This is a photograph of a flyer made by the Symphony of the New World of the Joan Peyser NY Times article. I framed the flyer. It is in my home. I took the photograph. More Wikipedia sourcing. This image is linked to a full-resolution photograph, which I took, so it can be read. This article without Symphony of the New World fundraising images can also be downloaded from the NY Times digital library.
More Source material for Wikipedia
Joan Peyser, “The Negro in Search of an Orchestra”, ”The New York Times”, November 26, 1967
Another document for the source material for Wikipedia.
As I write the Wikipedia page, I will be putting documents up on this blog for reference to original source material.
The link is http://www.local802afm.org/2014/02/open-to-all/
The reality of musicians of all backgrounds playing together on the same stage may seem ordinary today. But under the cruel mantle of racism in this country, an integrated orchestra was only a dream for many years. It was something my father, Benjamin Steinberg, longed for and ultimately won, right here in New York City. The story of his dream – which was an ensemble called the Symphony of the New World – is one that many musicians may not know.
As early as 1940, my father began to work with conductors Dean Dixon and Everett Lee to establish the first fully-integrated professional symphony orchestra in the U.S. It took more than two decades. Flutist Harold Jones remembers, “There was a nucleus of people: Elayne Jones, Harry Smyles, Joe Wilder, Wilmer Wise, Kermit Moore, Lucille Dixon. We all got together and had these meetings. ‘Are we interested?’ Everyone jumped to the idea. ‘Yes. Let’s do this. We’re going to do it – have an integrated orchestra.’”
With my father as music director, the mission statement listed the other founders: Alfred Brown, Selwart R. Clarke, Richard Davis, Elayne Jones, Harold M. Jones, Frederick L. King, Kermit D. Moore, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Ross C. Shub, Harry M. Smyles, and Joseph B. Wilder.
Finally on May 6, 1965, two months after the “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, the Symphony of the New World performed its debut concert at Carnegie Hall.
The program notes for that inaugural concert stated, “At this period in our history, when the problem of racial integration has become crucial to our nation’s well-being as well as to its position in the world, the debut concert of the Symphony of the New World is a historic event in the history of our time.”
Trumpeter Wilmer Wise recalls, “Some people were crying because it was something we had dreamt about and it had finally come to fruition. I never felt in my life the way I did when I sat on the stage with Benjamin Steinberg in a fully integrated orchestra – because, usually, I was the one integrating it.”
From the beginning, one of the orchestra’s goals was to bring performances into the community – not just to Carnegie or Philharmonic Hall. Three days after Carnegie Hall, the symphony repeated the same program at the High School of Music and Art in Harlem.
Then came “the Lenny letter”:
October 11, 1965
Mr. Donald L. Engle, Director
The Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund for Music
1 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, New York
Dear Mr. Engle:
It is a pleasure for me to be able to recommend The Symphony of the New World for a sizable grant. I have not actually heard the orchestra perform. But I have heard and known Mr. Steinberg, who conducted one of my theatre works 15 years ago (“Peter Pan”). He is extremely able and gifted; and I am sure that under his guidance the orchestra will flourish. Most important of all, of course, is the sociological impetus behind the project – a truly integrated symphony orchestra. The success of this project will certainly stimulate more of the same, and may provide us with our first big step out of the unfair and illogical situation in which we now find ourselves with the Negro musician.
They got the grant. Many successful concerts and collaborations followed. James DePriest became the symphony’s principal guest conductor. There were also breakthroughs. Marilyn Dubow, a soloist with the symphony, won a seat in the New York Philharmonic as the first female violinist. Elayne Jones, another symphony almnus, joined the San Francisco Symphony as its first black woman timpanist. Thinking back on her days with the Symphony of the New World, Jones remembers, “The legitimacy of our organization was not acceptable until we had people who were supporting us. We had to have donations to begin to establish as a viable organization and to get union support! We had to begin getting players for this orchestra. All I remember is how complicated it was and what we went through. We had to also deal with those who said it couldn’t be done.”
The Symphony was an orchestral expression of the Civil Rights Movement. It strove to be a cultural beacon to the world, embodying the true American spirit of equality. Its mission was to integrate the symphonic stage, from which non-white, Asian, and female musicians had been nearly totally excluded.
Among the orchestra’s original sponsors were Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Paul Creston, Ruby Dee, Langston Hughes, Hershy Kay, Gian Carlo Menotti, Zero Mostel, Ruggiero Ricci, and William Warfield.
By 1971, everyone had great hopes for the season. John Hammond was president of the symphony’s board of directors, which included Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price and Zero Mostel. Ms. Anderson and Mr. Mostel were also patron artists, along with the Modern Jazz Quartet, George Shirley and William Warfield. In addition, the symphony had secured grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ford Foundation, among others. But that 1971 season was never completed.
