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The Middle Ages, Now in High Fidelity

A collection of 12 LPs from the collection of The Cloisters Library

A selection of record covers from The Cloisters Library's LP collection. Photo by Andrew Winslow

Since the opening of The Met Cloisters in 1938, music has had an important role in the presentation of medieval arts and culture here. Musical concerts and the recreation of pageant plays of the Middle Ages date back to the very early days of the museum. Notable productions like The Play of Daniel (originally performed here in 1958 and revived multiple times since) have been important milestones not just for the museum, but also for the staging and appreciation of early music in America. Outside of concerts and plays, music has also added to the ambiance of the museum for decades.

Album cover for The Play of Herod, Decca Records, 1964. Cast and images from its Met Cloisters production. Photo by Andrew Winslow

Music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance can still be heard in our Met Store location and on our Audio Guides, but until 2006, visitors to The Met Cloisters were also treated to recorded music in the galleries every afternoon. Initially this music was played from reel-to-reel tapes that had been copied from a significant LP record collection amassed over the years by curatorial and education staff members. (The records were transferred to tape in order to avoid the risk of the music skipping or repeating; in the 1980s compact discs took over as the safer medium of choice.)

The purpose of this LP music library was not just for the gallery broadcasts, however, it was also an important resource used by Met Cloisters programming staff to keep abreast of the activities and developments of the global early-music community, and to aid in the programming of museum concerts.

The Met Cloisters music library. Photo by Michael Carter

The Cloisters Library and Archives is pleased to announce that this LP collection of nearly 500 titles is now fully catalogued in Watsonline—the online catalogue of the Museum's libraries—and accessible to researchers. We're also proud to boast 21st-century stereo technology with a new phonograph player and headphones, which allows us to create a comfortable listening station for visitors.

Co-author Sydney Gobin at the new hi-fi listening station in The Cloisters Library. Photo by Michael Carter

The collection spans from the 1930s to the late 1980s, with the majority being recorded from the mid-1950s to the 1970s, a period of great awakening in the appreciation of music of the medieval and early modern eras. With doubly impressive musicianship and scholarly tenacity, groups like New York Pro Musica, the Boston Camerata, and the Waverly Consort were instrumental in creating the early-music revival, and through their recordings (and performances at venues like The Met Cloisters) they have introduced audiences to long-lost works, instrumentation, and sounds that resonate well outside of traditional recital halls and auditoriums.

The physicality of the LPs can be quite different from what we encounter in those produced today; many of them contain extensive liner notes and booklets that instruct on the musical traditions and instruments used, or reproduce lyrics in Latin, English, and even perhaps French or German. The album art is charming—featuring images of the musicians, reproductions of medieval and Renaissance artwork dating to the time of the original compositions, or vintage mid-century illustrations and graphics from the time of the recordings.

Sacred Poliphony, Cambridge Records, 1958. Photo by Andrew Winslow

For the library catalogue, we've scanned each album cover so that the art, liner notes, and credits can be consulted directly through Watsonline. Though many of the recordings found in our music library are considered essential works in the early-music catalogue, far too many have not been made available in digital formats, so it is especially pleasing to be able to offer them for your listening pleasure.

The Cloisters Library and Archives is open by appointment Monday through Friday, 10 am–4:30 pm. To schedule an appointment, please email or call 212-396-5319. Browse the complete Met Cloisters music library.

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