New York Philharmonic:
175 Years of Innovations

On December 7th of this year we celebrate the 175th birthday of the New York Philharmonic providing us with an opportunity to look back on a history of groundbreaking events and innovations.

Since its first concert in 1842, the New York Philharmonic has been a precedent-setting, forward-thinking group of entrepreneurs that sought to offer symphonic masterworks — a novelty in New York at that time. What follows is a selection of “firsts” that has propelled this orchestra from its early beginnings to the forefront of the music world over its 175 years.

1843: First Orchestra to Allow Unaccompanied Women to Attend

In 1843 the musician’s created a special class of membership for concert goers that allowed anyone who subscribed to attend the rehearsals which occurred during the day. The unintended result of this new system was that women could attend without being accompanied by a man, which New York society did not permit for the evening concerts. Subscriptions boomed and the rehearsal became what would be known as the matinee attended principally by women. As this 1867 New York Times article explains, it took quite a few years for other New York managers to catch on, but once they did the matinee became a popular, and enduring, attraction.

Mrs. Francis G. Shaw, first woman to attend a rehearsal, pictured here with her daughter, grand-daughter, and great-grandson. Circa 1900.

1846: First Beethoven 9 in the U.S. • First English translation

The first U.S. performance of Beethoven's 9th symphony took place at Castle Garden (now Castle Clinton, Battery Park) in May 1846. The Philharmonic had the Ode to Joy translated into English and printed the revised choral parts. A copy of the translated part was filed with the U.S. Congress (a form of copyright at the time). The Archives holds the printing plates for the parts.

1926: First Synchronized Movie Soundtrack

In 1926, the Philharmonic recorded the first soundtrack for a film, in this case the silent feature Don Juan, starring John Barrymore. This recording used the Vitaphone – a device that synchronized sounds on disc with motion pictures. Prior to the start of the movie, musical shorts were shown to “prove” the new technology. One of these was of the Philharmonic playing Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser. This was the first moving image of a symphony orchestra where the playing was also heard.

1963: First Television Broadcast of Complete Mahler Symphony

News of President Kennedy’s assassination reached the New York Philharmonic during an afternoon subscription concert led by George Szell on November 22, 1963. On November 24, Leonard Bernstein conducted Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Resurrection, in a televised tribute to JFK (the first time the complete symphony was televised). Performing Mahler for an event of this nature was unprecedented at the time.

2008: First Orchestra to North Korea

The world watched as the New York Philharmonic traveled to Pyongyang, North Korea, in February 2008, bringing a delegation of 300 Philharmonic musicians, staff, and patrons, as well as journalists. During the 48-hour visit, small bridges were built between the peoples of two nations that have been alienated from each other. Agreements were made for real-time, uncensored reporting by the world’s media. There was cultural exchange — chamber-music collaborations, master classes, a gift of musical supplies. Joe Biden, then chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said: “The orchestra provided the North Korean people with a glimpse of the New World … [the] rendition of the ancient Korean folk song ‘Arirang,’ beloved by all Koreans, was especially poignant, reminding us of our shared humanity and demonstrating the power of music to transcend language barriers, national boundaries, and politics.”

Photo: Chris Lee