The Classical Music Crisis during the Great Depression

Greek clarinetist Nicholas Oeconamacos, who had performed under John Philip Sousa and the Seattle Symphony conductor Homer Hadley, returned to Seattle during the Great Depression to play for change on the street.
Greek clarinetist Nicholas Oeconamacos, who performed under John Philip Sousa and the Seattle Symphony conductor Homer Hadley, returned to Seattle during the Great Depression to play for change on the street.

In a recent post I described how the Classical Music recording industry practically floundered during the Great Depression.  What was the live performing scene like?  Looks like it was pretty dismal.  Here’s a synopsis by Kenneth J. Bindas (1988):

By the late 1920s, the golden finish began to tarnish. In 1928 the sound track for the moving picture appeared, and by 1929 mechanized sound music machines replaced many theatre musicians. By 1930 some 22,000 of these professional theatre musicians were thrown out of work. In the nation’s capital over 60 percent of those employed as theatre musicians in 1930 were replaced by canned music in the following year. The growth of the radio industry in the late 1920s also spelled unemployment for many musicians. Restaurants, pubs, hotels, and other employers of musicians and orchestras favored the cheaper canned sound of radio. New Jersey’s Funeral Directors’ Association went so far as to recommend the radio over hiring musicians for funerals. Even Prohibition created musical unemployment. Many night clubs and bars, forced by the 18th Amendment to close their doors, no longer needed musicians, and another 30 percent faced unemployment. 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 members 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. (pp. 31-32)

Ray Allan Billington, in his survey of Government Support for the Arts (1961), states:

With the economic collapse of the 1930s a worse defect of this system of patronage was revealed. Private philanthropy abruptly halted as wealthy men shifted their dwindling fortunes into more practical uses, and as it did so theaters and operas closed their doors, symphonies gave up the struggle and artists and writers begged for bread on the streets. (pg. 468)

“America’s opera companies, orchestras, and theatres, which relied on private patronage, also collapsed,” Bindas (1988) states, because “[t]he philanthropists could no longer support the arts, and the funding drain forced many companies to close their doors” (pg. 32).

William McDonald (1969) states that the collapse was already happening by 1929:

Cancellation of contracts harassed the professional musician throughout 1929. Two opera companies suspended their season. Orchestras curtailed their seasons and reduced personnel. Hotels, legitimate theatres, and restaurants dispensed with orchestras. State and local assistance for public music was withdrawn in many localities. (pg. 586)

The curtailed seasons and concert schedules fell by over 30% according to John Tasker Howard (1937) where we had a reduction of 3,750 commercial concerts during the 1929-1930 season to a “mere 2,600” three years later during the 1932-1933 season.

The graph I posted in my “Part-Time Musicians are the Historical Norm” post from Tassos Kolydas’ (2011) piece shows that the New York Philharmonic had a pre-Depression concert high of over 150 concerts during the 1929-1930 season, to reach roughly 125 concerts during the 1932-1933 season.  By the 1936-1937 season, the orchestra gave fewer than 100 concerts–well over a 33% reduction of concerts.

Table 1: Number of concerts of the Philharmonic Orchestra of New York for each season (by Tassos Kolydas)
Table 1: Number of concerts of the Philharmonic Orchestra of New York for each season (by Tassos Kolydas)

A NYT piece from 2009 by Daniel J. Wakin about the the woes in the New York classical scene after the Great Recession highlights the fact that this is nothing compared to what happened during the Great Depression:

But at least so far, and despite the frequency with which current economic troubles have been compared to the crises of the 1930s, the woes of the city’s signature musical institutions are nothing compared with the situation during the Depression, when the very existence of New York’s orchestras and opera houses was in question.

A dip into the archives of the venerable New York Philharmonic, which traces its history to 1842, shows something near panic seeping through the onionskin carbons of board minutes and browning newspaper clips from 75 years ago. The board grappled with crushing deficits that threatened the orchestra’s existence, despite the presence of its titan of a music director, Arturo Toscanini.

Given that the New York Philharmonic has recently digitized a number of documents which can be perused on their online archive, both the Kolydas and Wakin pieces make use of the resource for their pieces and what Bindas and McDonald state about philanthropic giving and financial health during the period is matched by those documents:

In the middle of the 1933-34 season, at the depths of the Depression, the Philharmonic-Symphony Society, as the orchestra was officially known, reported a $150,000 deficit on expenses of $686,000 — the equivalent of a $13 million gap on the current Philharmonic’s budget, $60 million.

In December 1933, the board reported a “marked loss of income” from ticket sales and a hit from higher taxes. Since the 1931-32 season, the endowment fund and contributions used to make up deficits “had largely ceased to be productive,” according to minutes. With the orchestra’s ability to borrow tapped out, its survival hung in the balance.

So about a 70% reduction of the musician workforce (with the rest having little gainful work); roughly a third of all commercial concerts were curtailed; some operas and orchestra shut down for a time or completely folded; and classical recordings doing dismally–a far different picture of classical music in the 30s than the more rosy one we’re given elsewhere.



Billington, Ray A. (1961) “Government and the Arts: The W. P. A. Experience” American Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 4. pp. 466-479

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).

Howard, John T. (1937) “Better Days for Music” Harper’s, 74.

Kolydas, Tassos (2011) The repertoire of the Philharmonic Orchestra of New York, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. from a presentation at “Dimitri Mitropoulos: 50 +1 years After” conference in 2011. <<>> <<>>

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

Wakin, Daniel J. (2009) ” The Maestro and the Money” New York Times, January 16. <<>>


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s