Despite my lack of talent in music – I cannot even carry a tune – I have been deeply affected by it throughout my life. My mother and grandmother filled our house with beautiful piano music; and a great music teacher in my elementary school near Philadelphia, Jean Staples, imparted an infectious enthusiasm for American songs. When I sing in the shower even today, it is usually those songs. My wonderful wife Marjorie, who really can sing, has endured these sounds for 48 years.

When I was in high school I discovered American musical comedy – especially the accessible melodies of Jerome Kern and Victor Herbert. My lifelong love of opera began by listening to Louise Lurch in the early 1940s, one of the few American coloratura sopranos at the Metropolitan Opera in the Gatti-Casazza era. Her husband hired me to catalogue his collections of recordings and books. After listening to her singing in the background, I became a supernumerary both for the Met (which performed in Philadelphia on some Tuesdays at that time) and for the local company in Philadelphia.
As a scholar specialising in Russia, I became captivated by Russian music, and, as a cultural historian, I was surprised at how rarely scholars related music directly to major historical developments. Yet, in the 19th century, art was often shaping history. Garibaldi, the father of the 1848 revolution in Italy, had roomed with an Italian tenor on Staten Island, and his dramatic entries and exits during the revolution resembled those of Verdian tenors. Performances of Rossini’s La gazza ladra in 1820 and Auber’s La muette de Portia in 1830 actually started revolutions. I wrote on die link between opera and revolution in my book Fire in the Minds of Men, and I have written about opera in my two books about Russia: The Icon and the Axe and The Face of Russia.

In recent years, as the Librarian of Congress, I have been entrusted with the world’s largest collection of music – copyrights, sheet music, 20th-century music, recordings, folk music, scores, movies and shows. We are building a tunnel to connect the Library’s beautiful Jefferson Building with the Capitol and bring many more visitors to the new Center for American Creativity. A ‘coming out’ party in the autumn of 2007 will highlight our new interactive exhibits that take the visitor through acts of creation. These might include drafts of Irving Berlin’s discarded lyrics for ‘There’s no business like show business’ or Alexander Graham Bell’s original drawing of the telephone he later changed.
In the meantime, the Library of Congress is sponsoring a tour of 11 cities with Thomas Hampson singing songs from the Library’s rich collection of American music. I have always admired him as an opera singer, and also as an enthusiastic proponent of those songs I sing so badly, but that had such an influence in my childhood.
Tom will visit teachers to help get art back in the classroom and our website (www.loc.gov) will feature all the songs online so everyone in the world can enjoy every aspect of the tour. The Library will bring to each city important examples of creativity from our collections along with our curators.

‘It’s our way of keeping alive the memory of melody… the golden age of American song’

We are also bringing into being a state-of-the-art National Audio-Visual Conservation Center to house our vast collections of films and sound recordings. The Library and its founder, the US Congress, have been shepherding this music and video storage-and-retrieval centre at a Cold War-era bunker in Culpeper, Virginia. Now, it is almost done. It is funded almost entirely by a private donation from the Packard Humanities Institute that totals more than $120 million. The original building belonged to the Federal Reserve and stored millions of dollars in gold bullion, coins, and cash. Now it will house and preserve for posterity something much more priceless: the largest collection of recorded sound and audiovisual material in the world.

Long before radio, television, and all the home entertainment available today, people sang by a piano at home. The golden era of American song has been largely forgotten – along with the style and quality of singing that went with it. The Library of Congress is, in a way, America’s memory. Bringing concerts, manuscripts and sheet music of another era back today is a way of keeping alive the memory of melody. And it is our way of taking out to the nation more broadly music that we have not only commissioned and collected here, but have been playing on the radio and here on Capitol Hill since the 1920s.

IN MY PLAYER
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Song of America
Hampson; Trischka et al
EMI Angel ©314645-2

‘Thomas Hampson has personally researched America’s most beautiful songs at the Library of Congress. Here are some of those inspirational songs by one of Amercia’s most remarkable artists.’

Dr James H Billington is the 13th Librarian of Congress, the oldest federal cultural institution in the US. It is the research arm of Congress and the largest library in the world, with more than 130 million items on 530 miles of shelves, including more than 29 million books and printed materials, > 2.7 million recordings, 12 million photographs, 4.8 million maps and 58 million “manuscripts.

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In song, you have one of the most amazing diaries of any generation’s culture at a given time.

Thomas Hampson