One of the things my father used to do was ask principal players to sit second chair, so an up-and-coming musician could get a chance to gain experience. Everyone was happy to do it, until one person changed his mind.
Concert pianist and Smith College professor George Walker goes over his composition “Address for Orchestra” with Benjamin Steinberg. The Symphony of the New World premiered this piece at the High School of Music and Art in Harlem, then presented it the following day at Lincoln Center.
Two factions emerged. Arbitration ensued. They tried to take the name of the orchestra away from my father. It got to the point where my father had to resign backstage at Philharmonic Hall just before a concert on Dec. 12, 1971, so the concert could go on. He conducted the concert, nonetheless.
“Egos,” said Joe Wilder. “It was all about egos. I had been very proud to be a member of the orchestra, but I was annoyed at some of the racial overtones to Ben Steinberg’s resigning.”
Jazz writer Ed Berger’s forthcoming biography on Joe Wilder also quotes founding member and violist Alfred Brown: “There were some people – not the majority – who had a problem with him. Some of them felt the conductor should be black. I was not one of them. I liked him very much. He was very idealistic.” (See “Softly, With Feeling: Joe Wilder and the Breaking of Barriers in American Music,” Temple University Press, April 2014.)
In Feb. 1, 1972, my father wrote his last fundraising letter. It said, “It is with sincere regret that we must advise that, due to an internal controversy as well as unforeseen financial difficulties arising from the current general economic situation, the Symphony of the New World is canceling the rest of the 1971-1972 concert season. Not only have we sustained the economic pinch facing all non-profit cultural institutions this season, but because of the difficulties, some $100,000 in scheduled grants could not be received in time to permit the completion of this concert season.”
The symphony folded shortly thereafter. Despite its inglorious end, the musicians who were part of the Symphony of the New World felt proud to be a part of the project. “It built hope where there was very little,” flutist Harold Jones said. “It showed that, as black people, we had paid our dues and we could do it as well as anyone else. It was such a moment in life that I’m overwhelmed with it. I just wish it could have lasted. The inspiration that this could be done [remains] in all of us.”
The collection of my father’s papers was the life’s work of my mother, Pearl Steinberg. They reside at the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library. The papers of the Symphony of the New World are at the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. I welcome anyone who wants to contact me for more information. E-mail me at BarbaraAnneConsulting@gmail.com.
Postscript: Coincidentally, two founders of the Symphony of the New World passed away recently. Kermit Moore died on Nov. 2. Alfred Brown died on Nov. 17. Both obituaries were published in the January issue of Allegro. In addition, we’re pleased to mention that Elayne Jones – another founding member of the symphony – is alive and well and recently wrote some reminiscences that were published here in the December issue.
There were many great collaborations, commissions and premieres during the history of The Symphony of the New World. One was “Concentrics,” by Arthur Cunningham, which was performed on February 2, 1969 at Lincoln Center.
For the accuracy of Wikipedia, here is the program.
Another collaboration was with Professor George Walker. The caption to this picture reads, “Professor George Walker proudly listened to the premiere performance of his “Address for Orchestra” given to a Harlem audience in the theater of a high school. The following day the same concert was given on-stage at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Professor Walker teaches music at Smith College and has toured Europe and the United States as a concert pianist. Mr. Walker is shown here going over his work with Benjamin Steinberg, director of the Symphony of the New World.
My father was also in the original Broadway production of Peter Pan, which premiered with Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff at the Imperial Theatre in 1950.
Elayne Jones said, “The legitimacy of our organization was not acceptable until we had people who were supporting us. We had to have donations to begin to establish as a viable organization and to get union support! We had to begin getting players for this orchestra. All I remember is how complicated it was and what we went through. We had to also deal with those who said it couldn’t be done.”
However, in May 1964, my father and 12 prominent musicians, including Harold Jones and Joe Wilder, formed a founding committee. My father had worked with conductors Dean Dixon, Everett Lee*, and an untold number of world-class nonwhite musicians for 25 years, and it was time.
It took almost a year to raise the money. I remember my father making calls to potential donors and crying when he could not understand why certain people refused. However, he didn’t give up. With a grant from the Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation, The Symphony of the New World gave it’s premiere concert on May 6, 1965, in Carnegie Hall, during the Hall’s 73rd Season.
The program notes stated, “At this period in our history, when the problem of racial integration has become crucial to our nation’s well-being as well as to its position in the world, the debut concert of The Symphony of the New World is a historic event in the history of our time. Under the direction of the noted conductor and music director Benjamin Steinberg, the Symphony consists of 36 Negro and 52 white musicians. Never before in the musical history of the nation has such a completely integrated symphonic ensemble been created.”
