Stories From the Orchestra: NY Philharmonic Publishes Archives

A cow, a civil rights suit, and some unpopular Polish programs--and you thought classical music was boring

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The New York Philharmonic recently released a fairly extensive cache of archives,as part of an effort to catalog the orchestra's history online. The material covers the Bernstein years, dating, as The New York Times' Daniel J. Wakin notes, from "when he made his last-minute debut as a substitute [in 1943] ... to 1970, the year after his formal tenure ended." It's the first segment of historical documents to be released online and the material showcases a more personal side to the classical institution; a telegram about a cow given as a gift to a well-loved conductor, or Leonard Bernstein's marked copy of a score of Mahler's ninth symphony. The documents also detail the Philharmonic's scramble to interview African-American musicians after claims of racial discrimination in 1969. Below we've compiled an early look at some of the highlights from the Philharmonic's vaults.

  • Defining a Legacy  Thus does Daniel J. Wakin at the New York Times describe the digitalization effort. "It fits into the Philharmonic’s strategy of projecting itself as the Orchestra With History, a venerable institution that stands apart even if it does not have a Tanglewood, like the Boston Symphony Orchestra; a great hall, since it left Carnegie; or the tradition of a characteristic sound, like the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony."
The International Era [1943-1970] was selected for several reasons. It is the time when the United States becomes a world power and New York City its cultural capital; when the New York Philharmonic emerges as a worldwide symbol of this new cultural position. In the broader social and civic realm, it is when Government begins funding the arts, when women join the Orchestra, when the Philharmonic opens Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, when the Orchestra musicians win 52-week contracts, when television becomes main stream and the Long Playing record is invented, and it is the time of Leonard Bernstein’s leadership.
  • Not Immune From Social Tensions  In response to a discrimination lawsuit brought against the orchestra in 1969 by two black musicians (the orchestra was eventually found not guilty of discrimination), the Philharmonic went on a search for more diverse players. "In the next months, the Philharmonic contacted music schools, the Ford Foundation and people in the music industry in an almost frantic search for black candidates. It compiled a seven-page list of 'Negro Musicians' and summoned several in for special auditions," Wakin says in the Times' article, noting that orchestra at the time had one black member, and currently has none.
  • A Death in the Orchestra  On Artsbeat, Wakin writes of some notable archive moments he's looked through, such as the "numerous telegrams and letters between the conductor Guido Cantelli and the orchestra's managing director Bruno Zirato, many in an affectionate and effusive Italian. Cantelli," he explains, "was a major talent, one of the orchestra’s favorite guest conductors and a potential future music director. On Nov. 24, 1956, the maestro died in a plane crash. He was 36. Zirato immediately sent an anguished telegram to Cantelli’s widow, Iris: 'Our dear dear Iris, with a broken heart we weep with you, begging dear God to give you courage.'"

  • Thank You For The Cow  As a Times commenter points out, The Philharmonic's Board of Directors gave Philharmonic conductor Artur Rodzinski a cow for his birthday one year. Rodzinksi sent back a telegram requesting the message be read to the board: "This has been my happiest birthday in years and you members of the board of directors have made it so by your gracious thoughts in presenting me with such a wonderful gift as Tulip. She is the tangible evidence of greatness of thought upon your part and she will be an ever constant reminder of your kindness. We can scarcely wait to see her again. From the depth of our hearts we say thank you for Tulip." 
  • You Promised Me! Rodinski says, writing an angry letter someone at the Polish Embassy: "I am terribly distressed about the ticket sale for our Polish concerts for which you told me that there is not the slightest doubt that they will be sold out. There are at least six hundred tickets left for tomorrow night and almost as many for Friday afternoon."
  • Do Not Give Out Our Phone Number, Mrs. Rodzinski requests in a memo.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.