On Spruce Street, A Symphony Of Fading History

 

The townhouse at 1617 Spruce Street once hummed with scales and concerto instruction at the Philadelphia Musical Academy. | Photo: Michael Bixler

On the façade of the elegant townhouse at 1617 Spruce Street is an austere plaque that reads, “Philadelphia Musical Academy, 1870.” Just blocks away from both the Curtis Institute and the Kimmel Center, the house is distinguished in appearance, but rarely a conversation topic in local classical music circles. The property was sold last summer, securing a future of faithful upkeep and occupancy by its new owners. Yet, the history of the former conservatory, once a central node in Philadelphia’s network of aspiring and professional symphonic musicians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, goes largely unnoticed in Philadelphia’s rich, musical landscape as the school’s legacy continues to vanish from view. 

The establishment of the Philadelphia Musical Academy in 1870 was part of a gradual shift in Philadelphia’s identity from a host to transient symphony societies and touring opera companies to a prominent center of music and performance traditions. Like the Academy of Music, which first opened in 1857, the conservatory became a reputable institution in Philadelphia that contributed to the robust character of the city’s cultural life well into the 20th century. The conservatory’s founders, like many of Philadelphia’s resident professional musicians, were European émigrés. Rudolph Hennig, Wenzel Kopta, and Johann F. Himmelsbach all graduated from the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany and were prominent figures in Philadelphia’s music community.

Himmelsbach held the position as director of the conservatory until his permanent return to Europe in 1876, at which time he sold the school to the Prussian pianist Richard Zeckwer, already on faculty at Himmelsbach’s invitation and known to him through connections in Leipzig. It was Zeckwer who, in 1880, first purchased the building at 1617 Spruce Street to accommodate a steadily growing student body. By 1880, approximately 400 students were enrolled annually. Since its foundation, the conservatory had already educated nearly 3,000 students. To accommodate the conservatory’s steadily increasing enrollment, Zeckwer modified the town home in 1884, enlarging the building by adding classrooms and a small concert hall on the second floor equipped with an organ built by Hook and Hastings of Boston. The founders of the conservatory, it seemed, were proven correct in sensing a very real need on the part of Philadelphians for a legitimate place of musical instruction modeled after the conservatories of Europe.

Founders and faculty of the conservatory. Top row, from left: Carl Schanchner, Carl Samans, D. O. Wood, W. Van Gelder, F. E. Cresson, Gustav Schmidt. Second row, from left: P. Rondinella, Richard Schmidt, Leland Howe. Third row, from left: Herman Mohr, Gustav Hille, Richard Zeckwer, Rudolph Hennig, Maurits Leefson. | Photo courtesy of Visual Resources and Special Collections, The University of the Arts

Like so many musicians chronicled in performance histories, Zeckwer’s name is unfamiliar to the contemporary public, but a hundred years ago his name would have been very well known. Zeckwer was active in Philadelphia’s musical life, most notably as the organist of St. Vincent de Paul church from 1870 to 1877 and the Philadelphia Cathedral from 1878 to 1880. A passionate enthusiast of acoustical science, his lively lectures at the conservatory on Spruce, the Franklin Institute, and the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences were accompanied by an array of acoustic instruments and apparatuses, including the technologically advanced devices of Koenig and Hanau. Annual school catalogues boasted that Zeckwer had “the best and most complete collection of acoustical apparatus of any conservatory in the world.”

Zeckwer desired to fashion his academy into a conservatory on par with those of Leipzig, Berlin, and Paris. Although the school never attained the lasting reputation of those institutions, its director was, by all accounts, successful in establishing a school that attracted talented students and faculty performers. The school motto, likely taken from the inscription of the Gewandhaus concert hall in Leipzig, read, “Severa est velum gaudier,” “A serious thing creates true joy.” This motto not only reflected the religiosity and reverence surrounding art and culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but also indicated something of the academy’s civic and cultural contribution to the city. Despite the academy’s ability to produce graduates who attained noteworthy careers as performers, it claimed in a 1935 school catalogue to derive “its greatest satisfaction from the thousands of individuals who have shared its instruction and as a result have had an abiding interest and appreciation of music.”

