University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Gordon Collection of String Music

Volume VII · Winter 1952 · Number 2
The Gordon Collection of String Music

When Jacques Gordon died on September 15, 1948, the musical world lost one of its most brilliant violinists and the Eastman School of Music one of its most beloved teachers. For years the solo appearances of Mr. Gordon were marked by tremendous ovations in response to his masterful interpretations of violin literature. For years also the famous Gordon String Quartet toured the country, giving concerts of the highest calibre and bringing chamber music to cities both large and small. Mr. Gordon's pupils at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, and the summer music school at Music Mountain in Falls Village were outstanding young artists and successful teachers.

Jacques Gordon was born in Odessa, Russia, in 1897. At the age of five he began the study of the violin, and by the time he was nine he was ready to appear in concerts as a child prodigy. At sixteen he made a continental tour of Europe, receiving many awards, among which was a gold medal given him by the Czar in 1913. He made his first tour of the United States and Canada during the 1914-15 season. Three years later Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge chose him to lead the Berkshire String Quartet, for in the meantime he had studied with Franz Kneisel, famed quartet leader, and had not only become acquainted with the standard repertoire but had become an enthusiastic chamber-music player as well. In 1921 he was appointed Concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Frederick Stock; being twenty-four at the time, he was the youngest concertmaster in the history of that orchestra. His residence in Chicago lasted for nine years, during which he was head of the violin department at the American Conservatory of Music.

The first Gordon String Quartet was founded in Chicago in 1921. By 1930 the demand for quartet appearances had become so great that he resigned from his position in the orchestra in order to devote his entire time to the ensemble and to his own solo playing. In the larger cities where the quartet performed, the members were greeted by enthusiasts whose interest already lay in the standard works of chamber music and in the newer compositions being written for that medium. In the smaller cities where chamber music was practically unknown the quartet did much to introduce this literature.

In 1930 Mr. Gordon established summer residence in Falls Village, Connecticut. The Gordon Musical Association, established that same year, maintained a summer school of music called Music Mountain, where many students gathered to study repertory and chamber music and to hear performances by the Gordon String Quartet.

Jacques Gordon came to the Eastman School of Music during the academic year 1941-42, when he substituted for Gustave Tinlot, upon whose death he was appointed head of the violin faculty. The Gordon String Quartet subsequently became the quartet-in-residence at the school, where they played regularly on chamber music concert series, on radio programs, and for recordings. One outstanding recording made by the quartet, for example, is the Concert Hall production of Prokofief's Second Quartet.

In the latter part of 1947, having been in ill health for some time, Mr. Gordon gave up quartet playing on the advice of his physician. One day in the spring of 1948 he mentioned to me his desire to sell the better part of his working collection of quartet music. He would probably never need the music any more, he said, and under the circumstances he wished to have his library become the property of the Eastman School, where teachers and students would surely be interested in using the material. He had made a rough catalogue of the music he had gathered during the thirty-year period of his interest in string ensemble playing; this catalogue contained about seven hundred items. In the summer of the same year negotiations were started to purchase this collection, and the final arrangements were to have been made in September. On July 22, 1948, he wrote from Falls Village: "God willing, I will be in Rochester during Freshman Week . . ."[presumably to deliver the music]. Ironically enough, it was during Freshman Week that he died, having been stricken during a friendly session of music with Albert Spalding and Fritz Kreisler in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

After Mr. Gordon's death, his widow wished to sell the entire library to the Eastman School. Since Mr. Gordon himself had previously indicated a desire to sell the remainder of his music, once the chamber music collection was disposed of, the plan seemed to be in keeping with his own ideas and with all practical considerations for breaking up his home in Rochester. The school was anxious to perpetuate his memory. Consequently the music was gathered together and lists made of it, revealing a sizeable library of some thousand pieces for violin and piano; nearly a hundred additional string quartets; four hundred miniature scores of symphonies, oratorios, and chamber music; five hundred miscellaneous items, including encore pieces, trios, sonatas, and concertos; and forty-four scores and orchestral parts for violin concertos.

The Gordon Collection, familiarly called the "Gordon Gesellschaft" by the members of the Sibley Music Library staff, is now in the process of being fully catalogued and put on the shelves for everyday use. It is a working library of string quartets, solo violin compositions, and encore pieces representative of various styles of composition from the classical times to the present, for not only was Mr. Gordon steeped in the spirit of the standard repertoire but he was vitally interested in new works as well. The bound scores of such well-known composers as Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart are annotated with Mr. Gordon's own fingerings and dynamic markings, showing evidence of great study and consideration of technical and interpretive problems. Many of the compositions of contemporary writers are autographed. For example, Douglas Moore's Quartet for Strings, published by Galaxy Music Corporation in the late thirties, is inscribed, as is also Frederick Jacobi's String Quartet No. 2, published in the middle thirties. Other contemporary compositions, such as Felix Borowski's Two Movements for String Quartet and Henry Eichheim's Quartet are in manuscript. Some of the compositions, inscribed by the composer to Mr. Gordon, commemorate notable performances of the work in question. Maurice Ravel signed his Violin Sonata on the occasion of a performance by Mr. Gordon; this score is of particular value, since Ravel was an outstanding composer and the sonata is an important landmark in the history of violin literature. Other association items are included, such as the miniature score of Brahms' famous Requiem, autographed by the conductor, Arturo Toscanini.

Since the Sibley Music Library already possessed a good collection of string ensemble music from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Gordon Collection of material from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (among other items) has brought the Library up-to-date, making it one of the outstanding chamber-music collections in the country.