Magazine article American Libraries

Hearing It Again for the First Time: With Its Abundance of Buried Musical Treasures, the Free Library of Philadelphia's Fleisher Collection Lays Claim to the Title "World's Greatest Music Library"

Magazine article American Libraries

Hearing It Again for the First Time: With Its Abundance of Buried Musical Treasures, the Free Library of Philadelphia's Fleisher Collection Lays Claim to the Title "World's Greatest Music Library"

Article excerpt

What would Polish Independence Day be without Polish music? Sheldon Blair, the music director of the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra, wouldn't have wanted to think about the answer to that question, as he had been asked to perform all-polish concerts in Maryland and New York to celebrate the November 11 holiday. Fortunately, Blair, who actively seeks out musical buried treasures for his community orchestra in Bel Air, Maryland, knew of a unique music library that could likely help him out. He asked Kile Smith, curator of the Edwin A. Flesher Collection of Orchestral Performance Music of any appropriate compositions for the occasion.

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As a matter of fact, he did: Smith gave him "To My Children: Five Miniatures" by Jerzy Gablenz (1888-1937), which Gablenz's son had donated to the Fleisher Collection. The Susquehanna Symphony's performance of the piece turned out to be not only the U.S. premiere of the work, but the first time it had been performed since Gablenz himself conducted it, in 1926.

"World's greatest music library"

The collection's founder, Edwin Fleisher, was always interested in music, and in 1909 he established the Symphony Club while still working for the yarn manufactury founded by his father. The club provided free musical instruction to young people--initially to boys, but eventually without regard to race, gender, or religion. Fleisher collected the scores and parts for use by the club, where half of the rehearsals involved new or unfamiliar compositions. What might be called Fleisher's collection development policy would soon establish his accumulation as the world's largest lending library of orchestral performance materials.

Fleisher continued collecting music after he retired from the yarn business in 1929. That same year, Fleisher donated his collection to the Free Library upon--as the story goes--being informed by the fire marshal that the collection was too large to be safely stored in the house where the Symphony Club met. He traveled to Russia, to Britain, and through Europe, collecting copies of more than 1,000 manuscript and printed compositions, many of which were unpublished. Back home, acquisition efforts turned toward contemporary American works. Beginning in 1934, more than 1,000 pieces by selected American composers were copies using labor funded by the federal government's Works Progress Administration and supervised by composer Arthur Cohn, then director of the Fleisher Collection. Around 1940, Fleisher sent musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky to Latin America on another collecting trip, which added 650 works to the increasingly diverse library. By 1948, Japanese music was added to the mix, and Cohn and Fleisher were making return trips to Europe.

Such active collecting and concern for diversity meant that as early as 1946, American Mercury was calling the Fleisher Collection "the world's greatest music library" and "the largest collection of orchestral music in the world" at 11,000 volumes. In 1980, Wilson Library Bulletin noted that the collection's print catalog contained about 13,000 volumes. Today it boasts more than 21,000--and it's running out of room. Fortunately, new space for the collection will eventually be provided as part of a larger expansion project at FLP.

"We'll accept new orchestral works that have been played or are about to be played," Smith explains of the collection's current status. "We wish we could take more in, but we simply don't have the room. …

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