The image shows the Philadelphia Musical Academy on Spruce Street before the block began to fill in. | Photo courtesy of Visual Resources and Special Collections, The University of the Arts

Many of the academy’s students did hold prominent places in orchestras and on university faculties, but the great majority remained in the Philadelphia area as private instructors, church music directors, and performers, passing on the traditions and techniques inculcated to them at the academy to the local cultural community. Years after her graduation alumna Frances Wister, daughter of one of Philadelphia’s most prominent 19th century families, praised Zeckwer and his contemporaries, writing “these men wielded so potent an influence over music students and music lovers, that Philadelphians owe them a heavy debt. They received the musical laying on of hands and transmitted the traditions that have existed here for two hundred years.”

Upon Zeckwer’s death in 1917, his son Camille took over the directorship of the academy. A violinist, pianist and composer, Camille Zeckwer studied with his father before going on to study composition with Dvorak in New York and abroad for further studies in violin and piano. It was Camille Zeckwer who merged the academy with the conservatory of Frederick Hahn in 1917, resulting in the rather verbose name of the Zeckwer-Hahn Philadelphia Musical Academy until 1947. By 1919, the school, with its Preparatory, Conservatory, and Graduate divisions, had approximately 2,000 students enrolled in branches at Spruce Street, West Philadelphia, Germantown, Tioga, and Glenside. (But one of those students was not Marian Anderson, the Philadelphia-born contralto, who, in perhaps the most infamous event in the history of the school, was denied entry because of the color of her skin.)

The curriculum of the Philadelphia Musical Academy was modeled after the tradition of Europe. In the years before recorded sound, students would have heard works of the old masters performed by their instructors in the concert hall at 1617 Spruce Street, taken classes in harmony, theory, and literature, and performed in the choral and symphonic ensembles. Wide instruction was given in piano, organ, violin, cello, flute, all other orchestral instruments, in addition to voice, harmony, counterpoint, imitation, fugue, composition, instrumentation, acoustics and elocution, and languages. By the 20th century, coursework reflected the growing intersection between music and technology. Courses offered in “The Art of Playing for Motion Pictures” and “Radio Technique” augmented the traditional curricular requirements. Images of the private studios in the Spruce Street row house depict tastefully decorated rooms reminiscent of old Europe, with comfortable armchairs, glass cabinets filled with scores and books, grand pianos, music stands, Persian carpets, and portraits of notable musicians and prominent teachers. The “atmosphere of quiet culture” that Mary Louise Curtis Bok sought to establish at the Curtis Institute in 1924 had its antecedents in the Philadelphia Musical Academy and the conservatories of the Old World.

In the late 19th century, few major professional musicians active in the cultural life of Philadelphia were not connected with the Philadelphia Musical Academy. Indeed, a school catalogue printed in 1927 immodestly boasted that, “[T]he history of the Philadelphia Musical Academy from 1870 until the founding of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1900 very properly could be called the history of music in Philadelphia.”

The piano studio of Joseph W. Clarke. | Photo courtesy of Visual Resources and Special Collections, The University of the Arts

Like all academies, Zeckwer’s conservatory existed both as a physical building in a fixed location and a mobile body of students and faculty that comprised the vast ecosystem of musical performance in Philadelphia. Public performances were given in the recital hall at 1617 Spruce Street and satellite venues like Musical Fund Hall at 808 Locust Street and the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem at at 22nd and Chestnut Streets, both of which were converted for residential and office use in the 1990s. Among its members was William Wallace Gilchrist, who joined the school’s composition faculty in 1882. Gilchrist is best known today as the founder of the Mendelssohn Club, but he successively held a number of important posts as music director of local parishes, including St. Clement’s Church, Christ Church, Germantown, and the Swedenborgian Church. A founding member of the Manuscript Music Society, he did much to promote the composition and performance of new musical works in Philadelphia.

Many of the academy’s pupils and teachers were founding members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, an organization that, like the Curtis Institute, gradually eclipsed the academy in the mid-20th century. Rudolf Hennig, for example, is lesser known as a founding faculty member of the academy than he is as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s first Principal Cellist. For many years he was also known to students of the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts as “The Cellist” of Thomas Eakins’ fine portrait, a work that hung at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for many years until it was sold to a private collector in 2007. Other faculty, including Camille Zeckwer, Mauritz Leefson and Charles E. Knauss, appeared as soloists within the orchestra. Zeckwer himself appeared numerously to perform his popular piano concerto, opus 8. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, noted Philadelphia musicians on faculty included Rollo Maitland, Lucius Cole, and other members of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The academy’s sizable concert hall at 1617 Spruce Street. | Photo courtesy of Visual Resources and Special Collections, The University of the Arts

