A few months ago an email was forwarded to me from Anne Malmquist. Her great-great grandfather was Frederick Agthe. After the death of Anne’s father, copies of sheet music by Agthe were donated to the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem. Last year Anne traveled to Neudietendorf, Germany (where Agthe was born) and she also visited a museum in a town nearby which was eager to obtain copies of Agthe’s music. Thus began a journey, not only to locate the sheet music, but also to discover more information about Frederick Agthe.
The name was familiar to me. A piece of music by Agthe was featured in one of our lunchtime lectures. Bill Osborne treated us to a sampling of discoveries among the uncataloged sheet music of 19th century Salem, and the first selection was Agthe’s Grand Etude. I located the box in our vault which held about a dozen folders with Agthe’s sheet music, but that wouldn’t be enough. I was curious to learn more about him. In Nola’s introduction she said that Agthe taught at the Salem Female Academy from late 1877 to 1880, was absent for a trip to London for about 5 years, and returned to the Salem Academy for a few years. I learned the reason he traveled to London, England was to work in the Bechstein piano store because his half-brother was Carl Bechstein!
I contacted the Bechstein company in Berlin, but sadly their records were destroyed during the war, so they have no documentation about Agthe’s time at their London store.
A German newspaper article about Carl Bechstein points to the remarriage of his mother to the cantor in the Dietendorf church, Johann Michael Agthe, who is described as “a versatile man who, in addition to his occupations, also made a name for himself as a gardener.” (Ein Bechstein in Neudietendorf, Thuringer Allgemeine (January 19, 2016)) According to this article as well as the Bechstein website Carl (and as we will see, also Frederick Agthe) learned to play violin, cello, and piano. Carl Bechstein (1826-1900) would become an apprentice to a piano maker in Erfurt, and later work with Pleyel in Berlin, before starting his own piano manufacturing business.
Bechstein was not the only piano-making family with which Agthe would be connected. After emigrating to America, and before 1859, Agthe married Mary Christina Malthaner (1835-1923), daughter of John Christian Malthaner, a piano-maker in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania of whom Laurence Libin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art has written (“More Light on J. C. Malthaner, Moravian Piano Manufacturer” in Journal of Moravian History, Volume 17, Number 2, 2017, pp. 105-137, in which incidentally Anne Malmquist is again mentioned). Late in life, Agthe wrote: “I was married at Bethlehem (during my stay at Nazareth) to Miss Mary Malthaner, the daughter of the well known piano manufacturer. I have two daughters and one son.” (Allisonia, vol. II, no. 4 (May, 1905), p. 182)
Frederick (Friedrich) was born April 13, 1834. The year of Agthe’s birth was previously undetermined. An online entry about his gravesite states that he was born in 1832, but the picture of his gravestone seems to show his year of birth as 1833. Anne Malmquist has supplied a picture of the baptismal record from the church in Germany showing 1834.
According to an undated description of the Centenary Female College in Cleveland, TN (his last teaching position), Agthe “…began his study of music at the tender age of four years. He pursued and completed his education at the Royal School of Music in Berlin, Germany, studying Piano, Organ, Violin, Violoncello and Singing under such masters as Ries, Dorn and Gantz. After this he made a concert tour of two years through the United States. Since that time he has been Director in the first colleges in the United States, both North and South. For many years he was Conductor of Orchestras and Philharmonic Societies in Bethlehem and Philadelphia, Pa.”
Now, I’m only guessing, but it may be that Ries refers to Hubert Ries, the younger brother of Ferdinand Ries (student and close friend of Beethoven); Heinrich Ludwig Egmont Dorn, co-editor of the Berlin allgemeine Musikzeitung and co-conductor at the Berlin Hofoper; and Moritz Ganz, cellist and composer who became leading cellist in the royal orchestra of Berlin.
Agthe wrote “…I came to America in 1854…” on “…a long concert tour…” However, in his petition for U. S. citizenship, dated 4 September, 1863, Agthe claimed that he came to America via New York on 23 November, 1856. Did this two years (1854-56) mark the length of his concert tour? Did he then decide to stay in America rather than to return to Germany?
