‘Notes’ on Display

Warren Library Wetmore Gallery show features sheet music cover art

For decades, former Warren surgeon Hugh Robertson collected sheet music.

At first, he was storing it for friends who brought it to his house because he was the one with a piano.

Later, it was more intentional. He took pieces from people who would have otherwise thrown them away. He bought some.

Eventually, people who knew of his collection would call when they had pieces to unload.

According to a story in the Dec. 25, 1958, edition of the Warren Observer, by 1958, Robertson had amassed some 10,000 pieces of sheet music.

He had 185 different songs by American composer Irving Berlin, alone.

There were pieces from England dating back to the 1760s and American pieces from the 1840s.

Music was being produced so rapidly in the middle of the century that he put a limit on his collection and no longer accepted nor purchased pieces published after 1945.

A picture of the smaller of two music cabinets in Robertson’s Third Avenue home show that the music could have taken up an entire 10-foot section of wall, floor to ceiling.

Robertson had to create a card index system with cross-referencing — by year, title, publisher, and the associated play or movie — just to be able to find the pieces he wanted.

His personal card catalog had eight drawers.

Robertson wasn’t just looking for pieces for his own enjoyment.

He loaned out music for local performances — from barbershop quartets to school groups — that were hoping to perform pieces that they did not have. Many times, he had the work they wanted.

Robertson’s father was a doctor. His mother and sister were both professional pianists and gave lessons in the Warren community.

His family donated about 3,500 pieces to the Warren Public Library.

Some of the cover art from those pieces — spanning the early part of the 20th century — will be on exhibit at the library’s Wetmore Gallery in December.

“The current exhibit seeks to spotlight a small, seasonal portion of the cover art work of the remarkable Robertson Collection, a special collection of approximately 3,500 historic American popular music selections spanning the post-Civil War period through the post-World War II era — 1865 to 1955,” according to information published by the library. “The sheet music provides a window into American history and culture of the various decades and includes a vast range of themes, traditions, and values, as well as musical and artistic styles. The cover illustrations convey the political, patriotic, social, romantic, artistic, and religious views of the time the music was composed. You will find expressed in the covers the range of human emotions from comedy to tragedy and the artistic movements from romanticism to modernism.”

The display will be put up Thursday and Friday and be ready for public viewing.