Walter Harding’s collection celebrated

Then Bodley’s Librarian, Robert Shackleton; Julian Roberts; and Michael Turner opening the packing cases in 1975.

In 1975, Michael Turner (then of Special Collections, later Head of Conservation) with Bodley’s Librarian Robert Shackleton and the Keeper of Printed Books, Julian Roberts, opened the first of 900 packing cases containing the collection of Walter Harding of Chicago.

This legacy from a transplanted Englishman raised in Chicago brought a wealth of music into the Bodleian, including vast quantities of English secular song, English and foreign opera scores and music hall songs. Harding’s collection of American sheet music made the Bodleian the major holder of American song material on this side of the Atlantic.

Dr Abigail Williams (English Faculty, Oxford) will tell Harding’s story in a radio programme on Tuesday, 7 Feb. at 8:10 pm on BBC Radio 3. The programme includes interviews with Michael Turner and with Clive Hurst, the Head of Rare Books at the Bodleian Library.

Last month Harding’s life and collecting were honoured at the Library with a display of choice items in the library’s Proscholium and an evening of talks and song on 18 January. Dr Williams spoke about Harding’s life and his love of books, and about the remarkable story of how the collection came from Harding’s house in a run-down neighbourhood of Chicago to the Special Collections of the Bodleian Library.

Highlighting the value of Harding’s collection for music scholarship, Michael Burden, Professor of Opera Studies, took participants through an 18th-century opera libretto, of which some unique examples were collected by Harding, pointing out that these printed guides to performances are valuable clues to which songs were really sung on any night, given the cavalier attitude of 18th-century opera directors and singers to the composer’s actual score.

The weight of the Harding collection – 22 tons – was noted in the speeches. In fact the sheer scale contributes greatly to its utility for scholars today. Harding’s collections of verse and song, for instance of American sheet music, broadside ballads, and poetry anthologies, enable researchers to ask the kind of quantitative questions – touching on popular taste and on the movement of literary goods in a mass market – that are now regarded as key to understanding cultural developments in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Captain William Moir shooting William Malcolm; from the Harding Collection, Bodleian Library

Several Bodleian Library and Oxford-based research projects and online resources draw upon the Harding Collection:
The Digital Miscellanies Index; 1000 poetry anthologies, printed in the 18th century
Bodleian Broadside Ballads; including 15,000 broadside ballads in Harding’s collection, from the 18th and 19th centuries
The John Johnson Collection of Ephemera, online archive, where Harding materials are featured in both the ‘Crime’ category (with broadsides featuring news of murders and executions) and the less sensationalist ‘Book trade’ category, represented by bookplates.

As the speeches and the display also revealed, the collector with time and knowledge to devote to his passion for music was able to acquire rare and unique items. On display was the sole surviving copy of a song by J.C. Bach performed at Vauxhall, and part-books printed in Venice in the 16th-century, one of which is also a unique survival.

The evening’s concert of music by the duo Alva (Vivien Ellis and Giles Lewin) included songs from Harding’s collection, one song of his own composition, and concluded with the hymn supposed to be his favourite, “When they ring those Golden Bells”.

Lay still my fond shepherd
In praise of Yarm (from The Yorkshire Garland)
The Horse Race (from The Yorkshire Garland)
(Tunes from) The dancing master, Playford
A true and tragical song concerning Captain John Bolton (from The Yorkshire Garland)
An thou were (traditional Scots song)
My Dad is a Delver (from Calliope, or, English Harmony (1739))
All dressed up with nowhere to go (music by Walter Harding)
When they ring those Golden Bells