The academy’s curricular emphasis on the traditional repertoire began to shift somewhat in the early 20th century. The hiring of pianist and composer Leo Ornstein in 1924 as head of the piano faculty was something of a coup for the academy, but was also an unusual choice that departed from the its primarily Germanic identity. Ornstein was a cult figure in the world of modern music, establishing himself as a virtuoso and composer familiar with experimental Modernist techniques. Musicologist Carol Oja called him “the single most important figure on the American modern-music scene in the 1910s.” Ornstein introduced to American audiences the music of Schoenberg, Bartok, Ravel, Scriabin, Franck, and other modernist composers, but he was an anxious performer who abruptly retired from playing concerts in 1922 to devote his energies to teaching and composition. Ornstein’s wife, Pauline Mallet-Prevost Ornstein, was also brought on faculty in 1924 as a lecturer on modern music and music pedagogy. The couple lived and worked together at the academy before retreating into total social isolation to write and compose in a Texas trailer park in the late 1950s. To this day, the Ornsteins remain two of the most curiously elusive figures of 20th century American music.

The academy’s links to contemporary music strengthened when it absorbed the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music in 1962. This brought figures like the composer Vincent Persichetti and the pianist Eduard Steuermann to the academy’s faculty. Like Ornstein, Steuermann built his reputation as a proficient performer of modern music with strong ties to the Second Viennese School, most notably assuming the role of vocal coach and pianist for Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, op.21, in 1912 and premiering Webern’s Variations for piano, op.27, in 1936.

The merger, overseen by the academy’s director Jani Szanto, did much to strengthen both institutions, but was merely a first in a series of transformations that would take place over the following decades. Szanto, a violinist who could remember being bounced on Brahms’ knee as a child, was the academy’s last living link to Old Europe. After his retirement in 1966, the academy’s long residency at 1617 Spruce Street ended when it closed its doors in 1970 to move to a larger facility at 313 South Broad Street. The conservatory continued under its name for six years until it became the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts and followed further mergers and acquisitions until finally coalesced into the University of the Arts in 1987.

1617 Spruce Street eventually passed through successive hands of ownership, as it did once again last summer, yet the exterior remains much the same as it did when the academy first opened its doors to students of music in 1880. The house remains a discreet emblem of a genteel musical culture in in the city that has long since passed away. The home on Spruce Street is quiet reminder of the notable role the Philadelphia Musical Academy played in the formation of Philadelphia’s robust musical culture and legacy of excellence in symphonic music.

About the author

Robert McClung is a graduate student in Villanova University’s Department of English. A musicologist by training, his lectures and written work have appeared at Seattle Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and Seattle University. He lives in Philadelphia.



8 Comments


  1. I rather like the austerity. Nice work.

  2. Awesome article! I have always wondered what the history was. Most of us who have been around for a while will most know this building as the Garden, Kathleen Mulhern’s iconic restaurant from the mid 70’s until is closed over a decade ago…

  3. Nice piece. Tragic, then, that the University of the Arts which absorbed Musical Academy/Performing Arts has essentially abandoned classical music in its curriculum.

  4. I have one of the last degrees issued under the name Philadelphia Musical Academy. They gave me the choice of either the old or the new University of the Arts name.I opted for history.

  5. This was well written and a pleasure to read. Thanks so very much.

  6. Well done. And I agree with Davis.

  7. Excellent writing. I would love to see the interior as it sits today. That performance space! I suppose it makes a lovely personal art gallery today.

  8. Yes, it is a continuing scandal that the University of the Arts has completely abandoned classical music, art, to be a commercial school. I had no idea that there was a rear building with so much space. If only that recital hall were available now. Oja overstates enormously to label Ornstein the most significant musician, but that’s her prejudice. This article helps point out why Philadelphia was a cornerstone of classical music in this country. It is sad that Boston has maintained that role where we have not. There is talk of Drexel forming a full music program, which would be most welcome, but it has not yet materialized. We are stuck with an international conservatory of renown, a local school of limited renown, and nothing else. Another of Philadelphia’s multiple conservatories, the Combs College of Music, also failed to survive. The New School was yet another, specializing in chamber music, as I recall, but also merged into PCPA or Temple.

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