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Alexander Tcherepnin (1899–1977). Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra (1953)

John Sebastian

Hi, it’s Kile Smith, and it’s the Fleisher Discoveries podcast, from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music and the Free Library of Philadelphia. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection. Every month we have a new podcast on Soundcloud or Spotify; just search “Fleisher Discoveries” and you’ll find every one of our podcasts.

If you’ve been listening to our podcasts for any bit of time you probably know that although we do play works from the standard orchestral repertoire, we really enjoy unearthing music that you probably haven’t heard. It goes along with the “Discoveries” in our podcast title; as we used to say on the radio, to “uncover the unknown, rediscover the little-known, and take a fresh look at some of the remarkable treasures housed in the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia.”

It also parallels a big reason for the Fleisher Collection’s existence. After Edwin Fleisher had pretty much acquired all of the standard repertoire available, making his library already, by the 1930s, the largest orchestral performance library in the world, he wanted to keep going, to bring Latin American composers in, contemporary American composers, music from countries outside of Germany and the gravitational center of the orchestral world.

So we have a great collection of music by African American composers, women composers, composers from Iceland to Japan, composers that were big at one time but no longer. Works with all sorts of solo instruments were included, too, beyond the violins and the pianos and the cellos, instruments like piccolos, guitars, hurdy-gurdies, harmonicas…

That’s right, there are two harmonica concertos in the Fleisher Collection, and we’ll hear one of them today. Both were commissioned by one man. His name is John Sebastian.

Now, if you already know the name John Sebastian, it’s probably because you know the 1960s band The Lovin’ Spoonful, and some of their hits like “Daydream” and “If You Believe in Magic.” The Lovin’ Spoonful was founded in 1965 by John Sebastian, and that John Sebastian, who indeed plays and teaches a mean harmonica, first knew of it from his father, who is our John Sebastian.

The John Sebastian of the Fleisher Collection harmonica concertos lived from 1914 to 1980, and coincidentally, the other big 20th-century harmonica virtuoso, Larry Adler, was also born in 1914. But Sebastian was the first harmonica player to play an exclusively classical repertoire. He was born John Sebastian Pugliese and grew up on 15th Street in South Philadelphia.

Adler in Baltimore and Sebastian in Philadelphia grew up in a welter of harmonica playing. The harmonica was hugely popular, mostly with young boys, in the early 20th century, with harmonica bands, camps, and contests. Sebastian was self-taught but a harmonica phenom, touring the country in the prestigious Philadelphia Harmonica Band, and by 12 he was soloing with the John Philip Sousa Band.

Hard to believe, but when he was 16, in 1930, 70,000 boys played harmonica—and that’s just in Philadelphia. Upwards of 10,000 competed for the city’s best harmonica player, and that year John Sebastian won. The prize was $150 and a week’s engagement at the Mastbaum Theater at 20th and Market. The Mastbaum was Philadelphia’s largest movie palace, and at over 4,700 seats, the eighth largest in the country.

He loved classical music, since arrangements of classical music comprised much of what these harmonica bands would play, but he also loved history, and his father, a bank president, saw John’s future in the diplomatic corps. He studied at Haverford College and at universities in Italy, but was torn between his father’s wishes and music.

On the ship, sailing back from Europe, who should he meet but the Broadway writers Rodgers and Hart. In conversation he outlined for them his youthful success in music, and confided that he didn’t know in which direction he should turn. They told him artists are born artists and would be unhappy doing anything else.

And so it became clear to John Sebastian that he needed to go into music. He became a touring virtuoso on the harmonica. A big challenge, of course, was what to play? The harmonica and accordion company Hohner had developed the first fully chromatic harmonica by 1924, and so, within the four octaves of the professional harmonicas a vast array of classical music was open to his experimentation. In fact, he would later work with Hohner on developing a harmonica with a stronger lower range.

He began arranging music, much of it from the Baroque and Classical periods, and also began asking composers to write for him. Of the many who took him up on it, two were the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos and the Russian Alexander Tcherepnin, and these have the two harmonica concertos in the Fleisher Collection.

That two composers from different parts of the globe and different musical cultures interested John Sebastian is instructive, and very much in keeping with his outlook. He traveled the world to play, but he also was deeply interested in every country he visited and any culture he happened upon. Folk music and ethnic traditions were very important to him, and even affected his playing technique. He learned circular breathing from Mexican pipers: that ability to push air from your cheeks to play while inhaling at the same time.

We’re going to hear the Tcherepnin concerto now. Alexander is in the middle of an entire family of Tcherepnin composers. He is the son of Nikolai, the Tcherepnin most classical music aficionados may know. Alexander, the composer of our concerto, had two composing sons Serge and Ivan, and two of Ivan’s sons, Sergei and Stefan are composers—so, the great-grandsons of Nikolai continue the composing.

Alexander Tcherepnin wrote his concerto in 1953. John Sebastian commissioned it, and premiered it in 1956 in Venice under Fabien Sevitzky. It’s in four movements of classical scope, Allegro, Lento, Presto, and the finale of Poco sostenuto and then Allegretto. In this recording on Fleisher Discoveries, Hans Schwieger conducts the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra. John Sebastian is the soloist in the Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra of Alexander Tcherepnin.

[Alexander Tcherepnin. Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra]

The Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra from 1953 by Alexander Tcherepnin. The soloist was John Sebastian. Hans Schwieger conducted the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra.

This is the Fleisher Discoveries podcast. I’m Kile Smith. And I like getting your emails and messages! Send me an email, You can look me up on Facebook, and certainly look up the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music on Facebook, too, and leave a Like there.

Alexander Tcherepnin, as I said before, was the son of composer Nikolai Tcherepnin, and the harmonica soloist John Sebastian is the father of singer/songwriter, and harmonicist, and guitarist, and autoharpist, and founder of The Lovin’ Spoonful, that John Sebastian. So composing runs in the Tcherepnin family, and the harmonica runs in the Sebastian family.

John Sebastian the son is a terrific blues harmonica player, and probably couldn’t help being involved in music, with his virtuoso father, although ironically, John Sebastian the elder tried to talk his singer/songwriter son out of music, just as his own father had. But maybe he shouldn’t have asked Burl Ives to be his son’s godfather. That’s true; I had to fit that tidbit in. Well, “What a day for a daydream,” and what a day for a podcast! I’m delighted to bring John Sebastian and Alexander Tcherepnin and this corner of classical music to you on this Fleisher Discoveries podcast.

Thank you again for joining me today on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. We are on Spotify and we are on Soundcloud and every month we have a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast for you. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Be well and I hope to see you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.