Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Joseph C. Schiavo

Musical Fund Society

The Musical Fund Society, an important predecessor to the Philadelphia Orchestra, formed in 1820 to promote professional and amateur musical talent in Philadelphia and to aid indigent musicians and their families. Its active role in advancing the careers of exceptional performing musicians and composers continued into the twenty-first century, making the Musical Fund Society the oldest continuing musical organization in the United States.

[caption id="attachment_28311" align="alignright" width="243"] Judge John K. Kane was one of the founding members of the Musical Fund Society. An amateur musician, Kane also kept a record of the society’s early history, which he published in his memoir. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The Musical Fund Society’s early beginnings included a small group of music lovers who met at their homes on Wednesday evenings during the winter months for several years starting in 1816. This group included such prominent Philadelphians as physicians William P. DeWees (1768–1841) and Robert M. Patterson (1787–1854), Judge John K. Kane (1795-1858), dentist Leonard Koecker (1785–1850), linguist Peter S. Duponceau (1760 –1844), antiquarian Charles A. Poulson (1789–1866), and others. They invited the best musicians in Philadelphia to their meetings to perform quartets of Beethoven, Boccherini, Haydn and Mozart, and other notable composers. The musicians were Charles F. Hupfeld (1787-1864), first violin; his brother John Hupfeld, second violin and sometimes viola; Peter Gilles (1776-1839), viola; and George Schetky (1776-1831), viola. Additional participants included violinists John C. Hommann (?- 1842), his two sons, John (1797-1832) and Charles (1803-72), and Dr. Rȇné La Roche (1795-1872).

As the result of the weekly gatherings, in 1816 Charles F. Hupfeld tried to establish a society for regular musical practice with Benjamin Carr (1768-1831), an organist, conductor, composer, and music publisher who had arrived from England in 1793, Gilles, and others. When it proved difficult to keep a sufficient number of players together, Hupfeld decided to add to the fledgling society a distinct purpose of creating a fund for the relief of musicians.

With this new purpose, the Musical Fund Society held its first public organizational meeting on January 7, 1820, at Elliot’s Hotel, Sixth and Chestnut Streets, with many of the hosts and musicians from the earlier home concerts in attendance. Nearly all professors of music in Philadelphia at the time and a large number of prominent and distinguished men and women also became members, and the society subsequently adopted a constitution and elected DeWees as its first president. The society held musical practices on Thursday evenings at Carpenters' Hall, leading to its first official concert on April 24, 1821, at Washington Hall on Third Street above Spruce, featuring one hundred orchestra and chorus members. The prominent musicians who had played in the earlier home concerts included, among others, C. F. Hupfeld, Gilles, and George Schetky, who conducted the society’s orchestra during its first decade.

[caption id="attachment_28306" align="alignright" width="225"]a color photogrpah of the entrance to Musical Fund Hall. The words "Musical Fund Hall" are carved above the door. Within a few years of its creation, the Musical Fund Society was able to establish its own concert hall. The Musical Fund Society performed its first concert on this stage on December 29, 1824, and the Musical Fund Hall soon became the center of Philadelphia’s music circuit. (Photograph by Donald Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

The Musical Fund Society concerts quickly became popular, creating a need for a larger venue. Although the society’s programs were not self-supporting, the group succeeded in raising funds to build the Musical Fund Hall, Eighth and Locust Streets, which cost $23,000 (including $7,500 for the lot). The hall, which became renowned for acoustical excellence, hosted its first concert on December 29, 1824, featuring four works by Handel and two by Mozart. The society also purchased sheet music, opera scores and musical instruments. By 1879 the catalog of printed music numbered 304 pieces and was comprised of overtures with full orchestral parts, opera music, oratorios, sacred music, symphonies with orchestral parts, and miscellaneous pieces.

