Today marks the start of the Christian season of Advent in my church, four Sundays before Christmas. It’s an important time of the year for vocal music, as choirs both sacred and secular rehearse and perform Christmas-related music in services and concerts. We like singing public domain classics– those have stood the test of time and are often well-known to our audiences, and we can copy scores cheaply and don’t have to worry about performance rights or royalties. We also like to sing newer copyrighted works– those can be fresh and exciting, and can often be easily found in print and in recordings. Older works still under copyright, though, can often fade into obscurity, even when they’re by creators who were once well-known.
Today’s Public Domain Day advent calendar entry falls into that category. Though Frances McCollin had a long career in Philadelphia, where I’ve lived and sung for nearly 20 years, I don’t recall hearing of her before doing research for this calendar. Blind from an early age, she took a synesthetic approach to music, according to her biography Frances McCollin: Her Life and Music (1990), associating various keys with different colors and moods. She published nearly 100 pieces of music, and her works have been performed by groups that include the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Warsaw Symphony. The library where I work has some of her papers in its special collections; the Free Library of Philadelphia has others. Some of her early public domain music is now freely available online, such as “The Singing Leaves” (1918). And some of it is still performed today. I’ve found online a sample of a recent recording by Canada’s Elektra Women’s Choir of her arrangement of “In the Bleak Midwinter” for women’s voices. (McCollin died in 1960, so most of her published work is in the public domain in Canada. I’m not sure of the US copyright status of this particular composition.)
I had a much harder time, however finding traces of another Christmas vocal piece she was known for in her day, a children’s chorale setting of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”. Based on the famous poem by Clement Clarke Moore (which, published 100 years earlier, had been in the public domain for her to adapt), her cantata was copyrighted in 1923, and renewed in 1950. That copyright persists to this day, as the piece has faded into obscurity. But 30 days from now, the work will enter the public domain in the US, and anyone interested in it can digitize it, make copies, perform it, or create new works based on it, without having to find a rightsholder to ask permission or pay royalties.
As Public Domain Day approaches, I’m looking forward to seeing familiar works join the public domain in the US, like the perennial international best-seller featured in yesterday’s calendar post. But for every work like that, there are many more works that are less well-known, on all kinds of topics of interest, by people who lived all over, including in one’s own hometown. They may have been largely out of sight for years, but their entry into the public domain gives them a new opportunity to be discovered, enjoyed, and shared by anyone.
If you know of any other works that will be coming into the public domain this January you’d like to share, I’d love to hear about them. I’ll post about another one tomorrow.