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Biography William W. Gilchrist (1846-1916)

Image: William Wallace Gilchrist montage
William Wallace Gilchrist with his son, the artist, William Wallace Gilchrist Jr, and grandson. Photograph. Courtesy William Wallace Gilchrist, Jr., Collection, George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine. In the background: William Wallace Gilchrist, 1846-1916. Lost, from Eight Songs, 1885. Holograph in pen. A. P. Schmidt Collection, box 100, folder 10, Eight Songs, Music Division, Library of Congress.

William Wallace Gilchrist was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1846. His family moved to Philadelphia in 1857, and Gilchrist's musical career centered on that city for the remainder of his life. His father's merchant business was ruined at the outbreak of the Civil War, and the young Gilchrist had to rely on his own resources from an early age.

Gilchrist studied law and tried other business occupations, but finally decided to pursue a musical career. In 1865 he began studying composition, organ, and voice with H. A. Clark. Gilchrist was one of the few American musicians of the period who, determined to forge his own path, chose not to pursue musical studies in Europe. In July 1886, he wrote in his travel journal while in Lucerne, Switzerland, about the advanced state of the art in Europe: "I have seen how much has been done, and how finished it all is, and thus been fired to do my part in the great work America has to do."[1]

He accepted a position as a church organist in Cincinnati in 1870, where he also taught at the Cincinnati Conservatory. He returned one year later to Philadelphia and took up the post of choirmaster at St. Clement's Episcopal Church. Four years later in 1875, he moved to Christ Church, where he worked for 14 years. He subsequently served at St. Philip's Church, First Methodist Episcopal Church in Germantown, and First New Jerusalem (Swedenborgian) Church. He worked as editor of the Presbyterian Church's hymnal in 1895.

Gilchrist sang as a baritone soloist in oratorios before deciding to pursue composition, conducting, and teaching. He became head of voice instruction at the Philadelphia Academy in 1882. He directed a number of Philadelphia musical organizations. The most important was the Mendelssohn Club, which he founded in 1874 and which remains active today. He conducted the Philadelphia Symphony Society, an amateur orchestra, during the first eight years of its existence (1892-99). In 1891, he served as founding president of Philadelphia's Manuscript Music Society, a group dedicated to performing music by local composers. In 1896, he was one of the founding members of the American Guild of Organists, and, in the same year, he received an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

Gilchrist's earliest successes as a composer came in the form of prizes awarded by the Abt Society of Philadelphia in 1878, the Mendelssohn Glee Club of New York in 1884, and the Cincinnati Festival Association in 1882. He won the last award for a choral/orchestral setting of Psalm 46, which was adjudicated by a committee comprised of Camille Saint-Saëns, Carl Reinecke, and conductor Theodore Thomas. His Symphony in C received its premiere in 1901, during the Philadelphia Orchestra's first season. Between 1903 and 1906, he co-edited a series of music readers for schools published by Ginn & Co.

Gilchrist suffered periodic bouts of depression and was unable to conduct at the Mendelssohn Club concerts in 1913. He spent the last 16 months of his life receiving treatment at the Easton Sanatorium in Pennsylvania.


  1. Martha Furman Schleifer, William Wallace Gilchrist, 1846-1916: A Moving Force in the Musical Life of Philadelphia (Metuchen, NJ, and London: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1985), 13. [back to text]