From the 1820s through the 1850s, Musical Fund Hall was the center of all music in Philadelphia with the exception of opera. From 1825 until 1831, until it became too much of a financial burden, the Musical Fund Society operated an Academy of Music “for promoting a more general knowledge of music and supplying the orchestra of the society with skillful performers.” It was the first degree-conferring school of its kind in Philadelphia. Until 1851, the Musical Fund Society presented three concerts per year to benefit lifelong members of the society as well as to support destitute musicians and their families. These concerts ended in part because of the influx and popularity of visiting virtuosi, which minimized home talent. Another cause was the growing popularity of opera, particularly English opera. The society continued to provide orchestral concerts and in 1856 became the sponsor of the Germania Orchestra, which played in Musical Fund Hall until 1868.

[caption id="attachment_28313" align="alignright" width="217"]A black and white portrait of Jenny Lind Opera singer Jenny Lind gave a series of eight concerts at the Musical Fund Hall in the fall of 1850. Known as “the Swedish Songbird,” Lind performed a total of ninety-three concerts in the United States between 1850 and 1852 at the invitation of P.T. Barnum. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The opening of a new concert hall, the Academy of Music on Broad Street, in 1857 had a profound effect on the Musical Fund Hall’s status as a premier musical venue. However, the hall remained in demand for balls, meetings, lectures, weddings, and commencement exercises for a number of distinguished music schools. The hall hosted lecturers including Charles Dickens (1812-70) and William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63). Other notable performers included violinist Ole Bull (1810-80), pianists Henri Herz (1803-88) and Louis Gottschalk (1829-69), and singers Jenny Lind (1820-87), Henriette Sontag (1806-54), and eight-year-old Adelina Patti (1843-1919), all of whom gave concerts at the hall before 1853. The Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834) was honored at a reception in the hall in 1825. Pennsylvania’s Constitutional Convention took place there in 1837, and the first national convention of the fledgling Republican Party convened there in June 1856 and nominated John C. Fremont (1813–90) for president of the United States.

By the 1920s, Musical Fund Hall had fallen into disrepair and needed expensive maintenance, leading the Musical Fund Society to sell the building to the Philadelphia Labor Institute in 1924. After the Labor Institute defaulted on its mortgage during the Great Depression, the building once again became the responsibility of the Musical Fund Society, which leased it in 1937 for athletic events. In 1945, the building served as a storage warehouse for tobacco products. The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority purchased the structure in 1964, but plans to restore the hall as a performance space, cultural center, or museum were never realized. In 1982, private developers renovated the building for luxury condominiums.

[caption id="attachment_28308" align="alignright" width="248"]a black and white photograph of Musical Fund Hall in a state of disrepair Musical Fund Hall underwent a long period of deterioration after the Musical Fund Society sold it in 1924. Efforts to return it to use as a performance or cultural venue in the mid-twentieth century never materialized. In 1982, one year after this photograph of the dilapidated building was taken, Musical Fund Hall was purchased by a private developer and converted to luxury condominiums. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Library)[/caption]

Although no longer operating its own concert hall, the Musical Fund Society continued actively sponsoring music and musicians. In 1983 the society established a tax-exempt foundation for gifts to further its goals and programs, including scholarships to music students and Career Advancement Awards to artists with local connections. In the early twenty-first century, the society continued to sponsor numerous musical events, including a free chamber music series at the Free Library of Philadelphia and many concerts featuring music by American and Philadelphia composers.

The music-loving founders of the Musical Fund Society wanted simply to cultivate musical tastes in Philadelphia and at the same time offer concerts to help destitute musicians and their families. The society’s selfless interest laid the foundation to make Philadelphia a leading center for musical arts in the United States.

Joseph C. Schiavo is an Associate Teaching Professor of Music and the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs and University College in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University–Camden.

Philadelphia Orchestra

[caption id="attachment_21169" align="aligncenter" width="575"]A black and white photograph of the Philadelphia Orchestra on stage at the Academy of Music In 1916, the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Leopold Stokowski performed the American premiere of Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, often referred to as the Symphony of a Thousand. (Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Founded in 1900, the Philadelphia Orchestra developed into an iconic organization for Philadelphia through its musicianship, commitment to culture and education, and service as a cultural ambassador. The musical tastes and personalities of a series of influential conductors infused the orchestra with a rich history and distinctive sound as it became one of the finest and most renowned orchestras in the world.

