Hidden Treasures: Our Founder’s Piano

This 1876 rosewood piano hidden in the corner of the A. J. Picture Gallery once resided in the house of University founder Anthony J. Drexel.
This 1876 rosewood piano hidden in the corner of the A. J. Picture Gallery once resided in the house of University founder Anthony J. Drexel.

This article is part of the DrexelNow “Faces of Drexel” series honoring Drexel’s history as part of the Universitywide celebration of the 125th anniversary of Drexel’s founding in 1891.

Not much is known about the personal life or hobbies of University founder Anthony “Tony” J. Drexel, because he was an intensely private man and burned all of his personal papers. But we do know this: the man loved music.

“He could sight-read the most difficult pieces, and his daughters Emilie and Frances were said to rank among Philadelphia’s finest amateur pianists — no small compliment at a time when pianos were as ubiquitous as television sets today,” wrote Dan Rottenberg, the author of “The Man Who Made Wall Street: Anthony J. Drexel and the Rise of Modern Finance.”

Tony, the son of an artist-turned-banker, grew up in a household where music was highly valued. His father, Francis Martin Drexel, “rigorously but lovingly supervised his children’s training in music,” according to Rottenberg. Tony and his siblings attended a French and English coed boarding and day school that offered instruction in subjects including singing, piano and guitar; he left when he was 13 to work at the fledging Drexel bank.

This early fostering of a knowledge and love of music continued throughout the rest of Tony’s life — and he wasn’t the only family member impacted by it. His older brother Francis was known as an accomplished organist. His younger brother Joseph was a founder of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (NYPO) and a director of the Metropolitan Opera. Joseph later donated his collection of over 6,000 rare music books and manuscripts to create the Music Division of the New York Public Library and over 40 ancient musical instruments to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (where he was a trustee). Joseph actually passed away one day after playing violin in a quartet with members of the NYPO in March 1888.

Tony, in turn, was an expert piano and organ player. He frequently attended concerts at the Academy of Music and was a regular figure at the opera, where he was known for his “unwillingness to burst his gloves in frantic applause for favored prima donnas, and for his earnest and unaffected attention to the music,” according to his biography. He passed down his love of music to his own children: in addition to the accomplished Emilie and Frances, his daughter Sallie was a founder of the Philadelphia Orchestra and her husband was its first president for 30 years.

“[Tony’s] chief pleasure was to spend his evenings in the music room, which had two pianos, playing duets and quartettes from the Old Masters with his daughters,” wrote J. Peterson Ryder, a member of the opening staff at the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry, reportedly in a tribute to Tony.

One of Tony’s pianos is on campus today — and you’ve probably seen it. Located in the corner of the A. J. Picture Gallery on the third floor of Main Building is his beloved Steinway grand piano. His family donated the piano to what is now The Drexel Collection after Tony’s death in 1893. It is kept tuned and can even be played to this day, representing everything that Tony stood for and valued in his life and at the institute he founded.

Tony was very adamant that the new Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry would offer free concerts to the public. The “Auditorium and Music Hall,” which is today known as Main Building’s auditorium, was installed with a beautiful golden Haskell three-manual organ. The official Drexel organist back in the day often played recitals in the afternoon and evening to promote wider interest in music. The concerts, when coupled with the free public lectures Tony had also mandated, were well attended: the average yearly attendance of both often reached at least 35,000 people in the early years in an auditorium that could seat 1,500.

According to his niece Elizabeth Wharton Drexel, Joseph’s daughter, Tony was not afraid to make his rather conservative tastes in music known. Once, at a dinner party hosted at his home in the late 1880s, Tony criticized the music of the recently deceased German composer Richard Wagner as well as his leading advocate in America, assistant conductor Walter Damrosch of the Metropolitan Opera. She later recounted the conversation in her semi-autobiographical book “King Lehr and the Gilded Age.”

“There’s going to be a concert next week and I want no child of mine to go to it,” Tony reportedly announced to the room. “Some fool whose name is Dam — Dam — some kind of bug or other — roach, that’s what it is, Walter Damroach, and he’s going to play the music of that miserable Wagner! None of you go to it, you understand.”

One can only hope that the myriad of concerts — and songs later played on his own piano — played on campus were in accordance with what our founder would have liked.

This article originally appeared in the winter issue of Drexel Quarterly.