Since 1873 25 years before
the city included all five boroughs The Oratorio Society of New York has been an
essential part of New York City's cultural fabric. Founded
in 1873 by Leopold Damrosch, the Society is the city's second oldest cultural
The Oratorio Society presented its first concert on December 3,
1873. One year later, on Christmas night, the Society began what has become an unbroken
tradition of annual performances of Handel's Messiah (at Carnegie Hall, since its
opening in 1891).
In 1884 Andrew Carnegie joined the Society's board of directors,
serving as its president from 1888 to 1919. Three years after joining the board (perhaps
at the suggestion of his wife, Louise Whitfield Carnegie, an alto singing with the
Society, or perhaps at the suggestion of young Walter Damrosch, who had taken over as
conductor of the Society after his father's death in 1885) Carnegie decided to add his
support to a fund the Society had begun several years earlier, the goal of which was to
build a hall suitable for the performance of choral music. He engaged a fellow board
member, the architect William Burnet Tuthill, to design the "Music Hall," now
known as Carnegie Hall.
During the five-day festival in May 1891 that inaugurated the new
hall, the Society performed under the batons of Walter Damrosch and Pytor Ilyitch
Tchaikovsky in the first of more than a century of performances in its artistic home.
Among the Society's many ground-breaking programs was one in April 1923 when, in
conjunction with the experimental radio station, WEAF, the Oratorio Society presented the
first choral concert broadcast from Carnegie Hall. (In the years following, it was quite
active in furthering the popularity of this new medium.)
The Oratorio Society has always viewed bringing new music to New
York audiences as part of its mission. It has premiered works as diverse as Brahms' Ein
Deutsches Requiem (1877), Berlioz' Romťo et Juliette (1882), a full-concert
production of Wagner's Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera House (1886),
Tchaikovsky's a cappella Legend and Pater noster (1891) and Eugene Onegin
(1908), the now-standard version of The Star Spangled Banner (1917; it became the
national anthem in 1931), Bach's B-minor Mass (1927), Dvorŗk's St. Ludmila
(1993), and Britten's The World of the Spirit (1998), as well as works by
Handel, Liszt, SchŁtz, Schubert, Debussy, Elgar, Saint SaŽns, and many others, including
outstanding contemporary composers.
On its 100th anniversary the Society was presented with the
Handel medallion, New York City's highest cultural award, for its contributions to the
musical life of the city. Not the least of these contributions is to the members of the
Society itself, amateurs from all walks of life who volunteer their time for the joy of
making music together, both at its regularly-scheduled concerts and at numerous guest and
benefit appearances as well. In this spirit, in 1977, the Society inaugurated a
Solo Competition which was designed to encourage the art of oratorio
singing and to give young singers an opportunity to advance their careers.
In 2006, it was renamed the Lyndon Woodside Oratorio Solo
Competition in honor of Lyndon's dedication to the competition
since its inception.
At its May 1998 125th anniversary concert the Society was honored
by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as "one of the most treasured institutions of our city's
musical life. . .making all New York music lovers grateful for this venerable institution
which helps keep our city the music capital of the world."
For its participation in the Cocos Island
benefit concerts, in March 2003, the Society was given the
Cocos Island World Natural Heritage Site award by the Friends
of Cocos Island Foundation and the UNESCO Commemorative Medal.
The Society is justly
proud of its history and heritage, but it is not content to rest on past achievements. It
feels an obligation to the singers and audiences of the future, that they too be permitted
to enjoy this extraordinary link with the past.
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