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The American Musical Instrument Society


The Curt Sachs Award 2015

Cynthia Adams Hoover

Margaret Downie Banks
Cynthia Adams Hoover

The award was presented to Hoover on June 6, 2015, at the society’s annual meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, "in in recognition of her distinguished  service as curator of musical instruments at the Smithsonian Institution; as cultural historian and collaborator in projects and exhibitions about the history, design, and use of musical instruments; as AMIS co-founder and board member and CIMCIM president; and in acknowledgement of her scholarly contributions, particularly those relating to the history of the piano and the history of music in America.”

Following are Hoover’s remarks to the Society after the presentation:

Thank you for this special honor. What a privilege it is to be selected as the 2015 recipient of the esteemed Curt Sachs Award.

In my fondest dreams as a young girl, an honor like this would have been worlds away. I confess that my secret dream then was to become a queen of the Buffalo Bill Rodeo in North Platte, Nebraska, where my family lived for 50 years. But there was no way that dream could happen. I could barely ride a horse, and certainly could not ride a horse AND rope a calf at the same time!

But later dreams have come true. Here I am, receiving an award not for skill in riding horses, but for lifetime contributions to our field of musical instruments, full of gratitude and affection for this Society and for the many colleagues here this evening (and to those, alas, who are no longer with us), colleagues who have helped me shape my career in music and musical instruments. I am especially pleased that my husband Roland and one of our daughters Sarah and her daughter Helena could be here for this recognition.

As I recall, it was Howard Schott, an active AMIS and Galpin Society member, who believed that AMIS should recognize those who had made lifetime contributions to the field and to the goals of the Society. The AMIS Board responded by establishing the Curt Sachs award in 1983. With my involvement in the early decades of the Society as a founding member, long-term Board member, Vice-President of the Society, and Chair of AMIS Publications (which included the launching of the Journal), I was a strong supporter of the Sachs award and served on the selection committee for the first four recipients.

And what an impressive and diverse list these colleagues have made to the field: expertise in a wide range of instruments; vision in preserving and building collections; excellence in major publications, exhibitions, performance; construction of copies of early instruments; the preservation of national cultural heritage. There have been 33 recipients (27 men, 6 women—I’d say we need some improvement here!), 18 from the US, 7 from Great Britain, and 8 from other European countries (Netherlands, Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Slovakia, and Italy). All recipients have a unique story to tell about their lives in music and their contributions to the field.

So, what is my story?

Growing up in western Nebraska (where during my sixth grade, I attended a one-room country school—28 students, 8 grades, 1 teacher), I had limited opportunities for music. The youngest of four daughters, I sang a lot, at home, school, church, and in 4-H singing competitions at the State Fair. Among the music we sang were hymns, Handel’s Messiah, American popular songs from many eras, and a little Gilbert & Sullivan. I took piano lessons. I was very excited when a young, rising Metropolitan Opera singer Jerome Hines gave a community concert in the local high school auditorium.

I had a life-changing experience in 1952, my junior year in high school, when we spent almost a year in Rome, Italy (where my father was a consultant in agriculture for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN) and where I attended opera for the first time (at the Baths of Caracalla), and experienced music and culture from many countries.

For college, I made a big leap by choosing to go to college in the Boston area. I thought I might teach at some level but remained open to other possibilities. At Wellesley College, I finally chose music history over American history as my major. I took voice and piano lessons, conducted the madrigal group and was introduced to many new kinds of music. I was blown away by a concert at Boston’s Jordan Hall performed by New York Pro Musica, then a relatively new group exploring Early Music.

For graduate school at Harvard (MAT), I sang in the Glee Club (had Nadia Boulanger as a guest conductor) and met many fine music students who were deeply focused on becoming serious musicologists. For my studies at Brandeis I divided my time there with a job as a teaching assistant at Wellesley College. To support myself, I took summer jobs, the most memorable being Director of Student and Social Activities at the Harvard Summer School, where I discovered that I had a talent for administration and working with people. Howard Mayer Brown, a Wellesley faculty colleague, became mentor, model, and dear friend from 1958 until his untimely death in 1993.

