Ben Franklin Suite

By Benjamin Franklin
Arranged by Alan Shulman

Benjamin Franklin, one of our country’s founding fathers, was well-known as a statesman, diplomat, writer, printer, scientist and inventor – but a composer, too? Franklin’s interest in music is well-known. He printed treatises on music, played several instruments (including violin, harp, viola da gamba and guitar), and designed a four-sided music stand for string quartet players. He even invented the glass harmonica – an instrument made of rotating tuned glass bowls played by holding wet fingers against the edges, for which Mozart and Beethoven wrote compositions!

In 1946, a manuscript of a 5-movement string quartet was uncovered in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, bearing the title “Quartetto a 3 Violini Con Violoncello Del Sigre Benjamin Francklin.” It was originally (and unusually) scored for 3 violins and ‘cello to be played in “scordatura” fashion – all on open strings, with specific string tunings indicated for each instrument!

The quartet was published and attracted immediate attention from musicians and scholars, including Alan Shulman, an American composer and ‘cellist (1915-2002). Mr. Shulman, a pre-eminent ‘cellist and member of the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini, used excerpts from the Franklin quartet in his score for the NBC radio series “American Portraits” in 1950. In 1963, he created the present Suite based on thematic material from the quartet, maintaining its original key and structure. One of its notable performances was by the Philadelphia Orchestra during the 1976 Bicentennial.