A Small Town’s Musical Gem


A Heavenly Place for Music Study

Just before the start of the holiday season, I met my sister-in-law Ann, a yoga instructor, in Lenox, Massachusetts for the gift of a brief, restorative yoga retreat at the Kripalu Center. With a little time to spare before check-in, I decided to browse around the tiny town of Lenox, and unexpectedly discovered a musical gem on the top floor of a square brick building on Main Street.

From the outside, the Lenox Library resembles the austere courthouse that was its original incarnation, back in 1815. After the county seat moved to Pittsfield, the building became a meeting place for parties and social assemblies, and the building’s interior reveals this friendlier function. During the Gilded Age, when the Lenox Library Association took over the space, leading residents such as Andrew Carnegie helped out, and no less than Edith Wharton served on the book selection committee.

Inside, the Lenox Library displays that rare combination of grand vistas and cozy vignettes, from the high ceilings to the archways that offer unimpeded views leading from room onto room. Balconies look down from overhead; tall windows let in lots of natural light. The place is filled with books, Oriental rugs, lamps and comfortable nooks for reading.

As attractive as all these features were, what intrigued me most was a sign on a closed white door that read “Music Department.”

Curious, I opened the door onto a deserted wide staircase illuminated by a large window. The walls were lined with portraits of all the library’s presidents beginning with elderly John Hotchkiss, born in 1794, to the present day. A spider plant and a handmade quilt depicting the library’s facade (“given in loving memory of Judith Effron”) softened the landing.

At the top of the stairs stood another closed door. A plaque beside it read,  “Courtroom: Berkshire County Courthouse, built 1815, altered 1893, restored 2003.”

Behind this door I discovered an elegant large room with an unusual, high domed ceiling. The ceiling was not plain — it was painted with morning-glories and hummingbirds in mid-flight. I could easily imagine the kind of balls and gatherings that must have taken place there a century ago, as lavish as those from The Age of Innocence.

Today, the room’s shelves are filled with music recordings and books, as fully stocked as many college music libraries. The volumes cover an extensive list of musician biographies (from Beethoven and Berg to Benny Goodman and Leonard Cohen,) volumes on musical instruments, and on the psychology of music. There is an entire Grove reference series. There are shelves of music scores, from opera to Broadway, to lieder, to chamber music and piano music, and miniature orchestral scores. Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion sits near Britten’s War Requiem.

I rifled through the audio CD’s, and pulled one out at random to discover my friend Eric Bazilian’s band “The Hooters,” looking very 1985, right next to a recording by Marilyn Horne.

More rare, the library has a large selection of vinyl LP’s. The first I looked at turned out to be the Rachmaninoff and Kodaly Cello and Piano Sonatas, played by my late teacher Earl Wild, and his good friend cellist Harvey Shapiro, recorded decades ago.

The music librarian, Amy LaFave, a dark-haired, soft-voiced woman with a gentle smile, clearly keeps things perfectly organized. She told me that the original room was deemed unsafe for large parties and balls when the hardwood floor began to warp, and so was closed.  When renovations were done in 2003, workers uncovered and restored the hummingbird painting on the domed ceiling.

How did such a comprehensive and beautiful music library come to exist in a small town in pastoral Western Massachusetts? Amy told me that the music department of the library was founded by Serge Koussevitzky and his wife in the early years of the Tanglewood Music Festival, so that Boston Symphony players could have ready access to materials during the summer season. The Koussevitzky Foundation is no longer directly involved with the library, but students who attend the Tanglewood Institute of Boston University make good use of its resources every summer.

I complimented Amy on the library’s rich collection of vinyl LP rarities.

“I keep the vinyl LP’s of certain recordings if CD’s or digital formats aren’t available,” she said.

As all libraries must do these days, the Lenox Library must adapt to the use of digital media, especially for sound recordings. It’s a challenge, figuring out how to optimally allow patrons to “borrow” these new materials, while explaining and preserving the past.

“We had a group of 4th graders in here not too long ago,” Amy said. “I showed them a vinyl LP, and they had no idea what ‘that black round thing’ was.”

For now, having the physical objects — the LP’s, the books one can hold, the scores one can turn the pages of (including pages where perhaps a famous musician’s fingerprints can be still be detected) — these physical objects are a direct link to a gilded and a golden past. I hope they are protected forever.

There is one response to “A Small Town’s Musical Gem”

  1. Your blog brought wonderful memories. Lenox years ago
    was the host of many artists, musicians, experimental theatre. All were very talented people. Being so near
    Tanglewood, a few had summer homes there. Lenox is
    not only an interesting little town, the whole area
    is also beautiful.
    Léa Weinberg