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Free Library of Philadelphia celebrates the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music

Edwin A. Fleisher, brother of Samuel S. Fleisher, founded the “Little” Symphony Club in 1909 with 65 boys ranging in age from 7 to 17. Edwin supplied music and instruments, and renovated a five-story building at 1235 Pine Street for use as the rehearsal hall and clubhouse. He also convinced Camille Zeckwer, a former student of Antonin Dvorak and a future director of the Academy of Music, to join as conductor.

The Club evolved over the years, and welcomed all youth regardless of race, creed, or sex. It grew to include a Junior String Orchestra, a Senior String Orchestra, and a full Symphony Orchestra. The Club's 191516 season was its first under the direction of William F. Happich, who served as the orchestra's conductor for 26 years. Edwin himself often sat in with the viola and violin sections.

The music for performances and instruction came from Edwin's private collection. He was an avid collector and purchased copies of virtually every known performance set available in the United States, before traveling to Europe in 1913 to acquire new music he was unable to obtain here in America. Over time, he purchased thousands of sets of scores and organized his collection in dustproof boxes that he designed, tailored, and labeled personally. Many of these boxes are still in use today.

Edwin retired from the Fleisher family business in 1925 and devoted his time to collecting music for the Symphony Club. Records suggest that he spent upwards of $20,000 (about $250,000 today) annually on orchestral materials and made three more trips abroad, including a three-month sojourn to Russia on a special passport to procure orchestral scores.

By 1929, the Fleisher Collection had become so extensive that it could no longer be housed in the Pine Street clubhouse. Seeking an outlet to preserve his collection while improving its access, Fleisher transferred ownership to the Free Library of Philadelphia in a Deed of Gift dated 6 May 1929. At the time, the Collection had an estimated value of $500,000 and contained the music of “old masters, strange scores from distant parts of the world, concertos and orchestrations which are virtually unprocurable in the present day.”

In 1933, Edwin privately published the first catalog of his Collection. The lists were revised in 1945, 1955, and 1966, and the Collection's comprehensive catalog was printed in 1977. The Free Library's catalog now includes nearly the whole Collection, more than 21,000 titles.

During the time of the Great Depression, Fleisher worked with head librarian Franklin H. Price and Collection curator Arthur Cohn to obtain and publish orchestral scores by contemporary American composers. Fleisher provided the materials, the Library offered the space, and the federal government covered the salaries of more than 100 copyists through the Works Progress Administration. All together, the WPA Music Copying Project documented nearly 2,000 unpublished works from more than 350 leading North, Central, and South American composers. Fleisher even sent renowned musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky on a six-month pilgrimage through Central and South America to obtain unpublished manuscripts.

By 1943, World War II was at its peak and the copying project was virtually shut down, leaving 700 works incomplete. All manuscripts in the possession of the group were copied onto microfilm and returned to their respective owners.

Now celebrating its 100th Anniversary, the Fleisher Collection has become a premier source for composers, conductors, instrumentalists, and researchers. This year alone, the Collection has loaned more than 34,000 scores and parts from over 900 works to performing organizations around the world.

You can hear pieces from the Fleisher Collection on the first Saturday of every month from 5:00 to 6:00 PM on WRTI-90.1 FM and wrti.org. Kile Smith, the Collection's curator co-hosts Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, which “uncovers the unknown, rediscovers the little-known, and takes a fresh look at some of the remarkable treasures of the Fleisher Collection.” Additionally, pieces from the Collection have been recorded with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and Albany Records, bringing to life pieces by composers including Louis Gruenberg, Frederick Shepherd Converse, and Tibor Serly.

The Fleisher Collection exhibit is on display at the Library through the end of December 2009. It includes clippings, music, a barrel organ, Latin American percussion instruments, personal notes, and much, much more. The exhibit also includes artwork from early days of the Fleisher Art Memorial. Admission is free.

Galván, Gary. “The ABCs of the WPA Music Copying Project and the Fleisher Collection.” American Music 26 (Winter 2008): 514-538.

Galván, Gary. “The Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music.” Henry Cowell in the Fleisher Collection. Ph.D. dissertation: University of Florida, 2007: 29-59.