WPA Music Manuscripts


WPA Music Manuscripts is a digitization project with the goal of bringing the unique holdings of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra online. These music manuscripts represent the unique work of music copyists--men and women employed by the government with the task of copying music for the WPA orchestras, bands and choruses to perform. The full collection is housed in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Archive, and consists of more than 300 compositions that include copied parts for both conductor's scores and individual instruments from the WPA. WPA Music Manuscripts Project is a collaboration between the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) and Wayne State University (WSU) Department of Music, WSU Department of Art and Art History, and Wayne State University Library System. During the Great Depression of the 1930s in the United States, the federal government tried several avenues to lift the heavy unemployment within the country. One of these was the Works Project Administration (WPA), 1935-1943. Artists and musicians were particularly hard hit during this period. In an unprecedented effort not to lose the talents of the country's artists, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established a section of the WPA called Federal Project One. This focused exclusively on the arts and encompassed separate Federal Projects for Theater, Music, the Visual Arts, and Writers. Within the Federal Music Project (FMP) were sections for instrumental and vocal performing groups, as well as music copyists and binders. Given the number of performing groups that were established around the country during the 1930s, there would not have been enough music for them all. Although the WPA could have used its funding to purchase music for these performing groups, it chose to put more people to work by hiring men and women to copy existing music, both conductors' scores and instrumental and/or vocal parts. Once the individual pages were copied, they had to be bound together, thus necessitating the hiring of music binders. Each state had its own cadre of copyists and binders. At the end of the WPA in 1943, all of that music was given to local state and city libraries and orchestras. The Michigan collection was given to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO). The Music Copying Project under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) created these copies during the period 1935-1943 to provide the conductor’s scores and instrumental parts for the WPA performing groups. Each page of this music was copied by hand and signed by the copyist. In 1939, the Federal Music Project was turned over to the states and became the Work Projects Administration. In Michigan, the copied music was then held in a central WPA music library in Lansing, MI. When the WPA orchestras and library were disbanded in 1943, the music was sent to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO), the oldest and largest continuing orchestra in the state. The DSO music library houses over 90,000 pages of music copied under the Music Copying Project, representing the scores and instrumental parts for over 300 compositions. The DSO performed selections from this collection regularly over the next 40 years. At some point during the 1980s, the collection was boxed and stored in a basement room under the main stage of Orchestra Hall, the performing home of the DSO, and not discovered there until 2005. It was at this time that the DSO music librarian contacted WSU and asked for help. The WPA music copies include historically important compositions by American and European composers, as well as compositions by women and composers of color whose contributions have long been neglected. These copies represent a unique moment in the history of the United States in which Federal assistance for the unemployed resulted in support for the arts.

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