Discovering The Music of Helen C. Crane

The Reason for the Quest

       In the spring of 2018, little did I realize that just a passing curiosity would lead to such a major discovery in music.Since I myself am a composer  I was curious if there were any other Crane’s  who were composers. And so,  I consulted which has a rather exhaustive listing of composers and their works over the centuries.

     IMSLP listed five Cranes, representing various styles and levels of musical sophistication. One in particular stood out: Helen C. Crane.

     There was  only one piece of music mentioned:  “Piano Trio in E Major, op.20”, three movements, about 60 pages. Published in Germany in 1907 by the firm of Gustav Vetter, it sported a snappy  Art Deco cover. I quickly ran off a hard copy, and waited  for an opportunity to play through it.  I remember thinking, “Depending on its quality we might be on the verge of an interesting discovery in music.”

First Encounter

  Eventually I had the free time.  As soon as I began playing the music I was truly amazed. It was quite bold, rather forward-thinking. The style was post-Brahmsian, as one would hope, given the date of its publication. This music was adventurous in its interrelation of keys. It possessed soaring melodies and wonderful writing for the instruments. The work seemed nuanced, with deeper meaning and ideas that beckoned further study and repeated listening.. I thoroughly enjoyed the piece, beginning to end. It seemed I was on the verge of a noteworthy discovery in music.

Digging deeper

     The designation “Opus 20” implied there had to be at least 19 other pieces or groupings of pieces. Where were they? Had these ever been published? What became of them?  My mind was buzzing with questions. In the ensuing days I embarked on some exhaustive research, google searches, querying music history books, various libraries and more.

     It was not long before I came across an interesting lead: searching online under “Helen C. Crane composer” I was ushered to a “URL” which detailed a bequest from a New York City family to the city’s public library. This collection, according to what I was able to find online, was the Alexander Crane Family’s personal correspondence and memorabilia and spanned a period of more than a century, from the early 1800’s to about 1940.    

     Alexander had to be a personage of some note in New York City, enough so as to warrant gathering together all of his family’s correspondence in the NY Public Library. Closer examination showed that he was a Wall Street lawyer and a commissioned officer in the Civil War. But, why would this search for Helen Crane have brought me here?

An “a-ha” moment!

     Scanning through the contents of the collection I came across a list  of family members, and there in the midst was Helen Cornelia Crane. Apparently, Helen was Alexander’s daughter and gradually the pieces began to fall into place. 

       This collection was cross-referenced to another collection of Helen’s creations. materials were not located with this larger collection at the main library. Rather her materials, pertaining uniquely to music, were housed at the NYPL “Cullman Center” Library for the Performing Arts at 40 Lincoln Center Plaza. When I checked this particular library’s  online documentation for the “Helen C. Crane Collection” , I was shocked!  It seemed that it was all there*; everything, either in its original manuscript form or both manuscript and published form. In addition there were documents concerning performances, playbills, requests from the Library of Congress for copies of awarded pieces, notes concerning her publishing agreements and records of payment, etc. a veritable mother-lode of material.

     Now, depending on the quality of whatever I was about to find, I knew we may be close to a noteworthy discovery in music.


*The only exception being her “Elegy for Cello” op. 57 for which she was awarded a prize in 1919. The Library of Congress subsequently requested a copy for their records (1940). Helen, having passed away in 1930, her sister, Caroline E. Crane obliged the Library of Congress, gifting them with what would seem to have been the only copy of the work. Hence, that work is no longer in the NYPL collection, 

Helen Crane’s background

     She was born in 1868, the third child with four sisters  and a brother.  She must have been very talented  and showed a keen interest in the study of music. She ended up a student of Xaver Scharwenka, a noted Polish pianist and composer who was performing and teaching in NYC at that time.  Xaver’s brother Philip was also a musician, a pianist, composer and educator and was director of the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory in Berlin, Germany. I can only surmise that having worked with Ms. Crane, Scharwenka became aware of her gifts and abilities and potential.  With a brother heading up a conservatory in Europe perhaps that would be the logical continuation of her studies, at this Berlin Conservatory with his brother as her composition teacher. 

The extent of the collection

According to the NYPL Performance Library division whose listings I was able to find online, there was somewhere in the vicinity of 4 cu. ft. of original and published manuscripts of Helen’s writings.  The list included notations as to the nature of its contents, the various opus numbers, methods of copy: pen, pencil or published.  It looked as though everything was there, however the breadth of her output was a bit larger than 20. There were 74 numbered works. Included in this output were two symphonies with sketches for a 3rd, several symphonic tone poems, well over 200 works for piano, along with choral works, art songs for solo voice, sonatas for violin, pieces for cello, a larger work for chorus and orchestra.  It was truly amazing!  Depending on the quality of what I encountered there, we might truly be on the verge of an amazing discovery for music.

The requisite response

I soon made my way to NYC to get a first-hand look at the Collection that was locked away in the archives and only available by appointment. It was impressive to see the extent of the collection which was housed in seventeen archival boxes.       

     The documents were in pristine condition, bearing little indication that they had even been touched since the day they were donated.  The Library made no claims to copyright and certainly the pieces were past statutory protection (all except op. 74 were composed before 1923). They could not let the documents be photocopied, but there was no prohibition on available-light images taken with a camera or cellphone.

     Over the next year with three successive visits to New York I came away with 3,440 images of Helen’s original manuscripts.With that acquisition I began the hefty yet fulfilling work of playing, editing, transcribing and publishing Helen’s music. You are in for a treat!  I am sure the music of Helen C. Crane will become one of the sweetest musical discoveries of the  twenty-first century.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Bernard Crane