All Orchestras are Ethnic Orchestras

One of the things that is striking about the early accounts of Classical Music is how provincial it was. Until the 20th century we didn’t really conceive of Classical Music as one unified field. In other words, there was a lot of diversity in the genres and repertoire performed. This coincided with what we could call a fragmented audience along ethnic lines for various genres and repertoire.

Continue reading “All Orchestras are Ethnic Orchestras”

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.


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 <<>>

Overmeyer, G. (1934) “The American Orchestra Survives” The American Mercury, December 1934, pp. 473-478 <<>>

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. <<>>

Decline of Classical Music recordings during the 1930s

So we’re told that before the “Classical Music Crisis” that:

Classical broadcasting was profitable. So was classical recording. In the 1930s, the leading American record company, RCA, made half its money from classical music. NBC, the parent company of RCA, created an orchestra for Arturo Toscanini to conduct — hyping him as the greatest musician who ever lived — and aired its concerts first on radio and later on TV, with commercial sponsors. (Sandow 2013)

So the main claim here is that classical recording is profitable and to illustrate we’re given the example that in the 1930s RCA made half its money from classical music. However, In the Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound, Volume 1 we’re told this:

The U.S. national economy was at its lowest point in 1931 and 1932, giving RCA its only deficit years.

Between radio applications and jukebox sales, the record industry had enough business to survive the early years of the Depression. The 50,000 jukeboxes in operation in 1930 accounted for about half of the 6 million records sold in that year. (Hoffmann 2004, pg. 1157)


However, the boom years of the late 1920s were followed by a depression that was even deeper in the record business than in the general economy. Sound film and radio replaced records as a fashionable form of entertainment, and by the mid-thirties, record production had declined from the level of 1929 to, for example, one-tenth in the USA and one-sixth in Germany.

The depression caused a series of bankruptcies and mergers. In the USA there were only three active companies by the mid-193os, and in Europe the situation was almost the same. (Gronow 1983, pg. 64)

One-tenth of the production levels with bankruptcies and mergers in the mid-thirties from the late 1920s boom in the record industry isn’t a particularly profitable trend. By the end of the 1930s things did pick up for the recording companies but for the most part, recordings in general (much less classical recordings) weren’t particularly profitable during most of the Depression years.


Then we turn to this:

During the 1930s popular records outsold Red Seals by a ratio of three to one (Hoffmann 2004, pg. 1157)

Red Seal Records was the Classical Music arm of the RCA Victor company. Maybe at some point classical recordings made up half of the revenue for RCA Records, but it didn’t happen in the 30s.  And even if it was half–half of 1/10th the revenue of the 1920s isn’t something to write home to mom about.

Very few recordings during any part of the early half of the 20th century sold many copies, much less classical recordings.  As Young and Young (2005) state:

Few serious compositions attracted strong public attention during the period, and the classical tradition suffered from both the competition of other musical formats and continuing economic constraints. For classical recordings, that situation translated as disastrous: by 1931, 500 copies constituted the average sales total for a classical disc… (Young and Young 2005, pg. 171)

Even big sellers like Caruso probably only moved a few hundred thousand copies because it was the sheer number of releases that drove the early recording industry not the number of units sold per release. Remember that the LP (“Long Play”) Record hadn’t become the norm yet so a release could simply be a single A side.  An A side with a B side would count as “two releases.”

Another less direct indicator of the record market is the number of new records issued annually. Although exact figures are difficult to come by, discographers have given us several methods by which new releases can be estimated, and we know, for instance, that the Gramophone Co. alone issued about 200,000 titles in the period extending from 1898 to 1920. If this figure appears unexpectedly large, it must be remembered that average sales were low. Reports of Caruso’s recordings selling millions of copies must be taken with a grain of salt, although it seems quite likely that some records did sell hundreds of thousands. However, record companies seem to have been quite satisfied with sales of a few thousand copies, and in order to open up new markets, sales of a few hundred may have been quite acceptable. (Gronow 1983, pg. 60)

Seems like the general attitude towards classical music hasn’t really changed much over the decades in the US and all the effort put into raising the “level of American musical literacy” is a perennial problem.

Americans have long embraced a love-hate relationship with classical music.  In a culture that espouses self-improvement, people see serious music as intrinsically superior to more popular forms. At the same time, these people favor the more accessible, “easier” popular formats for their own listening. This disingenuous situation prevailed throughout the 1930s, a time when a number of groups, both private and governmental, actively attempted to raise the level of American musical literacy. Despite the best of intentions, the efforts failed. Most people continued to buy and listen to pop songs, and then swing overwhelmed all other music in the latter half of the decade. (Young and Young 2005, pg. 171)

This is not to say that the new recording technology didn’t have a big impact on culture. It did. Mark Katz (1998) gives a wonderful overview of how phonographs affected culture, especially in regions where no live classical music organizations existed.  The phonograph was a great supplement (or substitute) to the Women’s Music Clubs which also became much more prominent in the early part of the 20th century (see Whitesitt’s “The Role of Women Impressarios in American Concert Life, 1871-1933” for a concise history).  Of course, the Federal Music Project issued hundreds of recordings which were given out free to radio stations all throughout the US during those Depression years.



Gronow, Pekka (1983) “The Record Industry: The Growth of a Mass Medium.” Popular Music. Vol. 3, Producers and Markets. Cambridge University Press: 53-75 <<>> <<>>

Hoffmann, Frank (2004) Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound. Volume 1. New York, NY: Routledge

Katz, Mark (1998) “Making America More Musical through the Phonograph, 1900-1930.” American Music, Vol. 16, No. 4, University of Illinois Press: 448-476 <<>> <<>>

Sandow, Greg (2013) “Before the Crisis.” Sandow: Greg Sandow on the Future of Classical Music. September 17. <<>>

Whitesitt, Linda (1989) “The Role of Women Impressarios in American Concert Life, 1871-1933” American Music, Vol. 7, No. 2, University of Illinois Press: 159-180 <<>> <<>>

Young, William H., Nancy K. Young (2005) Music of the Great Depression.  Westport, CT: Greenwood Press