A Brief History of the Principal Harpists of the Boston Symphony Orchestra

By Price-Glynn, Cynthia | American Harp Journal, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview
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A Brief History of the Principal Harpists of the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Price-Glynn, Cynthia, American Harp Journal

Thanks to Ina Zdorovetchi and BSO Archivist Bridget Carr for their great help. IN the late 1800s, classical music concerts in Boston were plentiful and vibrant, as well as well-attended by area audiences. There were fine local orchestras who had regular seasons of several concerts a year, and many established orchestras included Boston in their tours. But in 1881, Henry Lee Higginson, the forty-seven-year-old partner in his family's brokerage and banking business, wanted Boston to be equal in culture to European cities and a rival to other American cities like New York City, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. To this end, he founded and funded the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and continued to support it for thirty-five years. Finally, by 1916, the orchestra had become self-sufficient and even profitable.

Higginson wanted his orchestra to be a permanent and regular presence in Boston. The musicians he hired had to agree to a strict and demanding work schedule and to play for no other conductor or musical association (a rule that was eventually relaxed). Higginson soon evicted the initial Boston musicians and imported male musicians from Europe, luring them with attractive salaries and the excitement of being in America.

From the beginning, like other 'permanent and regular' orchestras, the BSO toured extensively, playing regularly in Portland, Providence, Hartford, New Haven, New York, Brooklyn, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington DC, as well as in the local Massachusetts towns of Cambridge, Northampton, Fall River, and Salem.

The early BSO concert programs were usually a mixture of chamber music, a symphony, and a solo piece, often played by the orchestra's harpist. According to the records, those pieces were compositions by contemporary composers of the day: Albert Zabel, Elias Parish Alvars, Alfred Holy, and Marcel Tournier. The harpists employed by the BSO were titled "Solo Harpist."

The first harpist contracted by the BSO was Alexander Freygang, about whom we know practically nothing. He worked for the BSO for five years, from its beginning in 1881 through 1886. After that his name appears on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York City. Freygang began the tradition for all the BSO Solo Harpists to play Mozart's Concerto for Flute and Harp with the orchestra.

Reviews of the Mozart performances by the first three BSO Harpists in 1884, 1886, and 1913 appeared in the Boston newspapers. All of the reviews praise the admirable artistry, faultless technique, and brilliant virtuosity of the harpists and flutists. But the concerto is always referred to as "a novelty piece," "full of dainty beauties and charm, the pleasures of which quickly fade." "It is pretty salon music but not effective or appreciable in a large concert hall. And whereas the flute part is always interesting ... the harp part is monotonous and even tiresome."

For unknown reasons Freygang left the Boston Symphony in 1886, and a new Solo Harpist was needed. At that time the orchestra conductors were often the primary agents who sought, auditioned, and hired the musicians for their orchestras. The BSO conductor in 1886 was Wilhelm Gerick, who is said to have earned the orchestra its national reputation. Gericke recruited and engaged for the BSO a nineteen-year-old harpist from the Vienna Music Academy who had played in a Hamburg orchestra for one year.

The harpist was Heinrich Schuecker who stayed with the BSO for the next twenty-seven years. All of the BSO harpists have augmented their music activities and supplemented their incomes in Boston outside the orchestra. For example, during his tenure, Schuecker taught harp, bought and sold harps, played church organ in duets with a violinist every Sunday, performed with other Boston music groups, and gave private concerts either solo, with his harp-violin-cello trio, or with his harpist brother Edmund Schuecker, who is remembered for his compositions and method books, and for playing with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and with orchestras in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Covent Garden.

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