Not long after his arrival we know he served as a teacher at Nazareth Hall: “Frederic Agthe (1855-1858), Teacher of Music” in: Nazareth Hall: an historical sketch and roster of principals, teachers and pupils, by H. H. Hacker Bethlehem, PA, Time Publishing Co., 1910
He apparently already had involvement in the musical life of nearby Bethlehem. “In 1858, an effort was made to revive the dormant [Philharmonic Society of Bethlehem]. J.P.E. Windekilde, a violinist, was elected leader, Fredrick Agthe, Louis Beckel and Rufus A. Grider, Directors, and James H. Wolle, Secretary.” (Historical sketch of Bethlehem in Pennsylvania: with some account of the Moravian Church, by John Hill Martin)
However, immediately thereafter he was also listed as a teacher in Nova Scotia (1859-1861): “Frederick Agthe, Esq., Professor of Piano, Organ, and Vocal Music” (A catalogue of the officers and students of the Mount Allison Ladies’ Academy, Sackville, N.B. [New Brunswick] for the year commencing Nov. 1858, and ending Nov. 1859. Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1859.) I contacted Mount Allison University. They have several items in their archives, including a handwritten autobiographical memoir, a typescript of the same, and a similar published version in their publication Allisonia (from which I’ll be quoting extensively). They also have some correspondence dated from the 1890s to Canadian-American mathematician Ray Archibald, who graduated from Mount Allison College in 1894 with a degree in mathematics and teacher’s certificate in violin.
“From 1861 to 1866, I was at the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies at Bethlehem, Pa., at that time one of the best known institutions throughout the United States.” (Allisonia, vol. II, no. 4 (May, 1905), p. 182) In a review of Romberg’s setting of Schiller’s “Glocke” performed in Nazareth, Agthe is incidentally mentioned: “But some auxiliary forces from the village itself, afforded by its able church choir, and two members of the Beethoven [Bethlehem?] orchestra, Messrs. Agthe and Weiss, also kindly lent their assistance. Mr. Agthe is known in our Moravian circles as an accomplished musician.” (Dwight’s Journal of Music, Saturday, November 8, 1862, p. 253) As mentioned above, in 1863 Agthe petitioned to become a U. S. citizen. The two witnesses (sponsors?) signing for him: Frederick R. Borhek (1822-90) and Henry Augustus Malthaner (1837-88), Agthe’s brother-in-law who continued the family piano-making business in Bethlehem.
“During the war I was called to Joy Hall, Bridgetown, N J., teaching there, 1866-74. I was organist and formed the Choral Union, a singing society which is flourishing to this day.” (Allisonia, vol. II, no. 4 (May, 1905), p. 182) A review of a recital in January, 1866 sheds significant light on Agthe:
“Bridgeton, N. J., Jan. 20 (1866)
“Music in America owes a great deal to the large body of respectable German artists who have settled among us as teachers and instrumental performers. Wherever they come they bring a certain amount of good music in their wake, for they are resolute and unyielding in presenting the works of good composers to their audiences and pupils. We were struck with this fact the other evening, after being present at an excellent concert given in this place by Professor Agthe, a Berlin artist, formerly of Bethlehem, Pa., who settled in Bridgeton this autumn. [The program is thereafter outlined.]
“A resident of the town rather discouragingly asked Mr. Agthe a day or so before the concert, if he expected much of an audience; “for,” said he, “the people do not comprehend such music.” “Then they must be educated up to the comprehension,” was Mr. Agthe’s brave reply. But “the people” showed an understanding and appreciation for which they had not received credit. The hall was well filled, and, with the exception of some persons who were as deficient in taste and breeding as information, and many time displayed a surprising degree of intelligent pleasure. [Comments regarding the performance of certain selections followed.]
“Mr. Agthe’s Violoncello part of the Chopin Polacca was very interesting. The Violoncello is his instrument, although he is also an able executant on the Piano, and is likewise a conscientious and excellent teacher. He accompanied Mr. Paling in the two four-hand pieces, — the Wolff Huguenots duo, and the 2nd Symphony of Beethoven — and his clear touch, good time, and smooth fingering must have been of service to his pupils, many of whom were present.
“Messrs. Agthe and Paling belong to the Clementi school of pianists. “The concert on the whole was a success, and we sincerely hope Professor Agthe may be induced to continue his good work. If he will have the courage to give two or three more such musical entertainments we are sure he will be well repaid for his labor; not financially, we fear, but as an artist he will feel the satisfaction of doing good service in the cause of that Art which he and all of us love so dearly.” A. H. M. B. (Dwight’s Journal of Music, (Boston) vol. XXV, No. 23, Saturday, February 3, 1866, pp. 181-182) It is unknown whether similar recitals were given, but it seems a favorable first impression was made.
