Fiddle Music, Fishing and Dreaming of Michigan

As a new project processing archivist at Penn Libraries, I had the distinct pleasure of beginning my term at Kislak by processing the H. Owen Reed papers (1920-2016), gifted to Penn by his grandson.

Herbert Owen Reed (1910-2014) was an American composer, musician, music educator and author. Born in Odessa, Missouri to musical parents (his father played the fiddle and his mother the piano), Reed pursued his interest in music from an early age. He earned a Bachelor and Master of Music, and a Ph.D. in Music Composition in quick succession, beginning his tenure as a professor of music theory at Michigan State University in 1939, where he would remain for 37 years. Even after retiring in 1976, he continued to compose, guest conduct, teach and perform for decades until his passing in 2014. He maintained a strong connection to Michigan State University throughout his retirement, founding and performing with the faculty jazz ensemble playfully named “The Geriatric Six.”

Processing this collection involved arranging folders and envelopes full of his personal and professional correspondence, promotional items and other biographical materials he had assembled and kept throughout his life. One article from the 1940s seemed very intent on making Reed relatable by emphasizing his love of fishing and golf. A program from 1980 reveals how active he was as a traveling guest conductor after retirement.

However, the majority of his collection relates to his activities as a music composer and educator. I sorted through folders of various shapes and sizes containing music compositions ranging from very large scores meant to be used by conductors while leading performances and rehearsals to hand-written transcriptions of folk tunes and fiddle music. His compositions vary from music for large jazz bands to full orchestras to chamber operas to songs for solo voices. Going through his materials it was evident he possessed tremendous range as a composer.

With his strong ties to Michigan State University it’s no wonder Reed took pride in his Midwest roots, composing the opera Michigan Dream for the school’s 100th anniversary in 1955.

A scene from a performance of Michigan Dream, undated (Box: 1, Folder: 1)

Another area of the collection contains other composers’ works. As a music professor for so many years, it’s unsurprising he acted as a mentor for a whole generation of composers and musicians, and some of these items are inscribed with messages to him.

Inscription on Clare Fischer’s piano music alone together/just me (Box: 4, Folder: 9)

One item I enjoyed in particular comes from this area of the collection. Noted Italian-American composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) spent a semester at Michigan State University as a visiting professor in 1959 and was inspired to compose a series of “Greeting Cards” based on the names of the music department faculty. He created two musical “alphabets” by assigning notes to letters, and then created musical motifs for faculty members based on their names played once using the first alphabet, and again using the second.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s “Suite 508 for viola and piano,”
dedicated “to my friends at Michigan State University” (Box: 7, Folder: 14)

He then crafted a movement for each person’s musical motif. Reed’s movement was a pavane (a stately dance) and you can see in the movement where Reed’s musical name is played.

The H. Owen Reed papers are housed at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. A finding aid for the collection can be found here: Please visit for information on accessing the collection.

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