Music professor’s private collection of old music books and opera scores preserves history

December 8, 2021

Robert Mills, clinical associate professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre and vocal coach/accompanist for Music Theatre and Opera, is passionate about old music books and opera scores. A collector for almost 20 years, he has amassed a private collection that now numbers between 750-800 first- or early-edition scores.

“Most of the scores I own are from the 19th to early 20th century,” said Mills. “The only people that could afford the scores back then were wealthy people, so the books were leather bound with intricate artwork. It's not economical to print those types of books anymore. I think of them as a piece of art because the books themselves are intrinsically beautiful. I started collecting and have not stopped.” walls of shelves stacked with books Robert Mills' opera scores and old music books. Download Full Image

He estimates 70–80% of the scores are first editions, with the remaining 30% being second or early editions.

The Music Library in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre is currently hosting “With the Flow of the Hand,” an exhibit from his private collection featuring 11 signed opera scores by Wagner, Rossini, Verdi, Massenet, Puccini, Poulenc, Hahn, Thomas, Saint-Saëns and Gounod. The exhibit runs through Dec. 20.

Mills became interested in collecting scores while pursuing his DMA in collaborative piano at ASU in the early 2000s when his mentor, Professor Eckart Sellheim, invited students to his residence for an event. Mills said he was fascinated by Sellheim’s vast collection of rare and beautiful music books and scores.

As a student with very limited funds, he started collecting little works here and there. Soon, collecting became his passion.

Mills said he used to travel to Europe frequently for music programs and would shop in small music stores or secondhand bookstores. Since he does not travel as much, he now finds books and scores mostly online or through international art and book dealers.

Mills said he was amazed at the scores he found in secondhand bookstores, including several he considers “diamonds in the rough” because they are very rare or difficult to find. Because music was not most bookshop owners’ specialty, they often did not know the true value of old music books.

Because he has been collecting for so long, Mills said he has learned what is valuable and oftentimes finds books for as little as $10.

For library exhibits, Mills said he devises a topic or theme and then selects the scores to match. Then, he and Linda Elsasser, the Music Library’s learning services manager, organizes and installs the exhibit.

The topic for the current exhibit, “With the Flow of the Hand,” is signed opera scores. All of the scores in the exhibit are signed, some of which are dated and include inscriptions.

In the beginning, Mills said everything was fascinating, so he collected almost anything because he was building his collection. Now, he looks primarily for signed scores or scores with important provenance.

The exhibit includes a signed first-edition score of the opera “Das Rheingold” by Richard Wagner, the 19th-century German composer. The inscription says “Adieu, Adieu” but does not say to whom it is addressed. Mills said he believes the score was given as a gift to Mathilde Wesendonck, a19th-century German poet who had an affair with Wagner, as her name is written in the front of the book.

Christopher Mehrens, librarian and musicologist, said the Music Library has hosted exhibits featuring scores from Mill’s collection since 2008, including “With the Flow of the Hand, Composers Make their Mark,” signed scores by Jules Massenet, Reynaldo Hahn, Aaron Copland and Giuseppe Verdi; “The Making of a Myth: Greek and Roman Manifestations,” 19th- and 20th-century scores of mythological characters, events and places; and “It’s a Thin Line: Deception, Crimes of Passion, and Glorious Agony in Verismo Opera,” featuring Giacomo Puccini, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano, Pietro Mascagni and Gustave Charpentier in addition to a few others.

The Music Library also has featured exhibits on special items from its collections and some by ASU collectors and curators, including “Something to Dance About!” featuring former musical theater faculty member JoAnn Yeoman Tongret’s Madame Alexander ballet dolls; “Treasures From the Collection of Eckart and Dian Sellheim,” an extensive collection of rare piano scores of Sellheim, professor emeritus and director of collaborative piano, and his wife, internationally renowned concert pianist Dian Baker; and most recently, a dance exhibit by Adair Landborn, ASU dance faculty and curator of the Cross-Cultural Dance Resources Collections.

The Music Library, on the third floor of the Music Building’s west wing, is well known for the vast collections of books, scores, recordings, videos, periodicals and special collections that assist with music research.

“Each of my predecessors have been integral to the development the ASU Music Library collections, and I have been privileged to build on their foundational work,” said Mehrens.

Lynne MacDonald

communications specialist, School of Music


ASU honors graduate Brielle Ruscitti focused on being a well-rounded problem solver

Ruscitti will graduate summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in biological sciences

December 8, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2021 graduates.

