Musicologist and composer Leonard Meyer may have retired from the University of Pennsylvania in 1988, but his personality lives on in the Leonard B. Meyer papers, 1935-2008, which is now completed and ready for researchers at Penn’s Special Collections Center. “Lenny,” as he was known to friends and colleagues, has in a sense never left the Van Pelt-Dietrich library, where his many published works continue to draw students and scholars to the fourth floor’s “ML” section. This collection supplements the books in the stacks with a sizable body of important related material.
All of the materials that one might expect to find in a scholar’s archival collection are present, such as drafts and notes for his writings and his correspondence, where his ideas evolved and strengthened as they were tested out on his colleagues. Especially noteworthy are the extensive notes for the abandoned book project Music as a Model for History, where Meyer had planned to use his theories of how the mind processes music as a metaphor for how we understand history. But just as exciting (and even more fun!) are the types of documents that might not be found in every scholar’s papers and which reveal Meyer’s distinct personality. These include a range of items, from the more serious (such as Meyer’s original musical compositions, personal letters, etc.) to the utterly silly (joke poems).
A few of the letters reveal the serious musician already present in Meyer as a teenager. Meyer was born in New York City and grew up in nearby Scarsdale, where he studied music from an early age. Like many parents, Meyer’s father did not wish his son to continue music professionally and preferred that he focus on subjects considered better suited to building a respectable career. Undergraduate Lenny reluctantly gave over his major area of study to philosophy, but refused to relinquish his musical life entirely. In one letter from the collection, he writes to his parents, “I know father does not wish me to continue my music seriously during my first few years at college. He would rather have me concentrate on my college work alone. This I cannot and will not do.”
Of the items mentioned in this post, the musical compositions are perhaps the most relevant to researchers interested in Meyer’s theories. It is well known that he studied composition with Aaron Copland, Otto Luening, and Stefan Wolpe, and wrote quite a few pieces in his early years before his fame as a musicologist, but most people have never heard his music. The scores preserved in this collection provide a glimpse into a very different side of Meyer’s musical thinking, one where he works out his ideas on staff paper rather than in his essays. It would be a fascinating exercise to analyze his music in light of his musicological work, to see if, for example, the style and form of his own musical compositions in any way adumbrated his later theories of music.
By far the most fun, if also the least related to his work, are the poems. These are all joke poems, not meant to be taken seriously, usually composed for celebrations of family and friends. Many are “to the tune of…” type poems that replace popular lyrics with inside jokes about those present at the party. It’s wonderful to get a sense of the whole person and the humor of the man who is best known through his academic essays. Here’s one of my favorites, a limerick about Mozart:
After a performance of Mozart’s theater music
There once was an Egyptian king,
Who wanted his subjects to sing.
So he asked Amadeus
Who said you must pay us
If you want compositions that swing.
Items such as those mentioned here help breathe life into the person behind the works and serve as a complement to the main body of the collection, comprised of Meyer’s professional research materials. For a fuller biography of Meyer as well as a detailed survey of the contents of the collection, please consult the finding aid linked above.
Finally, in the spirit of Lenny, here’s a little limerick of my own:
After processing the Leonard B. Meyer papers, 1935-2008
There once was a man named Lenny
Of whose papers there were many.
He wrote music and books
But if you take a good look
You’ll also find poems (about twenty).