In 1820, a group of professional and amateur musicians formed the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia, the oldest American music benevolent society still existing to the present day. The society sponsored an extraordinary amount of musical activity throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Vocal and instrumental departments were created and headed by the "Directors of the Music"; regular "practises" were scheduled on Thursdays during all but the summer months; and concerts were presented on a regular basis by society members, frequently with the assistance of guest soloists. These performances were often elaborate affairs requiring large forces of instrumentalists and singers, and the choice of repertory remained faithful to the Society's goal to "promote a sound and critical musical taste in the community."
To support this musical activity, the Society devoted significant funding to the establishment of a music performance library, made up of both printed music and manuscript copies of music that was unavailable for purchase. When only a score was available, orchestral parts were hand-copied, and on other occasions a score would be made from purchased printed parts. The Society also made copies of performance materials borrowed from such organizations as the Handel and Haydn Society of New York and the Moravian Brethren in Bethlehem. The result is a collection rich in first and early published editions of music as well as in contemporaneous manuscript copies.
The records and music library of the society were maintained in the society's offices in Musical Fund Hall (806 Locust Street) until the sale of the hall in 1924. At that point, several arrangements were made for the preservation of these historic documents until they ultimately were donated by the society to the Penn Library in 1991. The music scores, parts, and sheet music are now housed in Annenberg Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and many have been individually cataloged.
The Musical Fund Society collection also includes correspondence, minute books, engagement books, and other archival materials. Because of the complicated history of subsequent transfers through the years, only a portion of the correspondence remains in the collection at the University of Pennsylvania. Most of it dates from 1946 to 1980, and comprises routine correspondence relating to membership matters, concerts, grants, and the business of the officers of the society. The series of minutes is fairly complete from 1820 through the mid-1950s. Engagement books for the Musical Fund Hall cover the period from 1883 to 1918, and they reveal interesting details about the social life of the city, since this was a period when the hall was used far more frequently for balls, union meetings, political meetings, religious services, vaudeville acts, and sporting events than for music concerts.
Dr. Edward Iungerich Keffer (1861-1933), a Philadelphia dentist and amateur musician, assembled a large collection of nineteenth-century sheet music and bequethed it to the society upon his death. The Keffer Collection of Sheet Music includes over 2,000 editions published from 1790 through 1895. Of these, over half were published in Philadelphia. Full-color scanned images of some of the music treating topics related to Philadelphia may be viewed at the website of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
In an effort to encourage the composition of new chamber music, the society sponsored an international chamber-music composition competition in the mid-1920s. Among the over six hundred submissions was the Third String Quartet by Bela Bartok, who ended up sharing the first prize with Italian composer Alfredo Casella. The original performance materials of Bartok's quartet were held by the society until 1991, when Gretel Ormandy, Eugene Ormandy's widow, acquired them for the Penn Library's Eugene Ormandy Collection. The gift included an autograph score of the quartet, a second manuscript score, partially in the hand of the composer, and a set of manuscript parts, with Bartok's autograph corrections.