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Musicians' Corner

Local Music History: Dayton Miller
February 16, 2017


Classical music. What mental image does that evoke for you? If you're like many people, the names Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven are first words that come to mind. Or, perhaps you have a favorite performer, say Yo Yo Ma, who pops into your head at the mention of classical music. Maybe your vision is of a violin, cello, piano, or orchestra. But, for a rare breed of person, classical music conjures dreams of museums and collections of instruments...lots of instruments. The field is known as organology, defined as the study of musical instruments, and one native Ohioan holds the distinction of amassing the world's largest private collection of diverse objects ever assembled pertaining to one subject: the flute.

Dayton MillerDayton Clarence Miller was born in Strongsville, Ohio on March 13, 1866 and was destined to become many things: physicist, astronomer, acoustician, early x-ray experimenter, researcher, professor, writer, amateur flutist, and the world's most prolific collector of flutes and flute-related items. After graduating from Baldwin University (now Baldwin Wallace University) in 1886, and obtaining a doctoral degree in astronomy from Princeton in 1890, Miller accepted a position as a physics professor at Case School of Applied Science, now known as Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Miller would spend the remainder of his life in Cleveland and it was there where his collection began.

Little is known of Miller's playing ability or what venues he performed in, but his interest in flute went beyond that of an aspiring musician. As a scientist, Miller was fascinated by the flute's acoustic properties and the numerous modifications, innovations, and experiments the instrument was subjected to over the course of its history. Miller was also a collector at heart. His philosophy of acquisition was simple: no object was unimportant or uninteresting and any instrument of interest was best collected immediately before it became unavailable. This philosophy proved fruitful - by the time he bequeathed his collection to the Library of Congress, shortly before his death in 1941, Miller's collection contained over 1,400 instruments, 3,000 books about music, 10,000 pieces of sheet music, numerous tutors, trade catalogs and patents, and an enormous amount of flute/music related iconography and statuaries. Miller's instrument collection alone represented over 460 European and American instrument makers and was comprised of instruments dating from the 16th through the 20th centuries.

Dayton Miller CollectionAll this on a professor's salary? You bet. Miller was fortunate to have been born in a perfect era for collectors; the period between 1890 and 1941 was not only open to little competition (antiques and collectibles became popular in later decades), prices were comically low by today's standards. In other words, Dayton C. Miller was in the right place at the right time and was prescient enough to acquire every musical instrument of interest that crossed his path. And, as his collection grew, so did the uniqueness of the items acquired. Among Miller's 1,400 instruments were flutes constructed of precious metals, ivory, jade, crystal, tortoise shell, and every wood commonly used in instrument construction. The collection also included one-of-a-kind items including an instrument presented to president James Madison in 1813!

Pretty cool, huh? But, you may be asking, "Why is this fellow and his obsession with collecting flutes so important?" Good question. Thanks to the efforts of Dayton C. Miller and collectors like him, we are able to trace the evolution of modern day instruments; these carefully preserved specimens allow musicologists to more fully understand how and why composers wrote as they did. Experimental instruments and patents within the collection aid instrument manufacturers in the continued quest to improve instrument quality, design, and construction. And, collections such as Dayton C. Miller's are invaluable to research of period performance practices. So, the next time you see a funky-looking old instrument at a garage sale or thrift shop, you may want to snap it up - it's a little piece of music history...   


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