Since its founding in 1873 by Leopold Damrosch, the Oratorio Society of New York has been an essential part of New York City's cultural fabric and is the city's second oldest cultural organization.
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, a longtime subscriber to the Society’s concerts, 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' Roméo 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), Dvoràk's St. Ludmila(1993), Britten's The World of the Spirit (1998), Filas’ Song of Solomon (2012), and Moravec’s Blizzard Voices (2013), as well as works by Handel, Liszt, Schütz, Schubert, Debussy, Elgar, Saint Saëns, and many others.
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. At its 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."
The Society made its European debut in 1982 and has since performed in Europe, Asia, and Latin and South America. In March 2003, it received the UNESCO Commemorative Medal and the Cocos Island World Natural Heritage Site Award for its series of benefit concerts in Costa Rica.
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 Dr. Woodside’s dedication to the competition since its inception. The Solo Comp is but one of the many ways the Society’s commitment to the next generation’s involvement in choral music.
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.
Please visit our Features Archive for various articles on the history of the Society.