Library displays local music

A new exhibit showcases the history of Philly’s music.

Vincent Fraley is hoping the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s new exhibit will “chip away” at the idea that libraries are boring and quiet.

The special collections library, located at 1300 Locust St., is hosting “Memories & Melodies” through March 31. The exhibit aims to showcase the vast and diverse musical history of the city, starting in the 18th century and stretching through the 1980s. The collection was organized by sophomore Bennington College student Lucas Galante and Jack McCarthy, project director of the Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories.

The display includes pieces from the first African-American composer ever published in America, as well as the first American composer to tour outside of the United States, emphasizing the city’s important music achievements.

“The musical legacy of Philadelphia is as old as Philadelphia itself,” said Fraley, the HSP’s communications manager. “And a lot of the early music work was created by other ethnic groups … a lot of these collections are loud themselves. They’re not meant to sit on shelves.”

The collection starts with items from 1700, like sheet music and newspaper clippings from the first-ever documented public musical performance in Philadelphia, written and performed by German pilgrim Johannes Kelpius and his ensemble at the dedication of Gloria Dei, “Old Swedes’,” Church on July 2.

Navigating through the 20th century, the display includes the Balch Institute sheet music collection, which consists of a myriad of ethnic music, ranging from African-American spirituals to minstrel songs and Jewish, Greek, Italian, Irish and Scandinavian songs.

Also included in the display is the historic 1916 American premiere of Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, often called the “Symphony of a Thousand,” as it requires some four hundred musicians and vocalists to perform. The Philadelphia Orchestra will perform the symphony in early March to celebrate the upcoming 100th anniversary of the premiere.

The exhibit also captures the rich history of Philadelphia music in the 1970s and ‘80s with “The Sound of Philadelphia,” a movement which contributed greatly to jazz, soul, gospel, and rock ‘n’ roll music of the time.

“When you think of early rock ‘n’ roll you think of Cleveland or New York, you never think of Philadelphia,” Fraley said. “But when we were putting this display together, you realize how central an influence Philadelphia had. It was at the epicenter of so many different musical styles.”

“We have lots of sheet music that we haven’t really done much with before,” he added. “So we decided that this is a good way to sort of chip away at a lot of the bad PR that libraries get, especially special collections library, and hopefully reach a new audience.”

Accompanying the display is a program series which addresses each case specifically and dives more deeply into the stories behind each piece in the display.

“We’re really interested in creating dialogue,” Fraley said. “The idea of a program series is that you can create and sustain this conversation—not only to introduce an audience, but to really capture them and make them supporters of the display.”

With the program series, the historical society aims to help people “make a connection in their mind between the stories and materials that we have and their relevance to current issues both political and social, as well as period pieces on television, things like that,” Fraley added.

Fraley hopes the display will help music lovers across the city recognize the Historical Society of Pennsylvania as an important resource for both the history and development of music throughout the last three centuries.

“We have such a great subject strength in music throughout all 300 years of Philadelphia’s history that no one would even think to look at us for,” Fraley said. “[The display] is introducing that collection, it’s also hoping to get those who are interested in music, for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to become a landmark in their mental geography.”

“There’s just this really rich and diverse history of music in Philadelphia,” McCarthy said. “Philadelphia has long been known as one of the great music centers of the world and so this collection highlights that.”

“All around the world Philadelphia music is known and loved,” he added. “It’s important that people realize just how important this music is to world culture.”

Emily Thomas can be reached at

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