WPA Federal Music Project and America’s Musical Rebirth

A Federal Music Project violin class, ca. 1936.
A Federal Music Project violin class, ca. 1936.

A snippet from Bindas’ dissertation:

As a result of these activities, the Project helped stimulate a musical re-birth in the country.  By 1938 many recognized that the country was in the midst of a musical re-birth, and the FMP received much of the credit. (Bindas 1988, pg. 66)

What were some of those activities?

The Project raised this musical consciousness by attracting huge audiences with free or low-cost concerts.  And, true to Maier’s earlier projection, the FMP focused much attention on the smaller, rural areas outside of the east and west coasts.  These inland American concerts drew hundreds of thousands of people, many of who [sic] had never before seen an orchestra or band.  The Huntington, West Virginia, unit gave 428 concerts to nearly 150,000 persons during its first sixteen months of operation.  The Shamokin, Pennsylvania, unit gave during its seventeen month activity 325 concerts to 180,000 persons before being disbanded in 1937.  Out west, the Pueblo FMP orchestra, composed of only thirteen musicians, gave 284 performances from 1936-38 to almost 200,000 persons.  This Colorado unit averaged four concerts a week in halls, orphanages, and hospitals.  The Utah State FMP sinfonietta performed in 23 different Utah towns in 1936, giving 139 performances to an audience of 63,699.

These figures are astonishing when compared to the private sector orchestra.  In a normal season, an orchestra performs seven to twenty concerts to a mere handful of people.  In many of the areas the FMP operated no private orchestra existed, so the federally sponsored concerts were the only ones given. (Bindas 1988, pp. 59-60)


The FMP attracted these large numbers by not waiting for the people to come to them, like a private orchestra, but by going to the people.  FMP units played concerts at hospitals, orphanages, and other public institutions.  they attempted to participate in any and all civic rallies or community activities.  The Iowa final report asserted that the main value of the Project in the Hawkeye state lay in the FMP’s ability to bring music to Iowans in “all walks of life,” from the unfortunate and the young, to the passive and under-privileged. (Bindas 1988, pg. 60)

Even the Key’s Music Yearbook (the 1938 edition from whence Grant and Hettinger derived their stats about the growth of orchestras during the Depression years) nods toward the FMP:

The public has shown its willingness, as well as its desire, to respond to good music when interpreted by chamber groups, symphony orchestras of various sizes and qualities, choral performances, concerts of miscellaneous character, recitals, and dance performances.  The radio has assumed a role of leading importance in the disseminating of fine music by eminent artists and organizations and has been a factor in stimulating a desire to hear good music.  Music teaching has recovered.  The Federal Music Project has accomplished considerable. (Key 1938, pg. 41)

and how has the FMP affected radio?

The Project began in 1936 to tap the rural resources by initiating a program of recording the best of the FMP.  Under personal supervision of Sokoloff, the FMP recorded more than 300 fifteen minute vignettes of symphony, concert, dance, and Negro chorus music.  These transcriptions were then sent to radio stations that asked for them, especially in rural areas.  Local stations donated the air time so that their listeners could hear “live” FMP radio programs.

And education?

According to the latest statistics released by the Federal Music Project, 2,399,446 students unable to pay for private musical instruction attended the free classes of the project in its 140 music centers throughout Greater New York during the year ending June 30.  The number of classes held reached the enormous total of 145,133. (New York Times 1936)


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. (New York Times 1937)

to summarize:

In music, the FMP affected all aspects of musical culture, from the teacher to the audience. A great cultural renaissance was underway in America.  More Americans listened to serious music, more students learned, more composers composed, and more musicians played than at any other time in the United States’ history.  The FMP deserved a large bulk of the credit for this enormous growth. (Bindas 1988, pg. 55)

Since I quoted from the Key Music Year Book, it’s obvious that I now have my own copy.  I’ve skimmed over the numbers and calculated my own and am disappointed (though not surprised) that what I suggested in the previous post is pretty much the case.  There is no consistency in the list of orchestras provided in the volume–there are a number of WPA orchestras included in the “private orchestras” list despite the fact that they editor has given us a list of WPA Orchestras in its own section.  The editor also includes organizations which are not active as well as subsets of organizations.  The smallest ensemble listed is a 15 player string group (as I recall) which brings into question why would Grant and Hettinger choose to leave out of the count the 110 concert orchestras of the WPA.

Had the total [adjusted] number of 158 WPA orchestras been added to the 84 private orchestras formed during the 1930-1937 period, we’d have a far larger percentage of orchestras formed.  As it stands, I think we’ll have to question the accuracy of the list in the Music Year Book (not to mention the Grant and Hettinger book).  I’ll post a link to the data when I sort through the problematic issues of the book.



Bindas, K. J. (1988) All of this music belongs to the nation: The Federal Music Project of the WPA and American cultural nationalism, 1935-1939. Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Toledo, United States — Ohio. (Publication No. AAT 8909905).

Key, P. editor (1938) Pierre Key’s Music Year Book. New York: Pierre Key

N.A. (1936) “EDUCATION BY THE WPA” New York Times, July 12, pg. X5

N.A. (1937) “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

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