WPA Federal Music Project and the CWA’s contribution to Orchestras

FERA Orchestra Class, Horseshoe Bend, Idaho. ca. 1935
FERA Orchestra Class, Horseshoe Bend, Idaho. ca. 1935

In my post about the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) I took a look at how many orchestras were funded prior to the WPA Federal Music Project and the WPA Music Programs. During the FERA period, there was a short period of time where an actual job creation program existed, the Civil Works Administration (CWA). Whereas the FERA was primarily a relief project that usually just doled out money for the needy, the CWA was a job creation program. As Bindas (1988) states:

The CWA, created out of the machinery of the FERA in late 1933, instituted a program of federal work relief designed to give the hard-pressed wages for work. The straight dole of the FERA temporarily ended in exchange for work relief under the CWA. One program organized applied to America’s cultural workers and white collar unemployed, called the Civil Works Service (CWS). Under this program some states employed musicians, but CWS placed most emphasis upon the educational and recreational ability of music. Also, no uniformity existed between music projects, as each state controlled its own program and the CWA gave no direction or supervision. (pp. 33-34)

The federal support for music under the CWA began in late 1933 and ended in the middle of 1934 and during that time a number of orchestra were founded and supported through the program and a number of established orchestras recieved funding through the program to help weather the Great Depression.

In a piece describing survey results of some fifty non-major orchestras in smaller American cities, Grace Overmyer (1934b) mentions some of these organizations. The Newark Civic Symphony Orchestra was one band fully supported and initiated by the CWA.

Newark’s new professional symphony, under Philip Gordon, is the only one of the depression prodigies, included in this survey, to receive government aid. Financed by the C.W.A. from December, 1933, to May, 1934, it was thus enabled to increase the number of its concerts from thirteen in the first year to thirty in the second. It is not, however, an “unemployment orchestra,” but expects to continue on a permanent basis. (pg. 474)

Overmeyer later lists other orchestras which received funding in what she calls a “phenomenon altogether new in America–Federal aid to music” that

although this is commonly linked up with temporary “work relief,” it has also in a few instances been extended to established orchestra groups. (pg. 476)

She lists the Seattle Orchestra which received funds which fully paid for fifteen members of the orchestra during the 1933-1934 season. Also mentioned is the Syracuse Orchestra which was financed entirely by the C.W.A. “pending new plans for support” and a new symphony orchestra in North Carolina created solely through federal funding in 1934 which was approved as an Emergency Relief project.

I previously posted about the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra (which eventually became the Buffalo Philharmonic) which existed purely through FERA, CWA, and WPA funding until 1939.

As Overmeyer (1934a) writes in 1934:

The Plight of the musician in our time is no longer news, but neither is it ended. Among certain classes of musicians it is somewhat less acute than it was a year ago and considerably less terrible than two years ago. Yet by the best obtainable calculations, about 60% of formerly employed musicians in the United States are still out of work. At the height of the economic depression, unemployment in American industry as a whole never went above 50%. The musician has thus got the worst of it. (pg. 224)

Put in perspective (as I’ve done in a previous post), cries of classical music crisis today pale in comparison to what was happening during the Great Depression.



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).

Overmeyer, G. (1934) “The Musician Starves” The American Mercuty, June 1934, pp. 224-231 <<www.unz.org/Pub/AmMercury-1934jun-00224>>

Overmeyer, G. (1934) “The American Orchestra Survives” The American Mercury, December 1934, pp. 473-478 <<www.unz.org/Pub/AmMercury-1934dec-00473>>

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