Plucked from Obscurity

In her book Pulling Strings: The Legacy of Melville A. Clark, Syracuse harpist Linda Pembroke Kaiser explores the extraordinary career of another Syracusan, musician, community leader and entrepreneur Melville A. Clark (1883-1953). Clark was instrumental, so to speak, in founding the original Syracuse Symphony in 1921 (see sidebar).

A prominent harpist himself, Clark was also an inventor and collector, and ran local Clark Music store beginning in 1919. Founded by his father George Waldo Clark, Clark Music opened downtown in 1859 selling sheet music. Later, it sold the first phonograph in Syracuse and the first harp. In 1960, the company was purchased by Guido Singer, who moved the showroom to Erie Boulevard. Today, Clark Music sells Steinway pianos to colleges and universities in Upstate New York.

In addition to exploring the life of Melville Clark, Pulling Strings also conveys what was happening in Central New York musically, socially and economically during his era. “I thought it was interesting that the family kept its music company afloat by selling refrigerators,” Kaiser told the Syracuse New Times last year. “They didn’t say, ‘Oh, we can’t sell those kinds of thing.’ They could, and they did.”

The book is organized around Melville Clark’s activities. He was a prolific inventor, best known for the Clark Irish Harp, a smaller, less expensive and more portable version of the traditional concert pedal harp. The design made the instrument accessible and affordable. He also invented nylon strings for instruments, a record-changing device, and even a mechanical fruit picker.

During World War I, Clark organized “sings” with the troops at Camp Onondaga. As a harp soloist and accompanist, he joined a troupe led by first daughter and accomplished vocalist Margaret Woodrow Wilson, and toured military camps and hospitals in the eastern U.S. Then, he masterminded the launch of a balloon offensive used by the British military to carry messages to Europe to demoralize German troops.

Readers will enjoy learning about Clark’s collections of rare musical instruments, music boxes and antique harps. An account of his presentation of one music box to the royal family at Buckingham Palace is fascinating.

What began simply as curiosity – Kaiser owned a Clark harp – led to a well-researched, fully illustrated and engrossing account of Clark’s life. “He was so multifaceted,” she told the Syracuse New Times. “That’s why I figured he was going to go into obscurity. People sort of knew who he was … but there was much left untold. The more I found out, the more I felt like I was the one to do it.”

Linda Pembroke Kaiser performs on the harp, piano and guitar. She has written articles for the International Folk Harp Journal, and recorded an album of harp music, Lullabies for Earth Children. Pulling Strings, her first book, is available from Syracuse University Press, www.
syracuseuniversitypress.syr.edu.
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The Strains of a Symphony
The Second Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, or SSO, the successor to the original founded by Melville Clark, was recently dismantled after declaring bankruptcy in May.

The original SSO had met a slow demise due in part to financial difficulties of its own. “History shows us that there remained a group of Syracuse citizens who would not be denied a local symphony,” writes Linda Pembroke Kaiser in her book Pulling Strings. “Indeed there were several seasons of music from a variety of professional symphonic groups. Orchestral performances continued without a major break until the Second SSO was founded in 1961.”

After the season was cancelled this year, the group Symphony Syracuse was formed as a “lifeboat organization” for the 70 unemployed musicians. They presented free summer concerts throughout Central New York, while individuals and organizations worked behind the scenes to create a new symphony. Among the planners were Syracuse University and its Sentor School of Music. In September, the Syracuse Philharmonic Society was formed and performances were scheduled during the fall. Visit www.symphonysyracuse.org.

Some SSO members wrote to Kaiser about the impact of the symphony’s end, and its emotional, financial and cultural impact. One said, “My heart breaks for Central New York because it is losing what once was considered a world-class institution. Especially considering its relatively small size, it had, up to now, held its own with most cities of its size or larger.”

Another wrote: “So far, 14 of our musicians have left the area because they have been fortunate to find other jobs. The orchestra will never sound the same again.”

While organized symphonic music in Central New York is clearly in transition, Kaiser is optimistic. “There will be another symphony for Syracuse,” she predicts. “It will have a different name, a new mission, some new players, and new leaders directing the organization, but the strains of Bach and Mozart will be heard here again.”


by Laurel C. Wemett