Philadelphia did not have an orchestra to call its own until late in the nineteenth century, despite a long history of musical performances sponsored at venues such as Musical Fund Hall (opened in 1824) and the Academy of Music (1857). The first step toward creating a Philadelphia-based orchestra came in 1893, when opera conductor Gustav Hinrichs (1850-1942), choral director Henry Gordon Thunder (1865-1958), and composer William Gilchrist (1846-1916, founder and conductor of the city’s Mendelssohn Club) founded the Philadelphia Symphony Society and began producing three amateur concerts a year at the Academy of Music. In 1899, the society hired Fritz Scheel (1852-1907) to conduct not only the three amateur concerts but also two concerts in spring 1900 with professional musicians recruited from around the city. The success of these concerts laid the groundwork for forming the Philadelphia Orchestra.

[caption id="attachment_21163" align="alignright" width="151"]A black and white photograph of inaugural conductor Fritz Scheel, in formal attire with slicked hair and large, characteristic, curly mustache. Fritz Scheel, the first conductor and director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted its inaugural performance at the Academy of Music in 1900. (The History of American Music, 1904, via Google Books)[/caption]

An executive committee led by Henry Whelen Jr. (1848-1907), a well-known patron of music and the arts in Philadelphia, announced a plan to begin the Philadelphia Orchestra with a season of six concerts during 1900-01.  While expecting to cover costs through ticket sales, the committee also sought to raise a guarantors’ fund of $10,000 and exceeded that goal by $5,000.

Under the baton of Fritz Scheel, the orchestra performed its inaugural concert at the Academy of Music on Friday, November 16, 1900. The concert, which received all positive reviews, featured Russian-born Ossip Gabrilowitsch (1878-1936) as piano soloist and a program of European classical music: Carl Goldmark’s Overture In Spring, op. 36, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op. 67, Tchaikovsky’s Concerto for Piano No. 1 in B-flat minor, op.23, Carl Maria von Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, op. 65, and Wagner’s “Entry of the Gods in Valhalla,” from Das Rheingold.

Concerts Beyond Philadelphia

The success of the orchestra’s inaugural season spurred its patrons to create the Philadelphia Orchestra Association, formed on May 17, 1901, and consisting of officers, a board of directors, and executive committee. Scheel became the orchestra’s first official music director and conductor, and he realized almost immediately that the orchestra could not be sustained by local concerts alone. In the first year the musicians traveled only within the immediate region in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but in the second season, despite a large deficit, the orchestra managed to travel to New York, Baltimore, and Washington.  

[caption id="attachment_21201" align="alignright" width="267"]A black and white photograph of the Academy of Music from the stage, viewing the main floor seating, the three balcony levels and the large central chandelier. The Academy of Music, which opened in 1857 at 240 S. Broad Street as Philadelphia’s first grand opera house, primarily featured opera performances until the Philadelphia Orchestra’s debut in 1900. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Scheel’s term as conductor and musical director spanned the early challenges, financial difficulties, and successes of the orchestra, and his legacy laid the foundation for his successors. Scheel searched for and hired the finest musicians, invited well-known guest artists, and performed works by the great European masters as well as lesser-known composers.  His death on March 13, 1907—from pneumonia contributed by nervous exhaustion—was mourned as a great personal loss to the orchestra and to Philadelphia.

Bohemian-born Karl Pohlig (1864-1928) succeeded Scheel and enlarged the orchestra from sixty-five players to eighty. He expanded the orchestra’s repertoire and invited the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) to guest conduct in 1909. However, orchestra musicians found him abrasive, and a soloist described his conducting as “uninspired.” Pohlig’s tenure ended abruptly with the revelation of an extra-marital affair with his secretary. 

Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977), previously conductor of the Cincinnati Orchestra, became the orchestra’s third music director in 1912. Imposing his own set of performance standards, Stokowski fired thirty-two musicians in the first year and for the next decade focused on replacing players with the finest professionals. His preference for a less rigid performance style, including “free bowing” for string players, created the warmer, more intense and continuous sound that became the hallmark of the Philadelphia Orchestra, known as the “Philadelphia Sound.”

Stokowski Triumphs

Stokowski conducted his first concerts in Philadelphia on October 11 and 12, 1912, with a program consisting of Beethoven’s Overture to Leonore, no. 3, Brahms’ Symphony no. 1 in C minor, op. 68, Michael Ippolitow-Iwanow’s “Sketches from the Caucasus,” and Wagner’s Overture to Tannhauser. He scored his first major triumph with the American premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in 1916. It was a massive undertaking, including three performances with three choruses (950 voices), 110 players in the orchestra, and eight soloists. Hugely successful, these concerts were hailed by the directors of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association as marking nothing less than “an epoch in the musical history of Philadelphia to which no other event is comparable.”

[caption id="attachment_21164" align="aligncenter" width="575"]A black and white photograph of the Philadelphia Orchestra (and all members in formal attire) on the second level of the Wannamaker Store's Grand Court; behind them, Wannamaker's Great Organ. In the 1920s, Leopold Stokowski’s “Philadelphia Sound” joined with the Great Organ in the Grand Court of the Center City Wanamakers department store. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Stokowski and the orchestra further enhanced the orchestra’s reputation by making recordings for more than thirty years with Camden’s Victor Talking Machine Company and RCA. Stokowski’s legacy also included children’s concerts, which began in 1921 for children ages twelve and under and evolved in 1933 into a series of hugely successful youth concerts. Moreover, Stokowski’s attraction to film had opportunities for an even wider audience.  Stokowski inspired Walt Disney (1901-66) to create the full-length animated film, Fantasia in 1940, which featured classical music and the Philadelphia Orchestra.  The film was successful but did not lead to additional collaborations.

The Philadelphia Sound continued under the baton of its fourth music director, Eugene Ormandy (1899-1985), who held the position for more than four decades. Between 1940 and 1970, Ormandy enhanced the Philadelphia Sound by purchasing the finest string instruments by makers such as Stradivari and Guarneri. The instruments, combined with the extraordinary talent of the string players, further established the Philadelphia Orchestra’s reputation as the finest in the world.  The musicians’ many travels with Ormandy included a 1949 tour of Great Britain, the orchestra’s first tour of continental Europe in 1955, performing twenty-eight concerts in eleven countries, and in 1973, a tour to the People’s Republic of China, a first for an American orchestra.

[caption id="attachment_21166" align="alignright" width="280"]A black and white photograph of Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra at rehearsal with arms eccentrically outstretched. Eugene Ormandy conducts a rehearsal (c. 1944). (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Along with musical successes, Ormandy and the music directors who followed him in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century faced numerous institutional challenges, including labor relations with musicians. Strikes or threats of strikes by members of the orchestra centered on wages, pensions, health care, and parity of salaries with other orchestras.  The first major strike by the musicians’ union—the Philadelphia Musical Society, Local 77, of the American Federation of Musicians—occurred in 1966 during Ormandy’s tenure and lasted fifty-eight days. The second, in 1996, was caused by several factors and lasted sixty-four days. The orchestra musicians blamed the management for the delay in the building of a new concert hall, for a three-year deficit that led to pay and healthcare concessions to balance the budget, and more importantly, the loss of a recording contract with EMI, which had expired in August 1996.  While under a recording contract, the musicians were guaranteed a minimum sum above their salary through broadcasting and recording fees. Musicians feared the loss of the contract would not only erode the orchestra’s national media exposure, but also would prevent the orchestra from attracting first-rate musicians and diminish its reputation as one of the best orchestras in the world.

