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From the annals of Brooklyn's musical history: The Tollefsens.

Apr 12, 2011 9:44 AM | 4 comments

Carl Tollefsen and his wife, Augusta Schnabel-Tollefsen residing at 946 President Street, stood at the center of Brooklyn's musical life for upwards of four decades in the first half of the 20th century.

Tollefsen was born--to my utmost surprise-- in my home town of Hull, UK, in 1882, immigrating to the U.S. at the age of 6. Founder of the Brooklyn Chamber Music Society, an active music school and the Tollefsen Trio, Carl Tollefsen was also a storied collector of musical instruments and manuscripts. His manuscript finds included early versions of one of Schumann's best-known songs from the Dichterliebe Song Cycle (Ich Grolle Nicht), a page from one of Schubert's sketchbooks, and a letter of Rossini asking his banker for a loan.  The collection began when Mrs Tollefsen, then Augusta Schnabel and herself an accomplished pianist, was scheduled to play the Saint-Saens piano concerto with the New York Symphony orchestra. Tollefsen, then a member of the orchestra, invited the French master to the concert, but the composer had a prior engagement and sent a letter full of expressions of good will, thanking "the young debutante for the honor she confers upon him by playing his concerto." 

Some time later a dealer showed Tollefsen a letter from Mendelssohn, and then another by Brahms, and he was hooked.  Other items of note included  pages from a diary of Haydn,  a page from an orchestral score by Schubert, and a manuscript page by Beethoven in which he cautions his publisher to be "careful about the small notes." The collection was considered by the Library of Congress to be one of the finest private collections in the world in the 1940s.


Augusta Schnabel-Tollefsen, pianist.

The Tollefsen instrument collection was equally impressive. Many of these were left to Tollefsen by his friend the cellist Youry Bilstin, whose will left $1 to his daughter, who had "failed to show him the regard a parent should expect from a child," while bestowing considerable property on several friends and associates.  The collection included bows owned by Corelli and Paganini; a viola da gamba dating from 1697; a three-stringed Italian bassetto of 1650; and an extraordinary harpsichord, painted inside and out, made for Marie Antoinette in Pisano in 1756, the year of Mozart's birth. Tollefsen contributed to the early music revival of the mid 20th century by lending out instruments from his collection for early music performances notably at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (and probably playing them too.)

 The Tollefsen's collections were purchased by the Lovejoy Library of the University of Southern Illinois in 1969.  

Mr and Mrs Carl Tollefsen taken in their home, 946 President St, in 1952. Harpsichord shown was made in 1756 in Pisano Italy for Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, and brought to this county by Irene Bordoni, actress, about 1932.

Carl Tollefsen, well-known violinist and founder of the Brooklyn Chamber Music Society , will lecture at the Brooklyn Academy of Music tomorrow on penned mementoes of the musical great...

 Carl Tollefsen and some of his ancient instruments in his home at 946 President St, Bklyn, Jan. 1952.

The Tollefsen Trio, consisting of Carl Tollefsen (violin), Augusta Tollefsen (piano) and Paul Kefer ('cello) (later Michael Penha and Youri Bilstin) had a contract with Columbia Records and were managed by National Concerts Inc. Among the programs offered by the trio was  an all-Scandinavian evening including works by Lange-Muller, Sjogren and Grieg. One review mentions works by Arensky and Rubin Goldmark (a teacher of Aaron Copland).  The Tollefsens also helped bring to light works by American composer Amy Beach.

Carl Tollefsen, if you'll forgive the terrible pun, had another string to his bow.  He also signed with an advertising agency who classed him as a "Doctor type" and used his image in advertisements for Scotch and other high end products.

Few recordings of the trio's work are available online. One is of the soundtrack to the George Melies Movie, "Le Monstre." The piece is "Extase," by Louis Ganne, recorded in 1911.

Another, transferred from cylinder by the University of Calilfornia Santa Barbara, is a 1913 recording of  a rather funereal account of a Beethoven minuet. In fact UCSB has transferred several of their recordings from Edison cylinders. Here are some of them, opening a window into pre-World War I playing styles. (Click on the "play" button in the linked catalog records.)

 Brahms, Hungarian Dances  

Tchaikovsky Chant Sans Paroles.

H. Paradis, Pastel

C-M. Widor, Serenade

 In the Gloaming (U. of Iowa Library).


1/10/2012 9:21:26 PM #

This is amazing to find this information.  As a former resident of Brooklyn until 1975 I am so pleased to find this information about Augustus Schnabel Tollefson and Carl Tollefson.  I was a piano student of Augustus back in the 1950's and went for lessons on 946 President Street.   This really brings back some wonderful memories of their home and their wonderful teaching and warm personalities.  I was only a teenager but really have fond memories of my lessons and visits to their beautiful and artistic home which I loved going to.  I now reside in Napa, California and teach piano and very involved with music daily.

Marcia Battat

4/27/2012 1:37:10 PM #

I also took piano lessons with both Mr and Mrs Tollefsen it was a wonderful experience .

mike scourby

12/14/2012 1:22:08 PM #

I was a pupil of Mr. Tollefsen from 1949 - 1952. I was very much impressed by him and to this day always think of him as a mentor. I wish I could have told him that. I was also fortunate to buy one of his two concert violins around 1955-56, and still own it and cherish it. He gave me many photos of his trio and chamber music society which he founded, and even gave me some original letters from his collection. He knew I was impressed and interested. It was a time of my life that I wish I could return to.  Maurice Kelhoffer

Maurice Kelhoffer

3/8/2013 4:07:53 PM #

I was only eight years of age when Carl Tollefsen began teaching me how to play the violin. How did I ever know at that age my life would change forever. I came from a beautiful family who were always singing and sharing their interests in music. My mother who played paino as I played violin, could not read music, however we played for many years entertaining all our friends.I played in the PS 119 elementary school, high school, and finally in State University at Oswego. Along the way, I player with the New York All City High School Orchestra. I had the pleasure of having played under the direction of Dr. Gartland, director of music for the N.Y.C. School system and the famous, Peter J. Willhouski who did the arrangement for the Battle Hymn Republic.  What a thrill to have had the opportunity to play in Carnagee Hall and on T.V. Studio 8 H N.B.C., N.Y. I have played the violin all my life, playing everything from country and western to classical music. I have played in many broadway shows put on by high school groups, church,s of all faiths, college orchestras, and in general any occasion where people gather to sing and make music. Now pushing towards 80 years of age I will never forget the wonderful gift that Carl Tollefsen gave to me so many years ago.

Donald E. Beusman