The program notes also stated, “In creating job opportunities for many talented nonwhite instrumentalists, who hitherto have not been widely accepted in this nation’s symphony orchestras, the Symphony of the New World aims to serve as an example of the principle of racial-equality-in-action. In the belief that so many of our symphony orchestras are not of today’s world, it has called itself the Symphony of the New World.”
Wilmer Wise told me, “You know, I got the Baltimore job and played with Philadelphia without the Symphony of the New World, but I never felt in my life the way I did when I sat on the stage with your father in a fully integrated orchestra, because, usually, I was the one integrating it.”
The papers for the Symphony of the New World reside at the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. Their contact details are 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York, NY 10037-1801, (212) 491-2200
* The article about Everett Lee has several errors. First, my father was not Canadian. He was American. Second, the orchestra was not called the New World Symphony. That is Symphony #9 by Dvorak, referring to America as the New World, as opposed to Europe. Next, the article does talk about the demise of the orchestra for financial reasons. That is correct, but I cannot talk about that at this time.
“Oh yes, yes!” the gentle voice said on the other end of the phone. Harold Jones, one of my father’s friends, was telling me how The Symphony of the New World began: “out of a series of meetings,” he said.
I had sent him a picture of the orchestra’s first concert at Carnegie Hall. “Who was that person standing up in the picture you sent me?” Harold asked. “I can go look,” I said, “I have the original on my wall… That was Daddy.” “Oh, that was Benny!” Then he said with lyrical empathy, “That was Daddy.”
I had not been able to say or hear those words in 37 years.
As the afternoon settled in, my honor in speaking to the great Harold Jones turned into a gentle conversation between a pioneer and his friend’s daughter, who wanted to know what happened. “I’m 52 now.” “Time passes quickly,” he said.
It was 1964…
Lyndon B. Johnson had just signed the Civil Rights Act into law, 9 years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, AL, bus.
“Douglas Pew of the Urban League visited Broadway contractors and asked, ‘Why aren’t there any blacks in the Broadway pits?’ He put them under a lot of pressure, and pushed so hard,” Harold remembered.
“There was a nucleus of people: Elayne Jones, Harry Smyles, Joe Wilder, Wilmer Wise, Kermit Moore, Lucille Dixon. We all got together and had these meetings. ‘Are we interested?’ Everyone jumped to the idea. ‘Yes. Let’s do this. We’re going to do it — have an integrated orchestra.’
“The standards of the musicians were very high. We had to deal with personnel. Designating the spots to play was a big-time meeting. Benny organized who was going to be first chair, who was going to be second. Then he asked, ‘How many concerts would you like to do?’ We discussed it, and he took it to heart.
“Benny went out and got the money. He asked Zero, who was doing ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ on Broadway at the time.”
I remember standing by the mahogany desk and chair I still have now. It was in a corner of our Manhattan apartment. My father sat at the desk and made phone calls begging for money. I stood silently, quizzically looking at his profile. The lamp light bounced off his glasses and cast shadows on his changing face. He was incredulous and devastated when some wealthy African Americans turned him down. The lines on his face got darker, but dollar by dollar, he built.
It was heart-wrenching to watch him, but on May 6, 1965, The Symphony of the New World gave its first performance at Carnegie Hall.
On the program was Paul Creston’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 52; Soprano soloist Evelyn Mandac singing Mozart’s Recitative and Aria Bella mia fiamma K528; Cliea’s aria lo son l’umile ancella from Adriana Lecouvreur; and Charpentier’s aria Depuis le jour from Louise. The concert ended with Petrouchka, Alan Booth at the piano.
Then came Lenny.
“October 11, 1965
Mr. Donald L. Engle, Director
The Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund for Music
1 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, New York
Dear Mr. Engle:
It is a pleasure for me to be able to recommend The Symphony of the New World for a sizable grant. I have not actually heard the orchestra perform. But I have heard and known Mr. Steinberg, who conducted one of my theatre works 15 years ago (Peter Pan). He is extremely able and gifted; and I am sure that under his guidance the orchestra will flourish. Most important of all, of course, is the sociological impetus behind the project – a truly integrated symphony orchestra. The success of this project will certainly stimulate more of the same, and may provide us with our first big step out of the unfair and illogical situation in which we now find ourselves with the Negro musician.
They got the grant.
Many things happened to the orchestra from May 6, 1965 to January 2, 1974, when I held my father’s hand and kissed him goodbye as he took his last breath, but Harold said, “The racism is not over. There are still problems for blacks. It’s even harder. You have to play very well, but because you’re black you cannot get the job. There are no blacks in the NY Philharmonic now, and only 3 in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. You see the racism, but there’s not much you can do about it except give them a little suggestion.”
It might be time to give this idea a second chance.
I have the original magazine, but they published the article in a book.