Saturday, October 13, 2012


My dear colleague Richard Warren, Jr., who was since 1970 curator of the historic sound recordings and American musical theater collections within the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library here at Yale, died last Sunday as the consequence of a bad stroke he suffered two weeks earlier. He was seventy-five.

I got to know Richard over the past few years when, from time to time, and with increasing excitement, in his subterranean, sound-proof Aladdin’s Cave, he made it possible for me to mine his collection, and to compile a sound program to accompany our exhibition Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century, which opens at the Yale Center for British Art here in New Haven, Conn., next February 28 (2013).

The principal question that prompted me to undertake this task in the first place was whether there was any tangible advantage to be gained from taking the measure of the Edwardians bequest to posterity of the sound of their collective voice. On an elementary level there is something visceral about seeing a portrait of Vita Sackville-West or Melba and being able to hear them also. But in mostly later recordings, usually of BBC Radio broadcasts, many of the themes of the exhibition, it seemed to me, were literally enunciated by writers, thinkers, and artists in rather more subtle, but no less intriguing ways. Might we see the art of the Edwardians in a different light, or with a sharper focus, if we took a little time simply to hear them speak their mind? Our visitors will have to judge this for themselves, but the experiment has been wholly engrossing.  

In the beginning Richard was quite cautious, as if he were shrewdly sizing me up as a potential user of his exceptionally fine collection. But before long he must have concluded that I was on the level, and eventually we spent many dozens of hours usually on a Thursday or Friday afternoon working our way through a mountain of rare sound recordings (often several different versions of essentially the same thing); deciding which ones were ideal, which ones were merely great or good, and which ones we could definitely scratch from our list—and how to dice the ones that passed muster neatly into bite-sized morsels with which we might tempt our visitors in a compellingly interactive way. Richard was careful, indeed quite pleased, to point out that although the Yale collection of historic sound recordings was not the largest in the United States—I believe that prize goes to the relevant section of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.—it is nevertheless the collection that contains a larger number of unique survivals than any other. And that particular achievement is almost entirely due to Richard’s patient but dogged collecting activities over the past 46 years, based on a lifetime’s accumulation of expert knowledge.

Throughout our work together Richard was supremely generous with his time, and that knowledge, especially the technological side. Indeed, Richard became increasingly enthusiastic about our project, so that from time to time he came up with wonderful things the existence of which I was wholly ignorant, but which he knew would not only be germane but entirely indispensable. I think in particular of a batty radio play Richard unearthed, entitled To Meet the King, in which it emerges at length that the great Edwardian actress Sybil Thorndike was portraying an elderly lady in the grip of a most unusual hallucination connected with her unmarried cricket-playing son Ronnie, an aviator. Simply unmissable. 

In short, we enjoyed a wonderful collaboration, the equal of any I have been fortunate to undertake within this remarkable university, and I shall always treasure the memory of my far too brief association with Richard Warren, Jr., as indeed we now mourn the loss of a valued colleague, and a good and wise friend.

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