Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Tibor Serly papers, 1905-1992

Summary Information


This collection contains the personal papers, including musical scores, of the Hungarian-American composer, arranger, and theorist Tibor Serly.

At a Glance

Call No.: MS#1416
Bib ID 5420150 View CLIO record
Creator(s) Serly, Tibor
Title Tibor Serly papers, 1905-1992
Physical Description 3.15 linear feet (7 archival document boxes; 1 card file box; 1 oversize flat box #749)
Language(s) English , Hungarian .

This collection is located on-site.

This collection has no restrictions.



This collection is arranged into two series and six subseries.



The collection is comprised of the papers in the possession of Serly upon his death in 1978, as well as correspondence related to his career handled by his wife, Miriam Serly, after his death. The content of the papers includes scores, manuscript drafts, correspondence, and other materials related to Serly's career as a composer and writer on music; typescripts, reviews, articles, correspondence, pamphlets, translations, notes, and a 16mm film by and about Béla Bartók; and legal documents, photographs, audio cassette recordings, printed materials, press clippings, certificates, awards, and other memorabilia pertaining to Serly's personal life.

  • Series I: Writings and Music by Serly, 1905-1978

    Series I includes unpublished drafts of books written by Serly, and musical scores and sketches in his personal collection. The series is arranged into two subseries: Writings by Serly and Musical Scores.

  • Series II: Personal and Business Materials, 1911-1992

    Series II contains business documents, correspondence, a scrapbook, and personal effects of Serly's life and career. The series is arranged into four subseries: Correspondence, Business and Publicity Materials, Memorabilia, and Photographs.

Using the Collection

Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Restrictions on Access

This collection is located on-site.

This collection has no restrictions.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. Permission to publish material from the collection must be requested from the Curator of Manuscripts, Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML). The RBML grants permission to publish that which it physically owns; the responsibility to secure copyright permission rests with the patron.

Preferred Citation

Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Tibor Serly papers, Box and Folder; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

Related Materials

The New York Public Library has a related collection of Tibor Serly Papers with an extensive biography and finding aid. See also, Ms Coll Bartók in Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia for related materials

Béla Bartók collection, 1940-1981 Columbia UniversityRare Book & Manuscript Library

Tibor Serly Papers [1906-1978] The New York Public Library, Music Division

About the Finding Aid / Processing Information

Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Processing Information

This collection was surveyed by Bridget Lerette.

This collection was processed by Jude Webre 2007.

Finding aid written by Jude Webre in May 2007.

Revision Description

2008-12-02 File created.

2009/01/15 xml document instange created by Patrick Lawlor

2019-05-20 EAD was imported spring 2019 as part of the ArchivesSpace Phase II migration.

Subject Headings

The subject headings listed below are found in this collection. Links below allow searches at Columbia University through the Archival Collections Portal and through CLIO, the catalog for Columbia University Libraries, as well as ArchiveGRID, a catalog that allows users to search the holdings of multiple research libraries and archives.

All links open new windows.


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
Bartók, Béla, 1881-1945 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Bartók, Peter, 1924- Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Chamber music -- 20th century -- Scores Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Composers Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Composers -- Hungary -- Biography Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Frid, Géza Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Hungarian Americans -- Music -- History and criticism Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Kodály, Zoltán, 1882-1967 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Kresa, Helmy, 1904-1991 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Laughlin, James, 1914-1997 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Longview (Wash.) -- History Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Modernism (Music) -- United States Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Music theory -- History -- 20th century Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Orchestral music -- 20th century -- Scores Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Ormandy, Eugene, 1899-1985 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Philadelphia Orchestra Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Pleasants, Henry Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Pound, Ezra, 1885-1972 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID

History / Biographical Note

Biographical / Historical

Tibor Serly was born in Losonc, Hungary on November 25, 1901. He began his musical studies with his father, Lajos Serly, a Hungarian patriot, theatrical composer, and pupil of Liszt. Due to financial hardships, Lajos Serly moved his family in 1905 to New York City, where Tibor spent his childhood. Tibor gained early experience in pit orchestras led by his father until 1922, when he returned to Budapest to attend the Liszt Academy. There, he studied violin with Jenö Hubay, composition with Zoltán Kodály, and orchestration with Leó Weiner, graduating in 1925 with highest honors. During his years in Budapest, Serly also first made the acquaintance of his longtime mentor and friend, Béla Bartók.

Serly returned to the United States upon graduation and held positions as a violinist and violist in leading American orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Eugene Ormandy and the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. He also became close friends with several modernist poets, including William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting, and most notably Ezra Pound, whom Serly visited frequently at Pound's home in Rapallo, Italy, arranging concerts there. In 1938, Serly retired from performing to focus on composing and teaching.

In 1940, Béla Bartók and his wife emigrated from wartime Hungary to New York. Until Bartók's death in 1944, Serly devoted his energies to providing material and emotional support to the ailing exiled composer. Serly's papers include intimate photographs of Bartók and himself, as well as a home movie of an informal piano performance by Bartók. Serly arranged the "Mikrokosmos" suite for chamber orchestra, orchestrated the "Third Concerto for Piano", and posthumously completed the master's "Concerto for Viola" from sketches of the work. A talented decipherer and stylist, Serly also reconstructed a duet by Liszt and a section of Schubert's unfinished "Eighth Symphony".

From the 1930s on, Serly engaged in serious theoretical studies, developing a post-Schoenbergian enharmonic system called "Modus Lascivus" which divides the twelve-tone scale into two segments to create a multimodal chromatic scale system. Serly published two advanced theoretical texts"A Second Look at Harmony" (1964) and "Modus Lascivus: The Road to Enharmonicism" (1976), and had just completed a third"The Rhetoric of Melody", at the time of his death. Serly was also working on both a personal memoir and a biography of Bartók, the unfinished typescripts of which are included in these papers.

Towards the end of his life, Serly relocated with his second wife, the pianist Miriam Molin, to Longview, Washington, where he continued to teach and actively championed modernist music in the Pacific Northwest. At the end of his career, Serly was better known for his famous friends and collaborators, especially Bartók and Pound, than his own musical and theoretical work, a fact about which he complained bitterly in later correspondence. He was, however, indefatigable in his commitment to both innovation in modern music and preserving the rich musical traditions in which he had played a central role.

Tibor Serly died on October 8, 1978 after being struck by a car on a visit to London. His devoted wife Miriam, who kept his work alive through her performances, compiled the papers in this collection.