Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection

The first Saturday of each month, 5 to 6 pm

In Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, we uncover the unknown, rediscover the little-known, and take a fresh look at some of the remarkable treasures housed in the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. The Fleisher Collection is the largest lending library of orchestral performance material in the world.

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, March 9th at 5 pm...The young Englishman watched the cigar smoke dance slowly as it dissipated into the hot, thick air. He was sitting on the porch of a cottage in an orange grove called Solano on a sleepy bank of a river named the St. Johns, a long, lazy waterway born in the southern marshes and in no hurry to creep up eastern Florida to lap, finally, into the Atlantic. St. Augustine was close by to the east, but 1884 St. Augustine was not yet a city, nowhere near a city, hardly a town. In this lonely grove by the river, in the wilderness of the Florida interior, St. Augustine could have been in Yorkshire, the young Englishman’s home, for all that.

He lit another cigar. As the smoke melted, barely lifted by the St. Johns breeze, 22-year-old Fritz Delius was happy to be far from St. Augustine, far from Yorkshire, and as far from his father as he could be.

If you know Percy Grainger at all, you know Country Gardens, that simple frolic every beginning pianist, every wind band, every school orchestra has assayed at one time or another. Percy Grainger knew that you would know that, and that’s why Percy Grainger grew to detest Country Gardens.

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Jan. 12th at 5 pm... Impressionism is an imprecise, even controversial term, the first “impressionist” Debussy having none of it. Each of its elements—open form, reliance on tone color over melody, unpredictable harmonies with modal scales—is challengeable, and Debussy’s music is awash with counter-examples. But everyone agrees that impressionism, whatever it is, exists, and that it is French.

Which is why it is such a surprise that one of the leading impressionist composers lived and died in upstate New York and studied in, of all places, Germany.

Who does this sound like?

That’s the first question we ask when we hear music new to us. It’s as true with Havergal Brian’s as with anyone else’s—probably more true, since his music is so rarely heard, and consequently so often new.

If we know anything about him, it’s that his first symphony, the “Gothic,” is called the largest ever written, with brass bands, choirs, harps, drums, and organ along with a gargantuan orchestra. Our knowledge of Havergal Brian usually ends there.

But he wrote 31 other symphonies, and much more music besides. On top of that, 27 of his symphonies and four of his five operas were composed in the last 25 years of his life, and he lived to be 96. On top of that, for most of his life not one note of his music was performed.

Why not?

We call William Grant Still “The Dean of African-American Composers,” and the description strikes us as quaint. Not wrong, since it’s undeniable that Still was the leading Black American composer of concert music (although he opposed the term Black as one that divided people into false groups).

Squeezed between a Russian revolution that destroyed his home, and a world war that destroyed the rest, Karol Szymanowski finally found escape in the art that had so long eluded him.

Music will always challenge our assumptions...if we let it. For a couple of generations now, those who unearthed music from earlier times have wanted to play it the way it sounded in those earlier times. These “authentic” or “historically informed” performances open our ears to new delights hidden in Medieval and Renaissance music. As playing techniques and instruments improved, the movement grew to encompass Baroque and Classical music. Even Romantic and later music has been influenced by the growing research. We can now listen to Brahms symphonies on “original” instruments.

This time, he’d show them. The Paris Conservatoire accepted Ravel as a piano student at age 16, and even though he won a piano competition, more than anything he wanted to compose. But the Conservatory was a hard place. He never won the fugue prize, never won the composition prize, never won anything for writing music and they sent him packing. Twice. He studied with the great Gabriel Fauré, in school and out, but he just couldn’t make any headway with the ruling musical authorities.

The circus came to town, and the music director, walking through the streets, heard a violin beautifully played from a house he was passing by. He knocked on the door, and offered a job to the 13-year-old boy who was practicing. The boy, always independent (he had started his own dance orchestra two years earlier), decided to run away the next day and, yes, to join the circus. But his father got wind of it and the next morning marched him to the Marines, apprenticing him to the band there. The father could do that, because he played trombone in the United States Marine Band.

Join us on Saturday, June 2nd from 5 to 6 pm for a look into the life of composer and conductor Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Even though descended from the Wedgwood family of pottery fame, and with Charles Darwin as a grand-uncle, Ralph Vaughan Williams was more common man than society type. The world-famous composer and esteemed professor at the Royal College of Music was once mistaken for a vagabond in his own hometown, dressed in ragged clothes and pushing a cart gathering aluminum for the war effort.