Those founding documents of the Philharmonic — the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States — are now available online, the orchestra announced on Wednesday, thanks to a new $2.4 million grant from the Leon Levy Foundation. It will allow the orchestra to continue to digitize the records in its copious archives going all the way back to its inaugural 1842-43 season.
The documents from that first season, which have been posted on the Philharmonic’s website as the latest installment in its digital collection, paint a vivid picture of the orchestra’s earliest days, when it was founded as the Philharmonic Society of New-York, with an orchestra of 53 members, and charged with “the advancement of Instrumental Music.”
The trove has a drawing of the Apollo Rooms, on the east side of Broadway just south of Canal Street, where the Philharmonic first played. There is a program from its first concert on Dec. 7, 1842 (“to commence at 8 o’clock precisely”), which began with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (called his “Grand Symphony in C minor”). There is even a first-edition score.
And there is a review of that very first Philharmonic concert in a weekly gazette called The Albion, which described the event as “the commencement of a New Musical Era, in this western world,” and which praised much of the playing. But it was not an unalloyed rave.
“Being well assured that every individual of this excellent society is solicitous for its prosperity, we are confident that a few observations given in candor and good feeling will be received in that spirit,” the review went on, complaining that “the flute and the clarinet were somewhat too flat,” and that “the violins behind the leader were not in good tune together after the first piece.” It also recommended that “the members of the orchestra refrain from all unnecessary conversation whilst in their places.”
The Philharmonic’s Digital Archives, which were first put online in 2011, already have 1.3 million pages of material from 1943 through 1970, including 1,781 scores marked up by conductors, among them Leonard Bernstein; 15,896 orchestral parts marked by Philharmonic musicians; 3,235 printed programs; 16,339 photographs and images; and 4,069 folders of business documents. Each document was painstakingly photographed so it could be made available to music lovers, historians, sociologists and the simply curious.
The first season’s documents include the orchestra’s first annual report, disclosing that it spent $41.75 for “engraving ticket plate and printing tickets,” and a subscriber list showing that one of its patrons that first season was “Moore, C. C.” — believed to be Clement Clarke Moore, the biblical scholar who has often been cited as the author of the poem known as “The Night Before Christmas.”
The archive also gives glimpses of the lives of the Philharmonic’s musicians. There is a picture of the orchestra’s founder and first president, Ureli Corelli Hill, and a copy of one of the ornate membership certificates that players received.
The bylaws give a hint of what was on the minds of musicians. Rules call for performing the symphonies, overtures and big orchestral pieces first at all rehearsals; for fining members 50 cents for missing rehearsals; and even for providing a measure of relief in an age when it was common for musicians to stand during concerts: “Seats shall be provided for the Orchestra at Rehearsals and Concerts, whenever practicable.”
When the work is completed, the digital archive will contain almost three million pages — the orchestra’s entire archive through 1970, and all public documents after 1970.
Among the future highlights, the Philharmonic said, would be first editions of Berlioz’s “Benvenuto Cellini” and Wagner’s “Rienzi” overture, and a score of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 with evidence of a spat between two of the orchestra’s most illustrious music directors.
The score bears the markings of Gustav Mahler, who made some changes to it when he led the orchestra. Those changes apparently offended Arturo Toscanini, who led the ensemble from 1928 to 1936: He wrote on the score“unworthy of such a musician” and signed his name.