An Annotated Bibliographic Timeline of “Orchestra Crisis”

Some JSTOR paraphernalia my wife got for me while she was at the ACRL (Association of College and Research Libraries) Conference in Indianapolis last weekend.
Some JSTOR paraphernalia my wife got for me while she was at the ACRL (Association of College and Research Libraries) Conference in Indianapolis last weekend.

So yes, JSTOR is my friend, but while spending a lot of time searching databases of peer reviewed journals and more academic books I didn’t think to look at more “mundane” periodicals.  You know, those things we used to read everyday before we had the internet–Newspapers!  I discovered that I also have access to ProQuest (I know–sometimes I’m really slow!), which has access to periodicals, such as the New York Times, all the way back to 1851!

So I’ve been reading tons of ancient news, and finding some very interesting stuff and decided (hence the title of this post) to start an annotated bibliographic timeline of the so-called “Orchestra Crisis.”  Right now I’m just doing random searches with relevant strings, but am slowly adding entries to this here.  I’m still deciding on formatting and will likely put this up at my website in a more formal presentation–and obviously, there are no annotations yet.  Let me give you a few of the gems I’ve found–since it seems to be the [Classical Music] doom and gloom consensus that it wasn’t until after Baumol’s Cost disease (and some say even much later) that we’ve recognized this “crisis.”

From the St. Louis Post – Dispatch:

Few people know how heavy the individual contributions have been.  I have no figures at hand, but I think that more than $150,000 has been contributed during 35 years to pay the shortages in annual income.  In this regard, however, St. Louis’ experience is not different from that of other cities where symphony orchestras have been created: if ordinary prices are charged for the seats a heavy deficit must result and must be paid by some one surely during the early years of the orchestra’s existence, and, perhaps, continuously.

N.A. (1904) “Public Asked to Support Orchestra” St Louis Post – Dispatch, November 10, pg. 3 <<>>

The date of the publication, as you can see, is from 1904.  Most of the references I’ve found before that date only mention individual orchestra deficits without reference to orchestras in general.  The emphasized portion (my emphasis, btw) shows how the author has an understanding that deficits are a common thing though there doesn’t seem to be an understanding that non-performance income must be a continuous thing.

One of the first references (that I’ve found so far) to an Orchestra Crisis, is from this 1923 piece:

Aldritch, Richard.  (1923) “An Orchestral Crisis” New York Times, May 6, pg. X3 <<>>

Where Aldritch suggested the possible disbanding of the Chicago Orchestra if the management and musicians couldn’t come to terms.  He also says some not-so-nice things about the field (as well as those who fund and support it) as a whole:

Rich men will pay the deficit in Chicago, as elsewhere — they always do.  That seems to be one of the things rich men are for, and enough of them seem to be aware of their duty and destiny to keep things going in the orchestral world.  The only trouble in some places indeed, as in New York, is to restrain the rich men from rushing ahead and founding new orchestras when somebody asks for them, whether they are needed by the public or not.  The public and its needs, indeed, seem to be the last consideration.

For everywhere the mounting costs of orchestral performances are becoming a matter of concern.

That last comment is particularly interesting since, as you can see from some of the other pieces I’ve listed from 1924 refer to a summit, of sorts, of symphony backers (i.e. rich men) to the house of industrialist, Clarence H. Mackay, to figure out how to save orchestras.  As one of the titles intimates, this includes “Discuss[ing] Big Business Methods, Including Mergers.”  Indeed, with the New York Phil’s merger (in 1921) with New York’s National Symphony Orchestra, the idea of merging orchestras was most definitely on the table (the NYP will eventually also merge with the New York Symphony Society in 1928).  I remember reading a fascinating history of the New York Phil in an article (that I got through JSTOR, of course) that describes its early history and the trials and tribulations (not “tribble-ations” – heh).

Anyway, if you have access to ProQuest or any other database of old newspapers (or heck–just do it the old-fashioned way and visit your library and find a Periodical Index and look through the microfiche) these articles are well worth a look at how most everyone understood the financial difficulties of performing arts organizations, and how some have occasionally cried “wolf” (not the Wolf Report – heh) throughout [at least] the past century or so.

Besides, these are the sources for information about orchestras that most people will have read–not the peer-reviewed journal articles, academic texts, and the “Sky is Falling” proclamations by pundits and experts, which, as we know tend to be terrible at prediction anyway.

12 thoughts on “An Annotated Bibliographic Timeline of “Orchestra Crisis”

  1. Here’s that quote — from February 1719:

    “Operas … are an Encouragement and Support to an Art that has been cherished by all Polite Nations. […] Therefore it seems very strange that this great and opulent City hath not been able to support Publick Spectacles of this sort for any considerable time. The reason of which seems to be cheifly that they have been hitherto carryed on upon a narrow Bottom of Temporary Contributions Extreamly Burthensome to the People of Quality … ”

    pg 300 of the first volume of Dean and Knapp’s set on “Handel’s Operas.”

