A lost piece of American music gets new life at the same DC venue where it was hiding

It’s a piece of music from one of America’s greatest composers, Charles Martin Loeffler, that seemed lost to history. But one musician has spent the past four years bringing it back to life at the same location where it was once hiding in D.C.

Clarinetist Graeme Steele Johnson was able to revive the score using documents from the Library of Congress; on Wednesday night he’s performing the music at the D.C. institution.

Clarinetist Graeme Steele Johnson
Clarinetist Graeme Steele Johnson is performing music from a famed American composer on May 22, 2024, at the Library of Congress. (Courtesy Dylan Hancook)

“I call it new old music. It’s a piece that was written by Charles Martin Loeffler in 1897, who at the time was the most performed American composer in this country and in Europe,” Johnson told WTOP.

Johnson had to stop performing in 2020 during the pandemic and instead wrote program notes for other performances and conducted research.

He stumbled across a mention of an octet that interested him because it contained two clarinetists and because the instrumentation was nearly identical to a Claude Debussy piece, “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune,” that he had previously arranged.

“I started looking for a recording, couldn’t find anything, looking for sheet music, couldn’t find anything. And that’s when I began to think I might be onto something,” Johnson said about the 30 minute song.

Johnson said this was not an uncommon pattern for the German-American composer, who often described himself as French, because “he was extremely sensitive to critical reception.”

“He actually ended up withholding most of his music from publication, despite his great prominence in his lifetime,” continued Johnson.

The only manuscript of this particular octet was contained at the Library of Congress, but he had to wait for copies until the facility reopened in 2021.

“It turned out to be this 75-page tome,” said Johnson describing the manuscript. He spent the next year arranging it.

“The score was a mosaic with scratchings and deletions and all sorts of revisions from Loeffler which complicated the process of restoring it,” Johnson said.

Ultimately, he and seven others played it privately for the first time since 1897.

“It was actually a completely foreign experience, coming into this rehearsal and having no idea how the piece even goes,” Johnson recollected.

He’s expected to perform that song on Wednesday night at the Library of Congress, bringing the music back to the same place where it hid in secret for over a century.

“It’s really exciting to hear how people react to this music,” said Johnson. “It was kind of left out of musical history and left out of our sense of the musical canon.”

Johnson thinks this could be just a first step in reviving long forgotten music.

“There’s this major misconception that we kind of uncritically buy into in the classical music world that time is sort of a filter for quality,” he said.

The first ever recording of the octet will be released by Johnson on June 7, in the album “Forgotten Sounds.”

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Luke Lukert

Since joining WTOP Luke Lukert has held just about every job in the newsroom from producer to web writer and now he works as a full-time reporter. He is an avid fan of UGA football. Go Dawgs!

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