WPA Federal Music Project and the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra


While reading Cornelius Canon’s dissertation (1963) I came across this blurb in a section of chapter II. titled, “The State Music Programs Under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration” which describes various state initiatives using Federal monies to support or develop orchestras.  The monies were either through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) or the Civic Works Administration (CWA) which took place briefly in the middle of the FERA (and both before the Works Progress Administration).

In Michigan the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra and forty-three dance orchestras were organized in addition to an active music education program. (Canon , pg. 30)

I’ve come across a number of references to several orchestras created during the Great Depression which survived solely through the largess of the Federal Government or were, in fact, formed — even in the years before the WPA Federal Music project — with funds obtained solely from the Federal Government.  I mentioned an example (The Hartford Symphony Orchestra) which weathered the Depression through funding from FERA and the WPA before moving to a private funding structure.

Here’s the Pierre Key’s Music Year Book entry for the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra:

Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra, established in 1923. Eighty-five players.  Karl Wecker, cond. Maintained by Grand Rapids Symphony Society, James H. Sheppard, pres.; Dr. H.J. Vanden Berg, Mrs. C.R. Bowman, vice-presidents; Mrs. Helen Baker Rowe, sec’y; Thomas Kraai, treas.  1937-38 schedule: 7 subscription concerts, 2 Young People’s Concerts, in Civic Auditorium (5,200).  Professional soloists engaged: (1937-38) Albert Spalding, Alec Templeton, Anna Kaskas, Ezio Pinza.  Bus. mgr., Hugh MacMillan, 1024 Michigan Trust Bldg. (Key , pg. 62)

Which doesn’t mention the Federal funding (as it did with the Hartford Symphony Example).  There’s no mention about of this period on the about page for the orchestra, which is understandable, but you can find a “History” link by clicking the “Orchestra” sidebar link which does have some info regarding that period:

Great Depression Affects the Orchestra

Under the cloud of the Depression, the U.S. economy struggled and a government program to provide work for unemployed musicians was created as part of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration under President D. Franklin Roosevelt. Musicians from the Grand Rapids community and beyond comprised the orchestra, which played regularly for an average ticket price of 40-42 cents. The Symphony roster included 88 musicians, of these, 36 were compensated through the Federal Music Program (FMP).

Which is slightly different than this version I found which is supposedly retrieved from dead link from the orchestra website.

In the Great Depression the orchestra provided work for 124 musicians as part of the Federal Emergency Relief Program and 36 of the musicians were compensated through the Federal Music Program.

Curiously, the Wayback Machine cache of the page matches the first version rather than the second.  There’s not much useful information at the local Musicians’ Union timeline either.

In a time when unemployment in the US was at an all time high of about 25% it shouldn’t be shocking that musicians and orchestras were in crisis.  As Bindas says:

All in all unemployment for America’s musicians rose dramatically.  The American Federation of Musicians estimated that in 1933, 12,000 of its 15,000 musicians in the New York City area were unemployed, and that two-thirds of the nation’s musicians were also out of work.

As the Depression deepened, the already critical unemployment problem for the country’s musicians grew worse.  With the economic collapse, America’s opera companies, orchestras, and theatres, which relied on private patronage, also collapsed.  The philanthropists could no longer support the arts, and the funding drain forced many companies to close their doors. (Bindas 1988, pg.32)

Without the work relief and funding initiatives that took place during that bleak decade, there’s no telling how many more SOBs (Symphonies, Operas, Ballets) we might have lost.  Of course, now I’m wondering how many of the orchestras Grant and Hettinger (1940) claim to have been founded during those depression years would never have seen the light of day without FERA, the CWA, and the WPA Federal Music Project.

Interestingly, Canon gives a clue in his table that’s a summary of music activities under the FERA work program for April, 1934 to July 1935.  The number of symphony orchestras listed as taking part in the program (in 21 states) is 124.



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).

Canon, Cornelius B. (1963) The Federal Music Project of the Works Progress Administration: Music in a democracy. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Minnesota, United States — Minnesota. (Publication No. AAT 6307915).

Grant, M., Hettinger, H. (1940) America’s Symphony Orchestras – And How They Are Supported. WW Norton

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

3 thoughts on “WPA Federal Music Project and the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra

  1. … there’s no telling how many more SOBs we might have lost.

    I confess, I had to use your search box to figure out that “SOBs” meant “Symphonies, Operas, and Ballets.” For a second, I wondered why your essay seemed to have taken a turn for the off-color. 😉

    Nice work, by the way.


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