The New York Philharmonic Archives: A musicological treasure

by: Jake DeBacher

Stravinsky Telegram
For the past several months I’ve been looking for an excuse to write about the New York Philharmonic’s Digital Archives. This wonderful collection of concert programs, business correspondence, and conductor-marked scores focuses on the N.Y. Phil’s “International Years” between 1943 and 1970. This period represents a remarkable series of historical achievements for the orchestra: Leonard Bernstein was appointed assistant conductor in 1943 and rose to the position of Music Director in 1957, women were being granted tenure in the Philharmonic for the first time, the Long Playing record made its debut, and the government, realizing that New York was rapidly becoming a internationally-recognized cultural center, began funneling considerable funding into the arts.

The process of digitizing all archived material of the International Years is not yet over. All 1.3 million items are expected to be online by 2012, but there are already hundreds of thousands of items to sort through—each a historical gem. The archive is replete with nuggets (both educational and entertaining) that will surely satisfy the curiosity of classical music fans for many, many hours.

For an example of both entertainment and educational value, look no further than the programs from the Stadium Concerts. From 1922 to 1964, the Lewisohn Stadium became the de facto summer home of the New York Philharmonic. Concerts occurred between five and seven nights a week and started promptly at 8:30pm. These shows would cater to a more casual crowd, using low ticket prices and “greatest hits” set lists to draw large audiences to the stadium. The programs in the Digital Archive illustrate quite vividly the scenes found at the stadium. Check out this great advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes, from a Stadium Concert program in 1952:

Program Ad

Still, sandwiched between ads shouting “Buy Easy To Play Pianoforte Music At Macy’s!” and “Support Your Country With War Bonds!” are program notes and conductors’ comments that shed light on the evolution of symphonic perception. It is interesting to find a description of a Mahler symphony and compare that to another written one decade later, then two, and so on.

Program Notes

Hundreds of scores hand-marked by Bernstein are also worthy of special notice. They provide unprecedented insight into the working genius of the Philharmonic’s revered director. I am continually stunned by the depth of his preparation and technique. For example, he would mark two-bar phrases with a mark resembling a pyramid, whereas a three-bar phrase was denoted with a curve akin to a slur. Notes written in red pencil were for the staff copyist to disperse into the parts, while blue pencil marks were Bernstein’s reminders for himself. Pictured below is one such blue-pencil three-bar-phrase mark, found in Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra.

Bernstein Score Excerpt

It is thrilling to see the literal marks of genius. These historical artifacts help us remember that even a man of Bernstein’s talent is not above, from time to time, a penciled-in reminder (often punctuated with exclamation points) of a dynamic change or a viola entrance. It also bears mentioning that along with this score is a delightful plethora of other tangential information. This score was used in concerts at the end of 1966 and the beginning of 1967. In December of 1966, Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra was flanked by Bernstein’s own Chichester Psalms and Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony. Just a week later, in January of 1967, it was preceded by Handel’s Organ Concerto in F Major and followed by the same Mendelssohn symphony.

As a student, I am also acutely aware of the innumerable ways in which the Digital Archives can be utilized for study. I am working on an examination of the Russian Five (Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Borodin, and Cui) and was curious to see if American perception of Russian music was altered during the Cold War. So, I examined concert programs containing Russian music from the forties and compared the descriptions to those of the sixties and seventies. This is just one of many ways the Archives could be used for study. They also contain images (including some 5,000 slides drawn by Ernest Schelling for Bernstein’s Young Peoples’ Concerts) as well as some original manuscripts by composers such as Beethoven, Wagner, and Rimsky-Korsakov. There are plans to include video and sound clips, but these are not yet individually available for search. Instead, some documents included in the Archives are accompanied by sound or video excerpts.

Some of the more devoted historians might also be interested in the thousands of business documents saved and scanned by the New York Philharmonic historians. One thing which caught my eye while browsing were the minutes from the January 12, 1962 meeting of the Music Policy Committee. The notes included, among many other topics, the practice of selecting soloists to play with the New York Philharmonic. Here is an excerpt from that document:

“The number of great artists who can draw big house audiences being small, it has been the practice to buy each one of the artists, where practicable, for four concerts – a pair in one week and a Saturday and Sunday pair in a later week. Considerable savings have been effected by doing this and more people in different Series have been pleased. The only people who seem to object are critics […] It is to be noted that during these last few years, practically everything Bruno Walter has conducted has been chosen because of recording requirements. In this way, the Society has accumulated a great group of recordings which are gradually being issued and which, when Dr. Walter ceases conducting, should be a source of profit to the Society for many years […] There is a growing audience for contemporary works especially among the young attendants at the concerts. The fact that the single sales have been growing faster than the subscribers during the last few years is probably an indication of this desire for modern music. In this case, Mr. Mitropoulos has done a first class job. The society has received, especially from older subscribers, many objections to the inclusion of contemporary music and to the format of the programs […] The Philharmonic-Symphony is compelled, because of the number of concerts in each season and because of the tremendous repertoire which it must play, to have two conductors who represent the major part of the season and to have a certain number of weeks allotted to guest conductors. Such guest conductors may be composer-conductors who do their own works, such as Strawinsky, Hindemith, Villa-Lobos, etc., or may be conductors of the great orchestras in Europe or America, such as Szell, Paray, Monteaux, Munch, Reiner, Krips or von Karajan, Markevitch, Cluytens, Martinon, Kletzki, Celibidache, Beecham, Barbirolli, etc.”

Those excerpts, penned by Bruno Zirato (an associate manager of the NY Phil), spread an astounding number of valuable facts over a mere two or three pages. It is unlikely that there are any easier ways to come by this much information; the archives allow us to succinctly uncover some of the most basic business rules of the New York Philharmonic.

I am sure that there is more in the Archives than I could ever learn. But having such a volume of information at my fingertips, with robust tools with which to trawl through that information, is really an incredible opportunity. Students and classical music fans alike should be ecstatic at the collection released to the public by the New York Philharmonic.

2 Responses to “The New York Philharmonic Archives: A musicological treasure”

  1. Hank says:

    This is a very interesting post. I actually went to the NYP archives and tried to locate Bernstein scores so I could study these. I found that the site is very hard to navigate. Complicated because there’s so much information. It really needs the help of an expert that could make it more user-friendly.

    Any suggestions?


    • Jake DeBacher says:

      I would agree with you, that the pure volume of material available can be antithetical to finding specific bits of information. That being said, a proper search is far from impossible. In regards to your specific situation, your problem might be something totally unrelated: copyright law. I, too, was disappointed by a lack of scores composed by Bernstein himself. Although this is strictly conjecture, I believe that no Bernstein scores are available because they are not yet in the public domain. For example, a search for “Age of Anxiety” (the subtitle of Bernstein’s Second Symphony, composed in 1948/49) turns up several results for concert programs in which the symphony was played, but limiting the search to scores results in no matches.

      You might consider getting in touch with the archivists, but that’s my best guess.



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