I took a break after getting an MFA at Brandeis. In 1961 I went to Washington DC for a 6-week research project at the Office of Education, had lunch and a tour with John Shortridge, then curator of musical instruments at the Smithsonian, was two weeks into a Smithsonian summer internship when Shortridge left to build harpsichords, and after 54 years, I’m still there as an emeritus curator, among other things, still working with volunteer researchers to annotate the William Steinway Diary website .

There I was, instant curator, knowing that my main task was to complete the exhibition plans for the new Museum of History and Technology (NMHT) that would open in early 1964. I read every source I could find, walked around with a cart of catalogue cards to locate and study all the instruments. Three months after I arrived, members of CIMCIM (established one year before in 1960) arrived in New York and Washington for meetings of the International Musicological Society. I made my way to New York with a brochure that briefly described the collections in the Division of Cultural History (NMHT) and in Anthropology (NMNH), and extended an invitation for them to come to an exhibition that we had miraculously managed to organize in two weeks. The elders of CIMCIM didn’t know what to make of this upstart (age 26), but they came to the exhibition opening, were impressed enough that three members : John Henry van der Meer (then at the Hague), Alfred Berner (Berlin), and Henrick Glahn (Copenhagen) spent a day with me looking at the collections, advising me on the origins of the objects and providing a model on how their museums were organized. A report on this visit sent to the Secretary of the Smithsonian resulted in the hiring of Scott Odell, as our conservator. Footnote: About 30 years later, I served as President of CIMCIM for six years, working with many wonderful colleagues from around the world.

I learned quickly that Smithsonian curatorial staff members were expected to organize their work around the categories of Research, Collections, Exhibitions, and Public Service. The only immediate curatorial role model was John Shortridge, who could play and build almost every instrument he picked up. I knew that I couldn’t begin to become a John Shortridge.

The Galpin Society Journal provided a model for scholarship, especially in the description and history of instruments. I tried that model in 1963 with the article “The Slide Trumpet of the Nineteenth Century” Brass Quarterly (vol. VI, No. 4 1963 as of fall 1964) which was well-received by Galpin and other colleagues. As successful as this was, I wasn’t eager to continue along this path of research and writing. I felt much more comfortable working on a companion to this article, “A Trumpet Battle at Niblo’s Pleasure Garden,” presented at the national AMS meetings and published in Musical Quarterly [60:3 (1969) 384-95]. The second article placed the object in its cultural context, an approach I have followed for most of my career.

Throughout these years, collaborations have been key. My major research focus has been on keyboard instruments and music in American life, topics that I have discussed in papers presented at various professional meetings and that were the themes of exhibitions. I’m especially fond of the 1971 exhibition of “Music Machines—American Style,” which transformed a suggested topic of “mechanical instruments” into a very lively exhibition that traced the impact of science, technology, and invention on the production, reproduction, and dissemination of music, a topic even more pertinent today. I also loved the magical evening of band music and dancing when we re-created “American Ballroom Music, 1840-1860” which resulted in a Nonesuch recording that was selected Record of the Year. The exhibition, “PIANO 300: Celebrating Three Centuries of People and Pianos” pulled together my research from a Guggenheim Fellowship, featured many of the treasures from the Smithsonian keyboard collections placed in their cultural contexts, and allowed me the privilege of collaborating with many, including AMIS scholar, performer, and dear friend, the late Ted Good, who also was co-editor of the Steinway Diary Project.

There is so much more I could say about what an adventure my life has been. I haven’t even begun to touch the categories of Public Service and Collections, or to tell you about the exciting challenge we are currently working on to identify and make accessible thousands of music-related collections and programs from about 20 Smithsonian museums and archives!

As I reviewed my life for this presentation, I was reminded that through the years some dreams do come true, often with some help from Serendipity—that is, the ability to be open to moments of insight and the unexpected, when good things and ideas align in ways you had never imagined.

Thanks again for this special honor.


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