Brielle Ruscitti, who is graduating from Arizona State University with honors from Barrett The Honors College next week, made an impact in academics, leadership and service as an undergraduate. Photo of Brielle Ruscitti Brielle Ruscitti is graduating with a bachelor's degree in biological sciences (biology and society), a global health minor, and a certificate in evolutionary medicine from the School of Life Sciences, with honors from Barrett, The Honors College at ASU. Download Full Image

She served as president of the Barrett Leadership and Service Team (BLAST) and as a change agent at Changemaker Central@ASU, two organizations focused on leadership, service and community solutions. 

She founded SOLUR Bridge, a student-led organization dedicated to helping its members build the skills and knowledge to get involved in research, gain lab experience and build a community of researchers.

She was an undergraduate research assistant in the Neisewander Addiction Research Laboratory, studying the effects of receptors’ roles in substance use addiction, specifically cocaine addiction, and based her honors thesis on this research.

She was involved with the Barrett Honors College Women’s League and was a teaching assistant for the honors college’s signature first-year seminar, The Human Event. She was a Tillman Scholar.

These experiences, along with the classes she took, helped her develop new skills and different ways of thinking.

“One of the most important lessons I learned at ASU is the importance of interdisciplinary education and building a well-rounded skill set. Both in and outside of the classroom, I learned that being an effective problem-solver and using different methods of thinking allow you to develop a deeper understanding of the problem and create a better solution,” she said.

Ruscitti, originally from Scottsdale, Arizona, was reluctant to come to ASU, worried that she would be overwhelmed at such a big university. Fortunately, after her first year, she realized that she made the right decision and found smaller communities within the university that helped her feel more connected and involved.

“There are endless opportunities at ASU, not only in terms of coursework and majors to select, but also clubs and organizations to join, and work and volunteer positions to partake in. I jumped right in, got involved on campus, and found that Barrett, The Honors College, offered a tight-knit community within ASU.”

She earned the Moeur Award and the New American University Provost Award. She is graduating summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in biological sciences (biology and society), a global health minor, and a certificate in evolutionary medicine from the School of Life Sciences.

She will be the student speaker at the Barrett Honors College convocation, set for noon, Monday, Dec. 13, at ASU Gammage on the ASU Tempe campus.

Here’s what she had to say about her experience at ASU.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I don’t think I had a single “aha” moment. I had a series of moments and actions that led me to the biology and society program. When I started at ASU, I was in a different life science concentration; however, after starting classes and exploring my interests further, I was interested in learning how biology interacts and impacts our society and built world. After some guidance from my peers and more research, I switched into the biology and society track and never looked back. I was able to partake in interdisciplinary research projects and complete my own research project as part of my course requirements.

Q: What was a highlight or interesting moment or accomplishment in your ASU career?

A: Along with so many other impactful moments and experiences, I think one of my highlights was completing my honors thesis. I had been working on the research project since my freshman year and was able to piece together the different aspects and see my own development.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: It’s hard to pick just one; I think that all of my professors have contributed to the person I am today and influenced my undergraduate journey. One professor that stands out is Dr. Laura Popova, honors faculty fellow in Barrett Honors College. Dr. Popova was my Human Event professor during my first year, and I also had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant for her during my senior year. Dr. Popova has a lively personality and presence that pushed me to grow as a student, not only in the classroom, but also as an active community member. She has been a key mentor for me and a major part of my journey at ASU.

I’d also like to mention Dr. Janet Neisewander, a professor in the School of Life Sciences, who I worked with as a research assistant and she was also my thesis director. When I joined Dr. Neisewander’s lab, I really had no idea what I was getting into, but under her mentorship, I was able to develop a strong understanding of the research process and scientific writing and communication.

I have so much gratitude to all my professors, and I would not be where I am today without all of them. I have learned so many important lessons that I will carry far beyond college.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: My advice to current students is that you don’t have to be just one thing. You can be a business major who loves research or an engineer who loves creative writing. Your time at ASU is precious, and your academics are only part of your experience. ASU has boundless opportunities for you to be curious and explore your passions, so take advantage of them!

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: One of my favorite places to study was Armstrong Hall. It was quiet on the lower levels, and I used to meet my friends in the study rooms to prepare for our organic chemistry exams. The building is circular so navigating around was always fun!

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After graduation, I am taking a gap semester to work, likely in the education sector. In the fall, I plan to pursue graduate education.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: If I had $40 million, I would allocate the money to tackling climate change. I would allocate funds to research, green infrastructure and building a stronger framework for a sustainable future. Climate change affects every aspect of human life, exacerbates numerous societal issues and disproportionately impacts rural and low-income communities. By empowering our communities, we can eradicate a number of issues plaguing our society.

Story by Lillian Barrera, a Barrett Honors College student majoring in marketing.