WPA Federal Music Project and the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra

Buffalo Symphony Orchestra, Arnold Cornelissen, conductor (1924-1925) photo by King Robinson
Buffalo Symphony Orchestra, Arnold Cornelissen, conductor (1924-1925) photo by King Robinson

I’ve recently gotten a copy of William McDonald’s book, “Federal Relief Administration and the Arts” (1969) which was based on a study

In upper New York State the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra was formed in 1931.  Unemployed musicians were assigned to it by the Mayor’s Committee on Unemployment.  The formation of this orchestras was a purely local enterprise that carried through the fall and winter of 1931-32.  Later, however, it was assisted by the New York State TERA, the CWA, the FERA, and finally the WPA.  With the closing of the WPA, this orchestra had so fixed itself in the life of the community that it achieved permanent status as the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra. (McDonald, 1969, pg. 590)

In Key’s (1938) Music Yearbook we have:

Buffalo Orchestra, organized in 1920 by a civic group; established under the Federal Music Project in 1935. Seventy-six players. Franco Autori, cond. Jointly Sponsored by the Buffalo Philharmonic Society and the Federal Music Project.

12 regular subscription concerts. (Key, 1938, pg. 67)

There is no listing for the group in the 1926-1927 Music Yearbook

And in Grant and Hettinger (1940) in the section of Chapter 8 titled “Scope of the Federal Symphony Orchestra Activities” we have:

In addition to the relief and nonrelief musicians on the project payrolls, some of these orchestras were augmented by musicians paid by a sponsoring organization for either a series of concerts or single concerts.  In some cases extra musicians were paid by the local musicians’ union or by municipal groups such as park boards.

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Society adds 12 men to the Federal Music Project group of 67 to form the Buffalo Orchestra of 79 members, giving a series of 12 regular concerts. (Grant and Hettinger, 1940, pg. 209)

and a more detailed description of the joint sponsorship:

Buffalo is probably the best example of joint federal and community sponsorship of an orchestra. Until the fall of 1939, the orchestra as a whole operated on a composite budget, the Philharmonic Society guaranteeing approximately $11,000 annually.  This sum was subscribed by approximately 100 persons contributing from $25 to $1,000 each.  The Federal Music Project paid the salaries of 67 men, while the society stood the cost of 12 additional players, assisting artist, advertising, music, and a portion of hall rental.  During the first year, the society agreed to provide the extra men and to pay them at the union scale for rehearsals and concerts.  They were engaged for only 3 or 4 rehearsals per concert.  After the first year, this method was found unsatisfactory and the society decided to employ the 12 men on a regular six-month salary basis. As a special concession from the union, the society was allowed to pay these men the same wages and to ask the same hours as those in force on the project. (Grant and Hettinger, 1940, pp. 210-211)

As can seen from the sources, there’s some inconsistency not unlike what was shown in the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra post.  To make matters worse, at the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Pre-History: 1840-1935 site at the University of Buffalo Department of Music we have this 1891 image of the Buffalo Orchestra:

The Buffalo Orchestra in 1891
The Buffalo Orchestra in 1891

Note that the above website is mirrored at the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s website archives and the History of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra page doesn’t give the details just as the Grand Rapids example does not:

It was a critical time, but from the very first downbeat, the Society’s Board of Directors got everything right. Through the leadership of Society President Mrs. Edgar F. Wendt, funds were raised to maintain a viable ensemble through 1937 when support was received from the federal WPA project, which sponsored additional players and recruited a conductor named Franco Autori from the Dallas Symphony. Over the next two seasons (despite a variety of administrative and financial growing pains) the Orchestra presented many fine symphonic performances with renowned soloists, and began performing run-out concerts to neighboring localities like Niagara Falls. Finally, by the opening of the 1939-40 season, the Society and the Greater Buffalo community were ready to provide enduring support for the expansion of both the classical and lighter ‘Pops’ programming by its burgeoning orchestra.

The organization surely existed prior to 1931 in some form, but as the history of many of these orchestras from the late 19th and early 20th century show, there were often starts and stops in activities as well as name changes.  Even the sources which date from the period are not much help in this regard–and note that the McDonald work was actually written during the period as the publication of the study, originally funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, but funding for the publication of it in 1945 was pulled for some reason or other.

What’s intriguing about the McDonald book is the sections outlining the pre-WPA relief initiatives that helped to support or sustain many orchestras through the Great Depression.  TERA (Temporary Emergency Relief Administration) was the New York state equivalent of the FERA (Federal Emergency Relief Administration) program which preceeded the WPA and its Federal Music Project.  The CWA is the Civil Works Administration which interrupted the FERA program for a few months.  And if 67 of the 79 members were funded by the WPA till the organization went private in 1939, it was for all intents and purposes primarily a federally funded organization.

The question is, how many of these orchestras might never have existed had there not been substantial federal funding during the Great Depression years and also, which orchestras actually did get funding and for how long and in what monetary amount?  This period is as good a period of crisis for the Classical Music World as any (and better than what some folks are calling the current crisis) but it was averted in ways that other performing arts cultures (such as the professional Chinese Opera Troupes in New York during the Depression) were not.



Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (ND) History of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra <<http://archives.bpo.org/BX-HIST1.HTM>> retrieved October 1923, 2013

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

Key, Pierre. editor (1926) Pierre Key’s Music Year Book 1926-1927. New York: Pierre Key

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

McDonald, William F. (1969) Federal Relief Administration and the Arts: The Origins and Administrative History of the Arts Projects of the Works Progress Administration. Ohio State University Press

NA (ND) Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Pre-History: 1840-1935  <<http://www.music.buffalo.edu/bpo/bx-pre.htm>> retrieved October 23, 2013

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