video performances of Brahms and the German Spirit located on iPads in front of the complete score.

Paul Helmer’s Growing with Canada Collection

Paul Helmer’s Growing with Canada Collection is now preserved in the Marvin Duchow Music Library’s special collections room and is available for consultation. For detailed information about the Collection, please refer to the finding aid on the McGill Music Library website. Certain restrictions apply.

Paul Helmer’s Growing with Canada Collection consists of material gathered by former Schulich School of Music Associate Professor of Musicology, Dr. Paul Helmer for his book, Growing with Canada: The Émigré Tradition in Canadian music, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2009. The Collection contains original documentary evidence including interview transcripts and recordings, as well as Dr. Helmer’s notes and drafts for Growing with Canada and copies of primary and secondary sources.

Helmer book

Growing with Canada, jacket cover.

Growing with Canada is an account of the lives and legacy of 121 musicians who emigrated from Europe to Canada between 1933 and 1948.[1] Fleeing racial and political persecution in their home countries, these individuals made a lasting contribution to Canadian music. Paul Helmer’s Growing with Canada Collection, then, constitutes an important resource for research in Canadian music culture of the twentieth century. Of particular interest are the interview transcripts described by Robin Elliot, Jean A. Chalmers Chair in Canadian Music at the University of Toronto, as “an invaluable resource of national importance.”[2] The Collection also contains Helmer’s edited transcripts (originally intended to be published in a second volume), audio recordings, and biographical information for each “émigré” musician discussed.

Dr. Helmer’s research files contain many gems for the scholar or the performer interested in Canadian music of the post-war period. As a performing musician, for example, I find Paul Helmer’s diary of notes from his studies with Béla Böszörmenyi-Nagy at the Banff School of Fine Arts in the summer of 1952 particularly fascinating.

Hans Kaufman with "Behind Barbed Wire," 7 March 2001.

Hans Kaufman with “Behind Barbed Wire,” 7 March 2001.

For those interested in the development of post-secondary music education in Canada, there are extensive files on Helmut Blume and Arnold Walter. These two musicians revitalised the Faculties of Music of McGill University and the University of Toronto, respectively, laying the foundation for growth and prosperity in the following decades.

Another important subject broached in Growing with Canada is the internment of “enemy aliens” by the British and Canadian governments during World War II. An unpublished collection of internment camp chronicles by Hans Kaufman entitled “Behind Barbed Wire” sheds light on the lives of internees.

Most importantly, however, the Collection contains the voices of European émigrés who fled racial and political persecution and found a new home in Canada.

The Marvin Duchow Music Library invites those who wish to consult Paul Helmer’s Growing with Canada Collection to contact Cynthia Leive, Head Music Librarian.

[1] Helmer uses the word “musician” here “in its widest sense to include not only vocal and instrumental performers, teachers and educators, conductors, and composers, but also music administrators, musicologists, ethnomusicologists, lexicographers, broadcasters, managers and music patrons.” See Paul Helmer, Growing with Canada: The Émigré Tradition in Canadian Music (Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press), 4.

[2] Paul Helmer’s Growing with Canada Collection, Box 1, S.1/F.1, i, Marvin Duchow Music Library, McGill University, Montréal, Québec.

Submitted July 28, 2014 by Eric Braley.

19th century French sheet music collection


Submitted by Kimberly White

“The most significant feature of the emergent popular music industry of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was the extent of its focus on the commodity form of sheet music.”[1]

What might a romance by Loïsa Puget, a lied by Franz Schubert, a mélodie by Victor Massé, a quadrille by Strauss Jr., a piano-vocal arrangement of grand opéra and a chanson by Edmond Lhuillier all have in common? They were all produced as popular sheet music, printed by the thousands and disseminated widely throughout 19th century France. But who purchased this music? In what kinds of venues might these pieces have been performed? What do the musical, textual, and iconographic characteristics reveal of the various sub-cultures represented by these heterogeneous works?

The McGill Music Library’s collection of 19th century French sheet music through its intermingling of “high” and “low” art as well as its broad representation of a wide spectrum of musical styles should be able to provide some of the answers. The collection contains well over 3,000 pieces ranging from the 1820s to the early 1900s. Comprising genres from the romance to the mélodie, as well as chansonnettes and chansons from the earliest cafés-concerts in the 1840s-50s to those pieces sung in the music-halls beginning in the 1860s and even in the cabarets artistiques in the 1880s, the collection offers scholars an exceptional opportunity to trace the origins and development of several of these popular music genres and sub-genres.  With such a large sample of pieces determining the characteristics of the music, texts, subjects, performance styles and venues should vastly enhance understanding of popular forms of music in 19th century France.

