Henry Eichheim

Henry Eichheim

History of the Collection

Born in Chicago on January 3, 1870, Henry Eichheim was the son of a distinguished cellist, Meinhard Eichheim, who had immigrated to the United States from Germany. A graduate on the Chicago Musical College, Henry received the Diamond Medal as best violinist at the commencement concert in 1890 and went on to become a member of the Theodore Thomas Orchestra in New York. The next season found him a member of the first violin section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a position he held until 1912 when he resigned in order to devote himself to composition, conducting, and chamber music. Thereafter Eichheim devoted himself to composition, chamber music, and conducting, making his reputation as an early champion of works by Debussy, Ravel, and Faure in the United States. Particularly important among hisearly compositions is the String Quartet (1895).

The books he collected during this period attest to his growing interest in East Asia. The piano piece, "Gleanings from Buddha's Field" (1906) was inspired by the writings of Lafcadio Hearn. A trip to Japan, Korea , and China in 1915 prompted intensive study of Asian music. During this journey and four more in 1919, 1922-23, 1927-28, and in the mid-1930's, Eichheim, a gifted photographer, documented his travels and transcribed the sounds he heard in theaters, temples, streets, and marketplaces. Unfortunately his sketches have been lost, but his photographs survive as an important collection depicting musical performances throughout Asia. Convinced that the range of sonorities available to Western composers could be enriched by the introduction of Asian instruments, he collected them avidly for use in his scores. "Oriental Impressions" (1918-22), a suite of seven pieces is based on melodies he gathered in Japan, Korea, China, and Thailand. In addition to the piano version, Eichheim scored the work for full orchestra, using 14 Asian percussion instruments.

During his career as a composer, Eichheim collected some 350 musical instruments that stand as a testimony to his vision and his dedication to the study of the music and culture of Asia. In almost all of his compositions he incorporated elements of Asian musics that clearly foreshadow the work of Henry Cowell, Colin McPhee, and Lou Harrison. His place in the history of twentieth century music rests on his pioneering efforts in combining the timbres of Asian instruments with those of the Western orchestra. He incorporated indigenous melodies into his compositions. A transcription of a Korean street laborer's song, a blind shakuhachi player's melody, and the sound of four tuned bells hung under the roof of the Imperial Temple in Bangkok are all woven into the score of "Oriental Impressions". Large orchestral works like "Java" (1929) and "Bali" (1933), while reminiscent of Debussy, are skillfully constructed and achieve new orchestral effects through the use of gamelan instruments Eichheim collected and introduced into the scores. His final compositions date from 1935. They consist of a group of songs based on texts by Shakespeare, Tennyson, and translations of Chinese poetry, and a violin sonata commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. He died in 1942 leaving his manuscripts and his collection of instruments as a rich legacy for future generations to explore