    This is from London — same complaints as today. “This is a cultured city that should appreciate the sort of music that’s listened to by the Right Sort, and yet we can’t manage to make it pay without bugging rich people for money, who are getting annoyed by it.” Etc. etc.

    Three hundred years ago.


    1. That is excellent! Thanks so much! I found several pieces, many of which pre-dates anything for orchestras, about financial instability/problems in opera. I might have to go ahead and add them to this, though I would like to think that most people understand that opera has a higher fixed cost for productions than orchestras–which would naturally make them more prone to financial problems.


      1. You know it just occurred to me (it’s me again, other blog) that with all of the video/dance/visual whatnot that orchestras are being asked to include in their performances to attract people, the number of people who will be needed to realize a concert is only going up. The same people who are bringing up the cost disease about orchestras are also the ones who want the concerts to involve more grand spectacle … which will make their cost disease arguments worse. o_O


      2. That’s a very good point! Added cost to concerts which already don’t pay for themselves! One of the reason the Louisville Orchestra here gained its international rep for doing new music back in the 50s was specifically because they focused on commisioning and performing new works rather than hiring expensive soloists to play with the orchestra. They just recently did a concert with the Indigo Girls and I imagine the cost for bringing them (and other pop acts in) isn’t particularly cheap–and probably isn’t any cheaper than bringing in big name classical soloists either!


  2. You know, I’ve been thinking too about a few things I heard juxtaposed with one another as well. One was a newspaper article about “Juiiliard Ten Years Later,” which followed a bunch of incredibly well-prepared, talented music grads, and how many of them could pretty much not find (traditional orchestra) jobs (the only kinds they were prepared for at J), and ended up getting out of music. The other was a podcast by Rachel Barton Pine where she said that there are still as few great violinists as ever there were, but there are many, many, MANY more incredibly high-level section violinists nowdays than at the turn of the last century. She flat-out said it, and she’s independent enough to get away with it, that most of the older orchestras from the olden golden days just weren’t that good, or nowhere near the level they are at now. Even today’s fourth and fifth tier small city bands could blow the pants off the Big 5 back in the gaslamp era.

    Essentially, it was much easier to get into even a Big Five orchestra then than it is now, because the schools weren’t turning out vast numbers of enormously overqualified people.

    Many people use the fact that a lot of conservatory grads can’t find work as an example of why Classical Music Is Dying and Orchestras Are Falling Apart, but taken together, these two things indicate that conservatories are simply turning out way too many students. It wasn’t the case that orchestras were rolling in money before 1960, and all of the thousands of overprepared music school grads could get jobs. If there is an imbalance in supply and demand, it’s not that demand has plummeted, but that supply has gotten insanely out of hand. The kids who are giving up music and getting accounting jobs today would have been qualified — and employed! — as concertmaster for most city orchestras in 1920.

    Somehow I doubt that this is something that most faculty members in big music schools are willing to admit. They flooded the market. And they are not only preparing their kids for jobs in yesterday’s market — they are preparing them for jobs in a market that never even existed! It was NEVER the case that shedloads of Juilliard and Curtis graduates could all find jobs in the golden hazy days Back When Classical Music Was Appreciated. Never.


  3. Hey Jon, here’s a question for you — how many students each year did Juilliard and Curtis churn out, all the way back to about 1900? I’d love to see it plotted out, and you might be able to run these numbers to ground.


    1. Very good point–and something that really needs to be discussed–we’re so focused on the demand side of the equation we haven’t really bothered with the supply side.

      I’ve been waiting for Brandon VanWaeyeberghe to finish his master’s thesis, but in 2005 he published a study: “Musical Chairs: A Study of the Supply and Demand of Orchestra Musicians in the United States” –his master’s thesis was supposed to chart (if I remember correctly) the supply side of graduating music students. Here are some statistics mentioned in the Musical Chairs piece:

      *There are just 18 American orchestras with a 52-week schedule. Around 60 work 40+ weeks per year.
      *Between these 60 groups, there are circa 250 full-time openings per year total, all instruments. The most openings were in 1986 (328), and the least in 2006 (192). The number of advertised jobs is trending downward*.
      *Not all spots are awarded to newcomers—many are offered to those with previous appointments.
      *Some orchestras now favor subs over full-time members, to cut costs.
      *Openings typically have 150-300+ applicants, depending on the instrument. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra recently received over 500 audition tapes for a single flute post.
      *Some instruments, such as tuba and harp, typically have 1 or 0 openings in a given year.
      *Each year, music schools graduate 11,000 undergraduate music majors, 4,000 with master’s degrees, and 800 with doctoral degrees. Around 5,600 are performance majors. There is no concrete data on the percentage of these students actively pursuing full-time orchestral work.

      I mentioned VanWaeyenberghe’s study and David Cutler’s mentioning of it with the statistics here.


      1. No, thank you for blathering here–there wouldn’t be nearly as much activity without you! 😀

        And sorry for the late reply–it’s been a busy end of the school year and I’ve been dealing with ‘writer’s block’ I guess. 😦


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