Valse_CantatricesSalon culture—those semi-private, semi-public concert-gatherings given in the homes of the aristocracy, the rich bourgeoisie and professional musicians—is well represented by the large number of works in the collection by well-known romance and mélodie composers, such as Loïsa Puget, Amédée de Beauplan, Hippolyte Monpou, Louis Clapisson, Albert Grisar, Jacques Offenbach, Victor Massé, and J.B. Weckerlin. Often disparaged as “easy music,” these genres provide a fascinating glimpse into the cultural constructions of femininity and masculinity, social mores such as marriage, fidelity and inheritance as well as contemporary perceptions of the oriental “Other.”  Those wishing to explore the ways music engages with social and political upheaval, might turn to the chansons and chansonnettes performed in the cafés-concerts, in music-halls and in the cabarets artistiques. In this repertoire, one can find some of the patriotic music composed in response to France’s humiliating defeat after the Franco-Prussian conflict of 1870-71, as well as examples of the chansons réalistes made popular by the singer Aristide Bruant (1851-1925), who sang of the plight of the working classes and the gritty reality of Parisian street life. Finally, there are a host of genres like the scène comique, performed by singing actors from Parisian boulevard theatres, that have received little—if any—scholarly attention.

Overall, this sheet music collection promises to open up new avenues of research on the social and cultural “work” of 19th century sheet music as well as reveal issues of genre, performing contexts, and the various actors involved in the creation and dissemination of the music (performers, composers, librettists, publishing houses, music-hall and café-concert owners, etc.).

As a recent PhD graduate in musicology at McGill, my job is to evaluate the collection, collaborate with the library staff to develop a system for cataloging the pieces and to write research articles on the collection. After only three weeks of digging, the music of interest to me has rapidly grown in number to the hundreds. From my initial survey, I’ve decided to channel my research interests to two areas. The first examines how the sheet music industry capitalized on the celebrity of popular opera stars for marketing purposes and the ways singers, in turn, used popular song as promotional tools and to fashion their public image. I will be presenting a paper on this topic at the Canadian University Music Society Conference in Victoria, B.C., in June 2013. My second research topic will focus on changing perceptions towards women’s work throughout the 19th century, as revealed by a marked shift in tone in the text, music and iconography of sheet music produced after 1850.

Please stay tuned for more information on this exciting collection.

Kimberly White

[1] Richard Middleton and Peter Manuel, “Popular music,” Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online (Oxford University Press, accessed February 28, 2013).

Sibley Music Library’s Preservation Workshop and a McGill Music Library sheet music collection

Hello! My name is Houman Behzadi and I am very excited to share one of my recent projects at the Marvin Duchow Music Library with you.  During the previous academic year, you might have seen me working at the fourth floor audio/visual reserves or the third floor reference desk.  I am afraid, however, that I will be less visible for the next few months as I’ll be spending most of my time “behind the scenes” working in our Rare Book and Special Collections Room.

Please allow me to tell you a little bit about my background:  I hold a Master’s degree in Violin Solo Performance and Literature from the University of Western Ontario and will soon start my second year of a Masters of Library and Information Studies (MLIS) at McGill.  My work and study have been in the areas of violin and vocal performance and pedagogy, historical performance practice, music printing and publishing, rare and antiquarian books and scores, and most recently physical conservation and digital preservation.  In addition to being employed at the Music Library, I work at the McGill’s Rare Books and Special Collections ( where I have the good fortune of being able to work with rare and antiquarian books and documents.

About a year ago, my supervisor at the Music Library introduced me to a large collection of 19th century French sheet music donated to us by the National Gallery ( and Library Archives Canada (  Two things about this collection caught my attention immediately: first, the richness and beauty of the lithography, and second, the inappropriate conditions in which it had been originally stored.  To be more precise, every piece of sheet music had been glued, from its four corners, to highly acidic cardboard.  If sheet music publication dates falls around the end of the 19th or the beginning of 20th century, it is likely the attached cardboard will contribute to the discoloration and brittleness of the sheet music.  A major step towards the preservation of this fine collection would be to detach each item from its acidic backing (without causing any damage to the item), store it in an acid-free folder and then, along with other sheet music pieces, house it in an acid-free box.

Anticipating some involvement in both the aforementioned project and various other tasks in our Rare Book and Special Collections Room, I felt the need to further educate myself and learn about best practices in the field.  Earlier this year, I received an email message through the listserv of the Music Library Association ( regarding the possibility of attending a Music Preservation Workshop at the Sibley Music Library in Rochester, New York.  The Sibley Music Library ( is the largest academic music library in the United States and happens to have its own preservation/conservation laboratory directed by Alice Carli.  I managed to take a week off from work to travel to Rochester and attend the workshop.  Working under Alice’s direction proved to be an invaluable experience!

