Penn Library Department of Special Collections

William Penn

Keffer Collection of Sheet Music,
ca. 1790-1895

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Philadelphia Music Publishers: George E. Blake (1775-1871)

George E. Blake was born in England in 1775. By 1793 he was in Philadelphia where he began teaching the flute and clarinet in a room above John Aitken's engraving shop. He began his own business in 1802 when John Isaac Hawkins transferred the rights fo r the manufacture and sale of his portable upright piano to Blake. The first music published under Blake's name dates to 1803. By 1810 Blake advertised that he had available the largest assortment of music in America.

Blake was notable as a music publisher for issuing collections of popular songs from operas, the only publisher in the United States to adopt this European practice. From 1808 to 1825 Blake published a complete edition of Thomas Moore's Irish Melodi es and during the 1820s and 1830s he published the complete vocal works of George Friderich Handel in piano-vocal score. This latter venture, amounting to fifteen folio volumes, was the most ambitious music-publishing effort in the United States up to that time.

George E. Blake stopped publishing music in the 1850s although he maintained his store and continued to sell earlier publications. The following obituary for Blake appeared in the February 21, 1871 issue of the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph:

The venerable George E. Blake, who has kept a music store on Fifth Street, a few doors above Chesnut, for so many years past, died at his residence in the same building, last evening. Mr. Blake has attained the extreme old age of ninety-five years, and ha s long been regarded as one of the celebrities of this city. He has been for many years the oldest music publisher in the United States, and there is but one music house in the country whose original establishment antidates his. This is the music publishi ng house of Lee & Walker, Philadelphia, which was founded in 1772 [i.e. 1794] by George Willig who died very old in 1851.

Mr. Blake left England, his native country, at the age of sixteen, coming to Philadelphia where he worked for a while as a carpenter and taught music, but finally in 1802 opened a music store at 3rd, & Market Streets, from which he continued his business and residence for nearly fifty-seven years. The store is about 20 x 30 feet, and immediately in the rear is the small office in which the venerable non-agenarian was accustomed to pass much of his time. When Mr. Blake first started in business, he engrave d with his own hands all the plates for the music which he published and this he continued to do for many years. Previous to starting in business as a music dealer, Mr. Blake has been a piano manufacturer, and the first piano made in the United States was constructed by him in this City, becoming when completed the property of Thomas Jefferson. [Neither Blake nor John Isaac Hawkins made the first piano in America.]

In his day Mr. Blake was one of the most extensive music dealer[s] in the country, his shelves being loaded down with the best selections. His own publications likewise numbered among them many extensive and valuable works. An edition of Handel's oratorio of the Messiah, which he published many years ago, is regarded as the best ever published in this country. But for many years past Mr. Blake has practically ceased to transact any business, and probably there has not been in his store a new piece of music during the past quarter of a century. But he still continued to beguile his leisure with show of work, going through the ceremony of taking down the shutters every morning, and of putting them up again about dark. The windows of his store w ere filled with the quaint old music sheets of the early part of the century, changed at regular intervals to impress the passing world with an idea of the extent of his stock. With the great bustling world he had nothing to do, and of its doings he knew nothing. To the day of his death he is said never to have heard of the existence of any other music store in the city. We have even heard him say, in a gossipy moment, that since Mr. Willig's death he was the only music publisher in the country that he kn ew of.

Mr. Blake for years had lived almost entirely alone. A maiden daughter, now over sixty, who is said to have been a great belle in her young days, has long lived with her father. His wife died about twenty-one years ago; but, in addition to the unmarried d aughter mentioned three other children out of a large family are still living--Colonel George A. H. Blake, of the United States Army; T. West Blake, the former secretary of the Fire Department, and now connected with the Water Department,; and a married d aughter.

Next door to his store has long lived Thomas Sully, the eminent painter of a past generation. Mr. Blake was but eight years his senior and the two venerable gentlemen were on the most intimate and friendly terms.

The library also holds letters written by Blake to Boston publisher and music-seller, John Rowe Parker. These letters are located in the John Rowe Parker Correspondence,1802-1840.

There are approximately 117 items published by George E. Blake in the collection.

Philadelphia Music Publishers

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