Pitt Wins NEH Grant to Digitize Silent Film Sheet Music

James Cassaro in a blue shirt

The Theodore M. Finney Music Library at the University of Pittsburgh has been awarded a $145,897 grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), under its Humanities Collections and Reference Resources program. The funding will help the library finish processing and digitizing the Mirskey Collection, an archive of sheet music for silent film accompaniment.

James Cassaro (pictured), professor of music and head of the Theodore M. Finney Music Library, is the principal investigator for this project.

The Mirskey collection is named after  Polish composer Nek Mirskey, who collected this music for his Polonia Orchestra, which was the house orchestra for the Metropolitan Theatre in Washington, D.C., from 1916 until Mirskey’s death in 1927. This music has been used by silent film scholars to reconstruct scores for various films. Among them are Gillian Anderson’s restoration of the score to “Rosita”—an Ernst Lubitsch film that opened the 2017 Venice Film Festival—as well as the score to “Forbidden Paradise,” another Lubitsch film. Currently, Anderson is using the collection to restore the score to “Way Down East,” a D.W. Griffith film, starring Lillian Gish

The collection comprises approximately 3,000 sets of photoplay music, or music published specifically for cinema orchestra, with each set averaging fifteen instrumental parts, for a total of 45,000 pages to be digitized and made available globally and open access via a dedicated website on the University of Pittsburgh Library System’s Digital Research Library.

As of right now, approximately 87 percent of the collection is cataloged, with full level records appearing in PittCat and OCLC WorldCat. The funds from the two-year grant will not only cover the digitization costs, but also the cataloguing of the collection and creation of a dedicated website.