Elizabeth Mary Schaaf, who archived Baltimore’s musical history at the Peabody Institute, dies

Elizabeth Mary Schaaf studied with archivists at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Gallery of Art. Credit: © Mariana Cook 1996

Elizabeth Mary Schaaf, the retired Peabody Institute archivist who rescued the grace notes of Baltimore’s musical history, died Thursday at Shock Trauma. She was 81 and lived in Reservoir Hill.

She had an accidental fall Oct. 10.


Fred Bronstein, dean of the Peabody Institute, said:“Elizabeth Schaaf’s dedication to Peabody and to its history was nothing short of inspirational. Over her more than 25-year tenure here, she took it upon herself to turn a forgotten trove of materials into what is now the Peabody Archives, holding the history of the institute and the collections of many of Baltimore’s noteworthy musical organizations.”

Born in Baltimore, she was the daughter of Elizabeth Hoover Littleton, a McCormick Properties executive assistant, and William Sudler Smith, a Bethlehem Steel inspector.


Ms. Schaaf grew up in Glen Arm at Hoover’s Evergreen Farm, attended Towson High School and earned a diploma at the Bard-Avon School.

She was a member of a musical family. Her grandmother Grace Elizabeth Morgan Hoover was a singer who was offered a post with the Metropolitan Opera.

Ms. Schaaf became the executive assistant to three Peabody Institute directors, Charles Kent, Richard Franko Goldman and Elliott Galkin. While working for the directors, she earned a degree in voice in 1969. She studied with Alice Gerstl Duschak.

As a young Peabody graduate, she sang with the Robert Shaw Chorale in Atlanta.

She became the school’s concert manager and worked long hours. She had her own room in the Peabody dorm long after she had graduated.

File photo from 2004. Peabody Institute Archivist and Curator Elizabeth Mary Schaaf searches the institute's archive for a music manuscript.

Ms. Schaaf remained at Peabody for more than 50 years. She found a letter from George Peabody that stated the school he founded must have an archive — where there had not been one.

In 1985, she founded the archive and was assisted by a $500,000 grant from the Getty Foundation.

“Schaaf oversees nothing less than the panoramic musical history of Baltimore, from the mid-19th century to the most recent road show at the Mechanic,” a 2004 Sun article said.


When the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre was about to be demolished, she drove her Volvo to the playhouse hours ahead of the wreckers and loaded her vehicle with as much printed material as she could fit.

“She built the archives from scratch,” said Ray Sprenkle, a friend and Baltimore musician and choir director. “She was a real one-woman show. Is there anything left in the history of music in Maryland that she didn’t have her fingers in?”

In the Sun article, she recalled she had no idea the Peabody had old records. An elevator operator led her to a storage room where she discovered letters to and from Peabody, who founded the institute in 1857.

“When Schaaf urged the administration to do something with the material, the response was swift and simple. “They said, ‘You found it, it’s your problem,’” The Sun’s story said.

She went on to study with archivists at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Gallery of Art.

Anne Garside, a former Peabody public relations director, recalled how she created a 1995 bicentennial exhibit for the school’s founder, who was a merchant and philanthropist.


“The exhibit was all Elizabeth’s brainchild, and we took it to the Museum of City of London and there was a memorial service at Westminster Abbey,” Ms. Garside said. “Dozens of members of Parliament walked across the square and attended the event.”

She was able to find “CBS Sunday Morning” anchor Charles Osgood’s 1939-1941 report card from the Peabody Preparatory for a segment on that show.

She discovered that Peabody was the repository of scrapbooks, photo albums and artwork from the World War I years belonging to tenor Enrico Caruso, even though he had had no connection to the school. His widow gave the collection to Peabody.

One scrapbook contains Caruso’s press clippings. “Over a bad review,” Ms. Schaaf said, “he wrote in big letters, ‘Liar!’”

She became an authority on Baltimore’s racially segregated Colored Symphony Orchestra of the 1930s.

Her efforts resulted in an acclaimed traveling and online exhibit “The Storm is Passing Over,” which chronicled the lives and struggles of some of Maryland’s finest African American musicians, classical and jazz.

Peabody Institute Archivist and Curator Elizabeth Mary Schaaf talks in 2004 about a "Lift Every Voice" exhibit of photos by Russ Moss, which show the "aristocracy of Baltimore's African-American musicians."

She found nearly 60 Black musicians to interview for the archive.

“For some time, she was an authority on the Black music community in the city,” said her daughter Jennifer Elizabeth Morgan. “She recorded oral histories with the musicians.”

“We try not to turn people away,” Ms. Schaaf said of the archive. “We’ve had the gamut of researchers, from junior high students working on term papers to people doing serious, grown-up projects. It’s exciting. You never know who will rush in looking for something.”

Ms. Schaaf acknowledged that she had a soft spot for eccentrics.

“They’re so much fun,” she said. “Like Peabody architect Edmund Lind, who was interested in synesthesia — the relationship of colors with certain musical tones. We’ve got some of the watercolors he analyzed.”

She inventoried Peabody’s art collection, a group of paintings that was later sold to the State of Maryland.


She went on to establish the archive for the Lyric Opera House and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Peabody.

She retired in 2008 and was most recently an archivist for the thoroughbred horse breeding farm Country Life Farm in Bel Air.

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“I found these files in the basement about Man o’ War and August Belmont, for whom my grandfather worked as personal secretary. She came in and indexed and organized. She taught me to respect the irreplaceability of historical documents,” said Josh Pons, co-owner of Country Life Farm.

She married Larry J. Schaaf, who taught photography and photojournalism, in 1982.

In a memoir, she said of their first meeting: “I went out for a long walk. It was a beautiful October night and there was a full moon. I’m not sure it was love at first sight — but it was just amazing.”

Ms. Schaaf, a high alto, sang in the choir of Grace and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. In 1976, she joined the Second Presbyterian Church choir and sang there until 2004.


She received the Johns Hopkins University Alumni Association Heritage Award and was co-author of “Musical Maryland” with David Hildebrand.

Survivors include her husband of 40 years, Larry J. Schaaf, who taught history of photography; two daughters, Jennifer Elizabeth Morgan of Baltimore and Sallyellen Morgan Hurst of Glen Arm; a brother, the Rev. William L. Smith of Abingdon; and her half brother, Raymond R. Littleton of Parkville.

Funeral plans are private.