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The Drexel Manuscript

The Music Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts owes much of its collection to the 19th century financier, Joseph W. Drexel.

Lenox Library building, Fifth Avenue, New York City, circa 1905.

The Music Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center owes much of its collection of books, music, and manuscripts to the generosity of 19th century Philadelphia born financier Joseph W. Drexel (1833–88).

Joseph W. Drexel

The son of Austrian immigrants,  American born Joseph W. Drexel lived first in Philadelphia, but moved to New York City in 1871 becoming business partners with the young J.P. Morgan (yes, the same J. P. Morgan of the mammoth US bank, J.P. Morgan Chase).  Banking aside, Drexel’s heart was in music–both as a performer and a collector and avid supporter.  Drexel served as president of the Philharmonic Society of New York, as well as director Metropolitan Museum of Art for a time.

The Collection

Over the course of his lifetime, Drexel amassed some 6000 items. On his passing, the collection was bequeathed to the Lenox Library, later, the New York Public Library.  As might be expected, there is a good deal of American music including hymn and song books. There are also several holdings of music considered quite rare: Thomas Morley’s First Booke of Consort Lessons (1599); the only remaining copy of the engraved Parthenia Inviolata (1615); treatises and anthologies of John Playford, Gafurio’s Theorica Musica among them. But it’s the autograph copy of Carl Friedrich Abel’s 29 pieces for unaccompanied viola da gamba, Drexel manuscript 5871 that is the focus here.

Viol player, Petr Wagner presents all 29 of these pieces in a recording released in 2016 on the Accent label.

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Carl Friedrich Abel

Abel was Born 1723 in Köthen, and was close friends and even for a time roommates with Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian. Together they created the famous Bach- Abel Concerts, a series which ran in London from 1774-1782.  Abel was also close friends with portrait artist and musician Thomas Gainsborough and Abel’s collection of 29 pieces were held first in the Gainsborough’s safe-keeping before Joseph Drexel obtained them.  Though speculative, there is a possibility that Abel may have written the pieces for his painter friend Gainsborough, who also played the viol.

A tangential, but nonetheless fascinating link to Abel and his solo viol music is Joseph Drexel’s niece, Katharine. Recognized widely for her service and philanthropy, she was in October of 2000, elevated to sainthood by Pope John Paul II.

Janelle Davis

Janelle Davis is a violinist and performer with period instrument ensembles throughout the United States. She is currently a candidate for the Doctor of Music degree from Indiana University, Bloomington where she specializes in early music.

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