The WPA Federal Music Project and Grant/Hettinger “America’s Symphony Orchestras”

A WPA Federal Music Project Poster
A WPA Federal Music Project Poster

We should never underestimate how much the WPA Federal Music Project has helped to shape and the growth of Classical Music during the Great Depression years.  Since I like making lists, I’ve decided to do one for this as well, so my Annotated Bibliographic Timeline of the WPA Federal Music Project has started.

While I was working on the Orchestra Crisis timeline doing old newspaper searches on ProQuest I often came upon pieces about WPA Music and this funding project. I’ve started to include them in a list since the role of the WPA seems to be questioned by some. and as you can see from that discussion I find it odd that the Hettinger/Grant book, “America’s Symphony Orchestras — and how they are supported” fails to say much about WPA orchestras and the role the Federal Music Project had in building the infrastructure for Classical Music.  But here, let some of the headlines and quotes from the New York Times speak on performances and audiences:

“32,000,000 HEARERS WON BY WPA MUSIC: Federal Orchestras in Nation Gave 10,797 Performances for 11,167,173 in 2 Months”New York Times, October 11, 1936, pg. N6

Statistics released by the WPA Federal Music Project yesterday revealed that in the period from Jan. 1 to Sept. 15 WPA orchestras gave concerts before an attendance of 32,000,000 persons throughout the United States.  The announcement disclosed that on Oct. 1 the WPA Music Project, headed by Dr. Nikolai Sokoloff, ended its first year of stewardship of the musical phase in the Federal Government’s four arts relief program.

And on its education initiatives:

“WPA TEACHES MUSIC TO 60,000 WEEKLY: 128 Centers in New York Have Given 7,689,406 Lessons Since July 20, 1934″ New York Times, April 5, 1937

The WPA Federal Music Project announced yesterday that the attendance of adults and children at its free classes in 128 music education and social music centers of Greater New York during the period from July 20, 1934, to April 1, 1937, totaled 7,689,406.  At the present time the weekly attendance is more than 60,000.

And, interestingly, this on the Orchestras which fall under the purview of WPA funding (since one of the contentions is that 36 orchestras are a mere 24% of the actual 150 which doubled the number of Orchestras from 1930-1940):

“6,000 ON WPA JOIN MUSIC WEEK FETES: Projects Offer 123 Orchestras, 70 Bands, 29 Choral Groups for National Observance” New York Times, April 24, 1938, pg. I4

Washington, April 23.–More than six thousand musicians on the WPA’s Federal Music Project rolls will take part during the week of May 1 to 7 in National Music Week programs in forty-two States.

There will be 123 symphony and concert orchestras, seventy bands, twenty-one chamber music ensembles and twenty-nine opera and choral groups, all composed of persons on relief.  Their activities will mark their third annual cooperation in the National Music Week observance.

“There is a growing pressure of public opinion,” Dr. Sokoloff said today, “for giving music a larger place in the community life.  Since WPA set up this project to retrain an rehabilitate unemployed professional musicians, aggregate audiences exceeding 93,000,000 persons have heard these musicians in more than 133,000 programs and performances.

Note the 123 Orchestras “all composed of persons on relief” (which is what musicians employed by the WPA were referred to as since the WPA was primarily an employment/stimulus initiative).  So even if we accept that there were only 36 Orchestras founded/funded by the WPA, the above seems to imply that (by 1938) an additional 87 were also composed of musicians paid by the WPA.

Interestingly, the Grant/Hettinger book states that between 1930-1937, 84 Orchestras were formed.  So a question I would ask, since it’s documented that the WPA also co-founded orchestras with local communities (which were separate from the 36 solely funded by the WPA orchestras) is were these Orchestras founded during that period the ones funded solely by the WPA as well Orchestras as being cofounded by the communities and the WPA?  After all, even the non-WPA orchestras had some relief through the WPA.

As with the Orchestra Crisis timeline, I’ve only scratched the surface of pieces and sources.  Individual states were often left to their own with regards to how they administered the funding and program, you can find some state universities which have been in the process of organizing and digitizing documents and studies for their own regions.  Orchestras are also involved in this process as new music scores are now being included in databases and being scanned since the WPA spearheaded (at least by 1937) “[m]ore than 5,300 works by more than 1,500 native composers or composers residing in the United States” many of which haven’t been performed since that period.

There are a lot of questions the Grant/Hettinger book doesn’t answer, and unlike more modern research pieces the appendixes don’t include their data in any form–all we have are the tables and prose of the authors, in other words, their interpretation of the data.  Given the amount of publicly available information, as well as actual newspaper reports, there’s no good reason for us to believe the Classical Music growth that happened during the Depression was due solely to the popularity and relevancy of the art form.


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