A Rich Heritage
The Society has enjoyed a rich history of support for music and musicians. During the 19th century, its orchestra was the precursor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and played music by Beethoven during his lifetime, and “new” music by Haydn, Mozart, Weber and others. When the Society built its renowned Musical Fund Society Hall in 1824, it provided a musical center for the city, and a hall where Europe’s most prominent musicians performed and important national political events took place.
The early years of the Society were devoted to founding a music school, successful concert series by the Society’s orchestra and choral groups, and concerts presenting leading European artists. Henrietta Sontag, Pauline Viardot and Marie Malibran were among the singers who appeared at Musical Fund Society Hall in its first decade.
The American premieres of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, as well as Philadelphia premieres of Donizetti’s La Favorita, Haydn’s The Seasons, and Bellini’s La Sonnambula occurred in the 1830’s. Violinists Ole Bull, Camillo Sivori and Henri Vieuxtemps, soprano Guilietta Grisi and the tenor Mario, and pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk performed in the 1840’s, and Jenny Lind and Adelina Patti sang there in the 1850’s. Sigismond Thalberg and soprano Erminia Frezzolini were heard there at mid-century.
In other uses of the Hall, the Marquis de Lafayette was honored at a reception there in 1825. Pennsylvania’s Constitutional Convention took place there in 1837, and the first national convention of the fledgling Republican Party was held there in 1856. Charles Dickens, William M. Thackeray, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Greeley and Arthur Conan Doyle lectured there. Through the mid-19th century a steady flow of speakers, entertainers and religious leaders appeared at the Hall.
The Society continued to provide orchestral concerts in Philadelphia and became the sponsor of the Germania Orchestra in 1856, which played in the Hall until 1868. Its concerts moved to the Academy of Music and in 1900 merged with the newly-organized Philadelphia Orchestra. In recent years, ownership of the Hall changed hands several times. Because its condition had deteriorated to such an extent that costs of restoration became prohibitive, the Society’s efforts to save it as a performing hall had to be abandoned.
The Society’s music collection is now housed in the University of Pennsylvania’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Rich in first and early published editions of music, as well as in contemporaneous manuscript copies, the collection includes works of the leading composers of the day, among them Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, and Donizetti. The intrinsic value of the music notwithstanding, these works document the performance history of the Society during its most active period and offer the best insight that we have into the musical taste exhibited by early nineteenth-century Philadelphians.