Confession: I’m an Accidental Music Librarian

By Gillian R. RSS Tue, May 9, 2023

Hi, my name is Gillian and I’m an accidental music librarian. Specifically, I’m an accidental orchestral music librarian. I recently joined the staff of The Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music (Fleisher Collection). The Fleisher Collection represents the largest lending library of orchestral performance material in the world! The collection houses more than 22,000 titles and it continues to grow. In my new role, I work with each of the Music Special Collections including two other collections, the Chamber Music Collection and the Drinker Collection of Choral Music, as well as an exceptional collection of sheet music numbering 350,000 items in addition to Fleisher.

I’m no stranger to accidental librarianship. Once upon a time, I was an accidental business librarian in the Business Resource and Innovation Center (BRIC). My background is in art history, but like many public librarians, I was placed in a department that needed staff, and that department was business services. I grew to love business reference and helping entrepreneurs in my nine years working in the BRIC. 

Now in my new role, I find myself confessing to library guests, colleagues, and friends alike that I am a novice — new to a wonderful world of orchestral, choral, and sheet music. I recently told the Fleisher curator that I feared I was tone-deaf. (I was told years ago one could tell I was tone-deaf by the sound of my voice. That one still hurts!) However, Gary, the curator, assured me that I’m not actually tone-deaf. Hurray! Now, here I am nearly ten years into my career finding myself falling in love again with a new subject. I’m particularly excited to find joy in the orchestral music in Fleisher. 

The Fleisher Collection is the largest lending library of orchestral performance sets in the world. It provides materials to performance groups of all sizes around the world. Each performance set in the collection has a score for the conductor and a part for every musician (from as few as 40 to as many as 150 or more) needed to play any of the given titles. Because many publishers have gone out of business, been destroyed in wars, or simply found works unprofitable, the Fleisher Collection has come to house thousands of rare and unique works available nowhere else.

Edwin A. Fleisher, of Philadelphia Fleisher fame, was the youngest of five children who all became major philanthropists in the Philadelphia area. Edwin started the first training orchestra in the Americas in 1909 with 65 boys and began purchasing performance sets so they had music to rehearse. The Symphony Club was completely free to participants. In 1912, he purchased a house at 1235 Pine Street to be the clubhouse and by 1915 had opened the Symphony Club to boys and girls of every race and every religion.

Fleisher spent $10,000 to $20,000 (around $125,000 to $250,000 today) every year on music and personally traveled to Europe five times to purchase performance sets from composers and publishers. He was even given a special visa to enter the Soviet Union in 1929. Fleisher donated his collection of just over 3,000 performance sets to the Free Library in 1929 and continued working with the Library to grow the collection until his death in 1959. Fleisher left an endowment that still provides funds for developing the collection.

The collection goes way beyond your typical European composers. Though yes, of course, we have plenty of them too! We have your Beethovens, Wagners, Mozarts, Handels, and Tchaikovskys. We have several curated catalogs of lesser-known works and composers such as composers of African descent, Latin-American works, women composers, jazz-inspired works, and more. 

In acquainting myself with the Fleisher Collection, I’ve been learning about women composers. I’m especially interested in works by Marie-Juliette Olga Boulanger. Better known as Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), she was a French composer and the first female winner of the Prix de Rome composition prize. Learn more about Lili, and four other women composers, via our blog post and accompanying podcast, Fleisher Discoveries. Though her life was cut short by illness, her music is ethereal, beautiful, and sometimes haunting. My favorite piece so far is D'un matin de Printemps (“On a Spring Morning”) (1917). Perhaps because spring is blooming here in Philly, but this lovely light piece seemingly conjures a spring day. Sadly, this piece was written near the end of her short life. Lili died of illness at the age of 24.

I’m excited to continue diving into the Music Special Collections here at the Free Library! I invite you to follow along as I dive deeper into the collections. The Chamber Music Collection, the Drinker Collection of Choral Music, and the Sheet Music Collection await the Accidental Music Librarian! 

In the meantime, my colleagues and I are adding music from the collection to Spotify. Stay tuned for curated playlists, staff picks, and more!

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