Six students in total took part.  This meant we got a great deal of personal attention from the instructor.  The major areas addressed were:

  • Sibley Music Library’s workflow (including the digitization process and their online depository:
  • Photocopying and scanning brittle and problematic books or scores
  • Discussing various formats and appropriate preservation structures in a music library
  • Tour of the Ruth T. Watanabe Special Collections Department (a.k.a. “the vault”!  This was by far the most impressive rare music room I had ever come across!  For more information please visit:
  • Conservation products and suppliers
  • Guarding and pamphlet binding
  • Binding of unusual formats
  • Perfect and double-fan binding
  • Paper conservation
  • Sewing in signatures
  • Traditional binding from scratch (This procedure took approximately two full days from start to finish.  Having bound a book, I now have so much more appreciation for the art of book binding, in particular antiquarian binding that is rare to come across nowadays.)
  • The importance of the organizational vision and mission statements
  • Copyright issues and their implication on digitization policies
  • Disaster planning
  • Mold removal
  • De-acidification (in-house or professional)

In addition to the list of the subjects mentioned above, each student was asked to bring examples of problem areas he/she was dealing with in his/her respective music library. I was grateful for the chance to discuss a variety of techniques with my instructor and colleagues and to learn about best practices I could utilize in our Rare Book and Special Collections Room.  My goal was to brainstorm, experiment, and learn.  Overall, this workshop provided me with the fundamental knowledge and skills I needed to start working on our sheet music collection as well as other rare and antiquarian material in need of care.  Furthermore, I learned about other advanced courses and professional conservation workshops I could attend in the future.  I look forward to participating in them when the opportunity arises.

We are very excited about the work we’re doing and the progress we’ve made in the Rare Book and Special Collections Room.  Please stay tuned for other news regarding this collection!

Academic Charts Online (ACO)

We are pleased to announce the acquisition of Academic Charts Online (ACO), a new database providing access to selected international chart listings (Billboard, etc.) covering the last 60 years.  Click here. As always, you can also obtain access through the classic library catalogue and must be connected to the McGill network.  Please let us know what you think and whether this resource will be helpful to you.


Living bibliography of books on popular music + two to recommend

In 2010, the American Musicology Society (AMS) Popular Music Study Group started a representative bibliography of books on popular music:

It is not a comprehensive list but does include a number of ground-breaking models and places to begin research in popular music.  The first part of the list is divided into the following categories: 

A. Overviews: Research Guides, Disciplinary Assessments, and Methodologies

B. Production: Industry, Media, Sound, Performance

C. Consumption: Audiences, Geographies, and Identity Politics

D. Genres

E. Histories

F. Biographies: Single-Artist Studies

The document is a “living” document and therefore anyone can write to the Group to suggest adding new material.

From this list, I have recently read:

Spicer, Mark and John Covach. Sounding Out Pop: Analytical Essays in Popular Music. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.

This collection of articles contains several excellent analytical approaches to popular music in particular those exploring the compositional processes of Leiber & Stoller and the Coasters, Roy Orbison, Marvin Gaye and the Police.

Zak, Albin J. III. I Don’t Sound Like Nobody: Remaking Music in 1950s. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.

This work looks at the “sound of [the] genesis” [Introduction, p. 7] of rock and roll by reviewing the range of musical experimentation and technological change in popular music of the fifties.


Hundreds of Jazz LPs (vinyls, 33 1/3s) being catalogued this summer!!!

Many of you know Scott Kingsley as a Montreal jazz bass player and grad. student at McGill.  This summer he has been helping the Music Library staff go through its large collection of jazz LPs preparing cataloguing information so everyone can have access to these important resources.  We just noticed that Scott is about to reach the 2,000 LPs mark – and so we thought we should tell you how to browse this collection in the library catalogue.

Of course, you can look up your favourite jazz artist(s) in the classic catalogue and find cds, dvds, LPs and even some 78s.  But if you want to get a sense of the “big picture” and you are keen to use slightly more sophisticated searching techniques, here is one approach:

In the classic catalogue, go to the advanced search tab.

  1. Under “select field” choose “textural call number” and type in “LP.”
  2. Under “select field” choose “keyword” and type “jazz”
  3. Under “location” choose “Marvin Duchow Music Library” from the drop-down box.
  4. Under “type of material” choose “Recorded Music.”

Once you find what you are looking for you can listen to LPs in the MDML or if you have a turntable at home you can borrow them and listen there.

Scott says he has been finding some pretty interesting recordings this summer.  Come by and see if you agree.





Repair into Rare!!!

All summer long Marvin Duchow Music Library (MDML) staff and student assistants have been working their way through the repair shelves.  They have been located in the technical services area on the third floor and have held score and book collections in need of repair… or so we thought.  Many of the “to-be-repaired” items were actually materials that should have gone into MDML storage or MDML Rare Book and Special Collections.  Additionally, a fair number of the books have been digitized and are available on the following websites:

  • Gallica
  • Hathi Trust (be sure to log in)
  • Internet Archive
As of today, the repair shelves are empty.  Soon they will be used for sorting other collections…stay tuned!!!