Symphony Orchestras

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SYMPHONY ORCHESTRAS. While Americans have enjoyed music making since their earliest days, colonial cities at first had insufficient size and disposable income to support orchestras. By the 1750s, however, Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston had orchestras. In the early national period, music making assumed roles that involved more than mere entertainment. In Lexington, Kentucky, for example, an orchestra was developed as a means of competing with rival city Louisville in the hope that stronger levels of culture would attract entrepreneurs and trade. In Boston, the Handel and Haydn Society was founded in 1815. It maintained regular concerts and quickly became a center for the city's culture. This was the first music organization prominently to conceive and use its influence in explicitly conservative ways: to maintain established traditions and to discourage what were seen as corrupting "modern" trends.

German immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s sparked the formation of orchestras and festivals in many cities. In 1842, the New York Philharmonic Society was established. In 1878, a second orchestra, the New York Symphony, emerged. The two were rivals until they merged in 1928, although the New York music public had shown it could support two full orchestras. While there was a highbrowlowbrow dichotomy in nineteenth-century America, the popularity of symphony orchestras, and opera as well, touched many beyond the wealthy classes, especially among immigrant groups, including German and Italian Americans. Grand orchestra concerts were a rage in mid-nineteenth-century America. While the proceeds were good and the mainstream public was satisfied, some critics and serious music lovers noted the often middling (or worse) quality of the music making.

In an age when corporations were eclipsing many older means of providing goods and services, the organization of the American symphony orchestra began to evolve from individual entrepreneurialism toward corporate forms. An example is the Boston Symphony, founded in 1881. The investment banker Henry L. Higginson, an ardent music lover, was impatient with the ragtag nature and substandard performances of American musical organizations. Higginson used his considerable financial power to hire the best conductors and musicians and bind them to contracts that restricted their outside activities and demanded regular rehearsals; he simply paid everyone enough to make the arrangement irresistible. While Higginson's corporate order restricted musicians' freedom, musically it worked wonders. Other cities followed suit, and the United States witnessed the establishment of many of its major orchestras in the generations after Higginson founded the Boston Symphony.

World War I interrupted not the quality but the character of American symphony orchestras. Before 1917, Austro-German traditions had utterly dominated the repertoire of orchestras. Also, conductors and personnel were largely German. The war changed this. Repertoire turned to French, Russian, and American composers, and while Austro-German music quickly reemerged in programming, it never again reached its position of prewar dominance. More starkly, personnel shifted markedly. Some German orchestra members returned home and never came back. War hysteria pressured several conductors. Frederick Stock of the Chicago Symphony had to resign his post for the war's duration. Two conductors—Ernst Kunewald of Cincinnati and Karl Muck of Boston—were investigated by the Justice Department and arrested under suspicion of subversion and spying. Both spent the war in an internment camp and were subsequently compelled to accept deportation.

Despite personnel shifts during the war, the quality of music making never flagged. Orchestras' popularity continued to grow, and in the 1920s many—especially the Boston Symphony of Serge Koussevitsky—began to champion works by American composers. This put the symphony orchestras more to the center of the major aesthetic issues among modern American artists, critics, and audiences. The heat of the debates here, combined with the increasing presence of music making among the general population with the proliferation of records and radio, made the symphony orchestras of the nation a central part of the country's cultural life in the 1920s and 1930s. Radio was especially important in maintaining this presence during the depression, when many smaller orchestras folded. The New Deal Works Progress Administration's music project helped too, as it sponsored many touring symphony orchestras and presented public concerts for minimal prices. Most famously, in 1937, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) also began live radio concerts. Not content with the best orchestras in New York City or anywhere else, NBC president Robert Sarnoff hired conductor Arturo Toscanini to put together a hand-picked orchestra. The NBC orchestra concerts became a Sunday afternoon mainstay for millions of households. Many still think it was the greatest orchestra ever assembled. Walt Disney added further to the symphony's visibility in the cultural life of the nation when he hired Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra for the animated movie Fantasia (1940).

After World War II, orchestras continued to flourish, especially with the breakdown of barriers that had prevented Jews, African Americans, and women from playing in significant numbers. The orchestra became a perfect neutral ground for the rise of anyone with musical talent. Indeed, to prevent bias, conductors often auditioned people from behind screens. Progress took some time, but talent won in the end.

Just as radio had boosted the musical presence of the symphony among virtually all levels of the American music public, television would do much the same in the 1950s and 1960s. Here the Columbia Broadcasting System's production of Leonard Bernstein's innovative Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic were pivotal in introducing new generations to the symphony. Still, it was with the television generation and with the general economic prosperity of the era that Americans began gravitating steadily toward genres of music other than the symphonic.

Alternative musical forms and other entertainment in general had always been available, but a significant line seemed to be crossed in the 1970s, as in most cities the weekend symphony concert seemed less and less to be a central event as it had once been in various communities' cultural lives. In this regard, the life of the American symphony orchestra closed the last quarter of the twentieth century on less sure footing than it had been. The cities with the greatest symphonic traditions, like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago, never felt significantly imperiled, although even they occasionally experienced labor strife and financial pinches. The orchestras of other cities became more seriously troubled, and in the early twenty-first century the fate of the symphony orchestra as a mainstay in the cultural life of most American cities has ceased to be the certainty it once was.


Arian, Edward. Bach, Beethoven, and Bureaucracy: The Case of the Philadelphia Orchestra. University: University of Alabama Press, 1971.

Johnson, H. Earle. Symphony Hall, Boston. New York: DaCapo Press, 1979.

Kupferberg, Herbert. Those Fabulous Philadelphians: The Life and Times of a Great Orchestra. New York: Scribners, 1969.

Mueller, John Henry. The American Symphony Orchestra: A Social History of Musical Taste. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1951.

Mussulman, Joseph A. Music in the Cultured Generation: A Social History of Music in America, 1870–1900. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1971.

Otis, Philo Adams. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Its Organization, Growth, and Development, 1891–1924. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1972.

Swoboda, Henry, comp. The American Symphony Orchestra. New York: Basic Books, 1967.


See alsoMusic Festivals ; Music Industry ; Music: Classical, Early American .