“After the war, I was persuaded to come south and I was director at St. Mary’s College, Raleigh, N. C., 1874-80” (Allisonia, vol. II, no. 4 (May, 1905), p. 182) Although I have made contact with what is now called St. Mary’s School, I have not been able to shake loose any details of Agthe’s tenure there.
“I taught in Salem Academy, N. C., 1877-80. This last is the largest Moravian Institution for Young Ladies and the oldest boarding school in the south.” (Allisonia, vol. II, no. 4 (May, 1905), p. 182) He is remembered for owning a fine Bechstein piano which was kept in the Academy Chapel. (The Academy (September, 1878), p. 19) There are many references to Professor Agthe in the pages of The Academy, the newspaper of the Salem Female Academy. While many of the articles review his performances and praise his direction of the choirs, there are occasional insights into his personality. For example, in the summer of 1878 he accompanied other teachers and staff in an excursion to the mountains, and was remembered for telling jokes and stories. Another story tells of an evening of bowling:
Then there is mention of his pet: “Professor Agthe and family (not forgetting his cockatoo) spent the greater part of vacation in Ashe County, with his daughter, Mrs. R. A. Hamilton, returning, however, some 2 weeks before school opened.” (The Academy (September, 1886), p. 167)
Throughout the pages of the school paper there are references to performances by Professor Agthe both as pianist and cellist: “Some chamber music was interspersed through the programme, taken up by Miss Amelia Van Vleck, Profs. Agthe, and M[e]inung. An Andante from Reissiger’s Trios, op. 97 for Piano, Violin and ‘Cello…[later] it drew out a warm encore…a duett for Alto and Baritone, written by the Professor, and sung by himself and daughter, Miss Laura. It is composed in the strict school of German song-writing, and was excellently rendered…” (The Academy (November, 1878), p. 28)
The following fall came the news of that daughter’s marriage: “At Salem, N.C., October 9, 1879; in the Moravian church, by Rev. E. Rondthaler, R[ufus] A. Hamilton to Laura C. Agthe, daughter of Prof. Agthe, of Salem Female Academy.” (The Academy (October, 1879), p. 24) [It appears that Rufus’s brother was George Hege Hamilton from whom descended George Hamiltons IV and V.]
The students celebrated Professor Agthe’s birthday by presenting him a number of cakes and gifts, among them “…a handsome, gold-headed, ebony cane was presented by his music pupils and friends in the Academy.” Unfortunately, the professor was ill that day, but he wrote a touching acknowledgment: “I have to thank you for your elegant and very acceptable birthday gift. It has taken me entirely by surprise. I must regard it as proof of your appreciation of my efforts in your behalf in the course of my duties, and my interest in your improvement. I assure you that nothing gives me greater pleasure than to find you interested in your music and diligent and faithful in following out my directions. That pleasure is all the reward I have ever looked for since I have been your teacher, and I hope your special remembrance of me to-day may be taken as a promise on your part of still greater interest in and devotion to the studies which you are following under my direction.” (The Academy (April, 1879), p. 8) Mention was made the following year of the presentation of a silver smoking set from Professor Agthe’s vocal pupils.
One may assume both the students and faculty were saddened by the news of Agthe’s leaving: “We regret to state that Prof. Agthe is busily preparing to leave our sunny clime for the fogs of the city of London, where, however, he will enter upon duties presumably more agreeable than drumming music into the heads of dull scholars who will not read their notes. He has distributed a great deal of his music to his pupils and he has also disposed of his grand piano, which will be sorely missed at future entertainments. Prof. Agthe will conduct in London a branch of the piano business of his brother, Bechstein, of Berlin.” (The Academy (November, 1879), p. 28)
Before leaving for London, Agthe had begun to explore musical performances in the community beyond the girls of the Academy: “A singing society is being organized under the leadership of Prof. Agthe, composed of a large number of ladies and gentlemen from Salem, who will meet once a week in the Academy Chapel for practice” (The Academy (October, 1879), p. 24).
