January 1, 1921
Page 15
The Seed That Bore the Philadelphia Orchestra
How the Magic of a Young Pianist’s Art Brought Quaker City Forces Into Being—A Second-Story Room, the Scene of the Symphony’s Birth—The “Unique” Club, Germ of the Band—Merging of Rival Force—Its Growth to the Present Day
[Editor’s Note—To-day the Philadelphia Orchestra, under Leopold Stokowski, is ranked among the finest of America’s symphonic forces. The virtually unknown story of its humble beginnings some forty-two years ago is fraught with much interest. It was communicated to the writer by the piano player of the original Unique Orchestra, the germ of the present band, who is now a prominent painter. He has requested that his name be withheld.]

FORTY-TWO years ago in a little second story room over a real estate office at Nineteenth and Oxford streets, Philadelphia, the note which sounded the origin of the Philadelphia Orchestra was struck on an old tin-pan piano.
To-day that orchestra is acknowledged to rank with the best in the country.
The present organization as it stands is twenty years old but before its actual inception there were many former musical clubs which directly contributed to its being. It is the first of these small. amateur groups of players that claims the distinction of beginning the Philadelphia Orchestra forty-two years ago. Its origin was quite humble, even accidental. There was no thought of what was being started above the real estate office or how it would prove to be the germ of Philadelphia’s great musical organization. It all happened because of an old timeworn piano, for the most part out of tune, and a young man who had magic in his fingers to charm the small world around him. That same man to-day still has magic in his fingers but of a different sort from that of forty-two years ago. He is an artist well known and loved.
He can sit still, which he very seldom does, and look at the fingers which started the Philadelphia Orchestra. Yet he wouldn’t have you know his name for the world. It is quite doubtful whether many of his most intimate friends know the story.
Here it is:
It was the fad among young men several years ago to form neighborhood clubs, organized with various purposes in view but mainly to correct the evils of corner loafing and bar-room indulgences. Many of these clubs stressed dancing, others card playing, literature or music.
Among the clubs there was one known as the “Unique,” although the originators admit there was nothing particularly fitting in the name. Its members met in a single room, cheaply furnished with straight-back chairs, a center table littered with magazines, a few old pictures, a decrepit square piano and several thousand cubic feet of tobacco smoke.
Few Scattered Instruments
One day a certain new member made his appearance at the club and revived the old piano. The young man had a natural talent for music coupled with good training in the manipulation of the ivory keys. His efforts were at once greeted with enthusiasm. The whole club listened and became interested. Shortly afterward another member brought his violin. The two played duets, simple at first but later more complicated and pretentious. Soon another man brought his flute; another a clarinet and then followed in quick succession two cornets, three or four more violins, a ‘cello and a trombone.
Thus the “Unique” orchestra was gathered together piece by piece until the volume of sound was frightful. The survivors admit it. They played “Lustspiel,” an overture heard occasionally now in amateur circles. They also tried the “Flower Song” but it was not popular because of its sweetness. The idea was to blow great blasts and scrape and pound with all the brawn that the members possessed. They liked Cagliostro’s Waltz, “Poet and Peasant,” and others like them.
Soon the Unique orchestra came into such prominence that very few nights were not engaged in terrifying church socials, oyster suppers, strawberry festivals, and all the rest of the current attractions of that time. The members of the orchestra received their compensation in the form of all the food they could eat. It has been suggested since that it might have been cheaper to pay the orchestra in cash but evidently the idea never occurred to anyone then.
The Unique needed no advertisement. One rehearsal was sufficient to warn the whole neighborhood that the orchestra was in splendid form. Sometimes the orchestra was engaged to furnish a certain number of players for some function or other. In the event that the number called for was larger than the regular number of players, a few tried and trusty friends, barred from the ranks of the orchestra simply because they couldn’t play any instrument, were furnished with fiddles equipped with shoe strings. They sat at the back where they could follow the motions of the regular fiddlers and the deception was never noticed.
The Unique continued its fearless career for several years. During that time it moved from the little room over Isaac Bleim’s real estate office to the home of Harry Ellis, Nineteenth street below Oxford.
Rival Society Founded
Meanwhile a rival organization, more numerous in personnel, was started and played in the home of a Mr. Pincus in the vicinity of Eighteenth and Wallace streets. It soon became as well known as the Unique and eventually the two were merged into a combined orchestra boasting a membership of forty-five men. There was no piano in this combined band. The original pianist of the Unique had married and left the club. After the merger of the two orchestras a double bass and several ‘cellos made the foundation furnished by the piano in the original Unique.
A short period of prosperity followed and then the combined orchestras were induced to go in a body into the membership of the Quaker City Lodge of United American Workmen at Broad and Columbia Avenue. They were considerably augmented in numbers and played at the entertainments of their lodge under the lodge name.
But times and names change. As the Quaker City Orchestra they did not long survive. Carl Escher, who then had a prosperous music and musical instrument store on Girard Avenue near Broad Street, was engaged as conductor. He was the first professional the orchestra had ever engaged in that capacity. A new name was adopted and for a long time thereafter the orchestra was known as the Philadelphia Amateur Orchestra.
It continued until the late William Wallace Gilchrist organized a regular symphony orchestra embracing members from all the previous bands including several from the original Unique. Mr. Gilchrist arranged for a series of concerts to be given at the Academy of Music. Many attendants of the present orchestra remember that series with great pleasure. The Gilchrist organization was known as the Philadelphia Amateur Orchestral Association.
Then came the discovery of Fritz Scheel twenty years ago. This brought another chapter into the story of symphonic orchestras. Scheel was playing at a nearby park and was induced to lead the musical organization at the Academy. This organization was then named the Philadelphia Orchestra with Scheel as the first conductor. He served in that capacity for seven years or until his death.
The next conductor was the Prussian, Pohlig, whose anti-American methods led to his discharge by the management after he had directed the orchestra five years.
Then Leopold Stokowski! No description is needed to tell what he has done. Internationally known, he has made the Philadelphia Orchestra internationally known. He has brought it up to a commanding place among the orchestras of the world. It is due to Stokowski’s great work that the orchestra receives requests for performances from all parts of the country and is able to answer only a very small percentage of them.
The orchestra has just celebrated its twentieth anniversary. It is true that the present organization would have come even if there had been no contributing clubs to claim a share in its beginning. The few survivors of these little musical clubs would be the first to disclaim any credit for the present creation.
But nevertheless, the Unique orchestra meeting in the little smoke-filled room over a real estate office was the Alpha of Leopold Stokowski’s Omega.


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