What American Chinese Opera can tell us about the US Classical Music “Crisis”

In a previous post I discussed how a number of professional and full time Chinese Opera theaters and companies folded during the Great Depression in the US and how all the work relief programs (at the state and national level) helped keep European styled Classical Music organizations afloat.

Note that all the professional companies folded before the Great Depression. Sadly, due to a lot of the anti-Chinese sentiment, these performing groups didn’t benefit from the economic initiatives (FERA, WPA Federal Music Project) that helped many US European Style Orchestras survive the Great Depression. Neither were new ensembles formed due to those initiatives like the 150 plus European styled Orchestras around the US. After the Depression, most of the earliest groups were “clubs” that did occasional performances rather than the 6-nights-a-week performances we saw in the pre-Depression years. I wonder if this might have happened to many of the US European Styled Orchestras had many of them not had the funding from the Federal Government through FERA and the WPA. One crisis was averted for the dominant cultural majority while another wasn’t for a cultural minority.

One thing to keep in mind is that these Chinese Opera companies were performing often up to 400 events a year and practically every day of the year (cf. Sunbeam Theatre Chinese Opera in Hong Kong which produces 400 sold out shows a year and is having financial problems).  Sometimes these performances would be community and ritual functions, but often, full blown Chinese Opera production might be performed twice a day during the run of the groups in New York and San Francisco. With the exception of perhaps the Boston Symphony Orchestra, no American Classical Music institution came close to a 52 week season at the time.

By the end of the Great Depression, there were no longer any full time, year long Chinese Opera companies in operation, while most American Classical music organizations survived relatively intact.

Classical Music, Great Depression, and the Government Funding Crutch

As I stated in my post, The Classical Music Crisis during the Great Depression, there were many periods of work stoppages, and even the great New York Philharmonic curtailed their season by cutting concerts down by a third–and it almost merged with the Met Opera to cut costs. The San Francisco Symphony actually cancelled a whole season in 1935.  The Tuscon Symphony Orchestra merged for a time with the local University Orchestra to survive.

A great many orchestras became jointly funded by the Federal Music Project and the communities–such as when the FMP payed for 67 of the 79 members of the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra until it became a private group in 1939. Before that it was funded by the CWA. The Newark Civic Symphony Orchestra and Seattle Symphony were partially funded by the CWA and the Syracuse Orchestra and an orchestra in North Carolina were fully funded by it. Some orchestras, like the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, were organized as FERA orchestras before becoming Federal Music Project orchestras.

Classical Music organizations were Part-Time Organizations during the Great Depression

Let’s set aside how many orchestras were actually directly funded by relief programs in the US during the Great Depression and look at how they were indirectly supported by the relief programs.

As I said in my post about part-time musicians being the historical norm (and how we don’t always mean what we mean by being a “full-time musicians“) most musicians held “day jobs” throughout history.  Some, who were lucky enough, could cobble together several revenue streams through music (as most freelancers today still do). The Great Depression changed that.  While the unemployment rate of the US population reached an all-time high for Americans at nearly 25%, for musicians it was closer to 70%. With the cuts that were happening with the European styled classical music institutions, and the loss of cinema work (cinema musicians were the only regular full-time 52 weeks per year occupations for musicians) due to the rise of sound movies, most musicians had fewer revenue streams to draw from.

Enter the work relief programs. The CWA, FERA, and Federal Music project (as well as individual state relief initiatives) created jobs for musicians in many fields that were music related.  Either as music teachers, music copyists (for scores and sheet music parts), or as members of all kinds of musical ensembles–not just limited to orchestras, musicians were given a pool of resources to create varied revenue streams again–and revenue streams which actually had to deal with music in some capacity rather than manual labor or civic work related projects to build infrastructure and other amenities.

In other words, relief programs allowed musicians to continue being musicians, in effect creating government subsidies for Classical (and other genres of) Music. This simply replaced how the classical music field was already being subsidized by private means since there were practically no full time Classical Music organizations at the time. If these opportunities hadn’t been created, many musicians likely would have left the field completely to find jobs in fields which weren’t in decline–which is what Chinese American musicians had to do.

Chinese-Americans and Federal Work Relief programs

Due to the Chinese Exclusion act (which was still in effect during the depression) and the National Origins Act, the climate for Chinese Americans was pretty dire. Chinese Americans who did apply for relief were often treated the same as other non-white Americans in that they were put on the rolls for manual labor and not the special rolls created specifically for relief for white collar professions such as music and the arts.

Like the full-time (i.e. 52 week) cinema musicians, full time Chinese Opera performers lost their main source of incomes. Unlike the full-time cinema musicians and other classical trained musicians in the European traditions, the Chinese musicians didn’t have the same governmental relief sources for creating multiple revenue streams through various musical activities, mainly due to the differences between Chinese musical traditions from European ones–i.e. there were no relief positions for teaching erhu and Chinese  singing as there were for teaching violin and choral singing; no positions for transcribing Chinese repertoire and copying it as there was for various ‘negro’ and Native American tunes or for scores and parts for composers in the European Classical Music tradition; and no positions in traditional Chinese ensembles as there were for European styled orchestras, Concert Bands, Dance Bands, Choral Groups.

What is a “Crisis?”

The question is, again, what if these programs weren’t in effect for Classical Music? What if this cultural and governmental funding structures didn’t favor European art traditions? As I stated above, “[a]fter the Depression, most of the earliest groups were “clubs” that did occasional performances rather than the 6-nights-a-week performances we saw in the pre-Depression years.”

Since we still have no lack of orchestras, operas, ballets–and since they’ve not failed in a short period of time such as what happened to Chinese Opera troupes in the US during the Depression–then talk about a Classical Music Crisis just belittles the fact that there have been very real musical crises in the music history of the US which practically decimated musical traditions that still haven’t recovered in any appreciable way.

It also lessens the impact of what we mean by “crisis” since, as I’ve been detailing in this blog over the years, nearly every thing cited as an example of the Classical Music Crisis is also happening in practically every live performing field in the US as well. Of course, I have an alternative hypothesis which can account for all the parallels in various arts and entertainment fields. A theory that can take into account more of the phenomenon while also being falsifiable (as the Classical Music Crisis “theory” isn’t) is far more useful–especially when it comes to predictions (e.g. solutions to problems). The hypothesis can also take into account things like the growth of ethnic orchestras in the US.

What about the rising ethnic orchestras?

While there has been a rise in traditional Chinese Orchestras and ensembles in the US recently, none are performing at the level that these pre-depression Chinese Opera troupes were, and most are mimicking the European-styled orchestras and ensembles (if not the repertoire) in ways that only make sense if we consider how much force European styled ensembles and orchestras and choirs still have in the US.

The same could be said of the Arabic Orchestras and Latin-American Orchestras. I guess the question to be asked here is are these groups a continuation (or expansion) of Classical Music styled organizations, or some newer hybrid (despite the histories of these ensembles) which reflects ethnic communities and their desire for art music that they prefer? These are far more interesting questions to me, and have far-reaching implications for the evolution of music(s) in the US and the cultures that support them.



  1. […] In other words, we could say that European Classical Music organizations had a First Mover advantage by virtue of being the product of the second wave of immigration into the US. Also, given the White majority in the US, some immigrant groups were able to assimilate “better” and as a result, so did their arts. To see how Chinese Opera fared, despite having a large population of Chinese immigrants dating back to the mid 1800s, see my post What American Chinese Opera can tell us about the US Classical Music “Crisis” […]


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