Muti, Sawallisch, Eschenbach

While Ormandy continued the orchestra’s lush sound and standard nineteenth-century repertoire, his successors instituted many changes. The next music director, Riccardo Muti (b. 1941), who led the orchestra from 1980 to 1992, programmed a range of music from Haydn to Penderecki and introduced a leaner sound, criticized by many. Wolfgang Sawallisch (1923-2013), who followed in 1993, brought back the Philadelphia Sound and favored works by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann, Bruckner, Dvorak, Brahms, Wagner, and Strauss. He also introduced more American music and modern works. As senior musicians retired, Sawallisch reshaped the orchestra by replacing more than a third of the players. His successor, Christoph Eschenbach (b. 1940), increased community outreach and regularly performed chamber music with members of the orchestra as a pianist. However, in 2008 he announced his tenure with the orchestra would end amid negative comments in the press in Philadelphia, which arose partly from orchestra members unhappy about the initial hiring process of Eschenbach and later by his style as a leader.

The most significant change for the orchestra during this period was its move to a new home, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, where Sawallisch conducted the inaugural concert in Verizon Hall on Saturday, December 15, 2001.  The program consisted of Kernis’ Color Wheel, Ravel’s Daphis et Chloé, and Beethoven’s Triple Concerto in C Major, Op. 56, with performances by Emanuel Ax (b. 1949), Itzhak Perlman (b. 1945), and Yo-Yo Ma (b. 1955).  Verizon Hall proved to be different acoustically from the Academy of Music. Its vastness produced a more brilliant sound, and for the first time players could hear each orchestra section clearly.  As a consequence, the performers had to learn how to blend and play differently.

The orchestra also made changes to attract new audiences.  Some were minor, such as giving up the formal wear “uniform” worn by the players and having the orchestra stand up and acknowledge the audience. In an attempt to fill the hall and persuade more people to give the orchestra a chance, inexpensive tickets were made available one half hour before concert time and students of the Curtis Institute of Music were admitted free just as a concert was about to begin. The orchestra also began outdoor performances in neighborhoods throughout the city. Other, more major, adjustments included adding visuals in the form of slides, dancers, dramatic readings, and even circus acts to accompany familiar and unfamiliar music. The orchestra also continued to play in venues such as the Mann Center for the Performing Arts and Saratoga (N.Y.) Performing Arts Center to attract audiences who were generally non-concert goers. 

Nézet-Séguin Debuts

During this period of turmoil and change, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (b. 1975), a Canadian born prize-winning pianist and conductor, emerged as the next music director following an interim of four years in which Charles Dutoit (b. 1936) became chief conductor. Nézet-Séguin debuted as guest conductor in December 2008, became music director-designate in June 2010, and then music director in 2012. In January 2015, the orchestra extended Nézet-Séguin’s contract to the 2021-22 season. 

[caption id="attachment_21170" align="alignright" width="280"]A photograph (taken from the left side of the main floor) of Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center on South Broad Street. (Photograph by J. Griffin, Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Nézet-Séguin’s ascent to the podium occurred as the Philadelphia Orchestra Association declared and emerged from bankruptcy. The financial woes that led to the 2011 declaration of bankruptcy—the first for an American orchestra—included the high cost of musicians’ pensions and financial obligations to Grammy-winning pianist and Philly Pops artistic director Peter Nero (b. 1934).  The orchestra also faced renegotiating agreements with the owners of the Kimmel Center and a new collective bargaining agreement with musicians. The Orchestra Association came out of bankruptcy in June 2013, but not without deep concessions by its musicians.

Rising above the fray of the bankruptcy turmoil, Nézet-Séguin focused his energy on music and audiences, including some risk-taking in programming by introducing more Baroque music, more vocal music, and more contemporary American composers. Nézet-Séguin’s youthful exuberance and musicianship opened a new era of seeking larger audiences and while continuing the legacy of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Joseph C. Schiavo is a Clinical Associate Professor of Music and the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs and University College in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University–Camden.

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