I have not been able to account for Agthe’s time in London. The Bechstein company lost its records during the war; but here’s what Agthe had to say about his time there:
“…I was called to London, England, to represent my half brother Bechstein in his principal branch honor in Oxford Street. Bechsteins are the greatest piano makers in Germany. In London (I was there, 1880-84) I came in constant contact with the first artists of Europe, [Anton] Rubinstein, [Hans von] Bülow, [Joseph] Joachim, [and others]…and enjoyed all the advantages a musician could wish.” (Allisonia, vol. II, no. 4 (May, 1905), p. 182)
“I was again called to Salem, N. C. (where the music had gone down considerably) to raise the music department to its former standard.” (Allisonia, vol. II, no. 4 (May, 1905), p. 182) Agthe’s return to Salem brought renewed rigor to the music curriculum. The January 1884 issue of The Academy outlined in detail the course of study under professors Edward Lineback, S. D’Anna, and Agthe.
Furthermore, community music-making was again taken up by Agthe: “The Salem Philharmonic Society, under Professor Agthe’s direction, gave a grand Concert in the Academy chapel, April 16th. It was an enjoyable occasion, and though the gas played hide and seek for us a considerable time, it finally condescended to stay and illumine the scene.” (The Academy (May, 1885), p. 68) Upon Agthe’s retirement, the direction was turned over the Rev. Francis F. Hagen: “Rev. F. F. Hagen a retired minister of the Moravian church now resident in Salem, has taken charge of the Salem Philharmonic Society since the departure of Professor Agthe. Mr. Hagen’s musical talents are of the highest order, and were exercised for the church service in his younger days already.” (The Academy (February, 1887), p. 206)
It became apparent that health issues were beginning to affect the Agthes: “Mrs. Agthe has gone North for the benefit of her health, as well as to visit relatives and friends, so our worthy Professor is a grass widower for the nonce.” (The Academy (April, 1886), p. 139) And months later came the announcement: “Prof. Agthe, late at the head of the Music Department of the Academy, resigned his position, and with his family has gone north.” (The Academy (January, 1887), p. 197) Agthe taught music in Philadelphia 1888-91
Agthe accepted yet another teaching position in the south:
“…[in 1891] I became director of instrumental and vocal music in Centenary Female College, Cleveland, Teen., where I am still working like a slave to do good. I am also conductor of societies and orchestras as well as organist and teacher of many choirs. I teach piano, violin, cello and organ but have made vocal culture a specialty. My solo playing especially on the violin and cello is highly appreciated.” (Allisonia, vol. II, no. 4 (May, 1905), p. 182)
Early in 1899 came the news that Professor Agthe had been ill: “We were sorry to hear of the fact that Prof. Agthe is in poor health, at his Philadelphia home. His many friends
here hope that he may soon be restored” (The Academy (January, 1899) p. 1913 in “Personal Items”) Agthe was listed a Philadelphia city directory: “Agthe, Frederick, music teacher, 2345 Oxford” He was listed also under “Teachers, Music” (Boyd’s co-partnership and residence business directory of Philadelphia city, 1900)
“We were grieved to hear of the death of Professor Agthe, which took place at
the home of his daughter, Mrs. R.A. Hamilton, in Ashe Co., N.C. Professor Agthe was twice connected with our Institution as Music Professor, and was also very active in
connection with the music of the Home church and the musical organizations of the
community. He had very many friends in Winston-Salem, who will regret the sad news
of his death. Our deepest sympathy is extended to the mourning friends.”
(The Academy (December, 1899), p. 1976)
“Agthe — Entered into the rest of Paradise on Dec. 22, 1899, at the home of his daughter,
Mrs. Rufus A. Hamilton, Beaver Creek, N.C., Professor Frederick Agthe, in his 66th year of his age. ‘I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.'”
(The Churchman, vol.81 (January 6, 1900), p. 28)
He is buried at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in West Jefferson, North Carolina, about 20 miles (as the crow flies) from the Moravian Church’s camp and retreat center at Laurel Ridge just off the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Besides the sheet music in the Moravian Music Foundation’s collections, several items reside in the Salem College archive. Others have been located in other libraries around the world, although the correct identification of Frederick Agthe is lacking. I have submitted information to create a Name Authority record in OCLC, and once that is created I will contact libraries which have sheet music by Agthe incorrectly attributed. In the meantime I have assembled a spreadsheet of titles, dedication information, publisher data and locations.