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Oratorio Society of New York

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Oratorio Society of New York

The Oratorio Society of New York is a not-for-profit membership organization that performs choral music in the oratorio style. The Society was founded in 1873 by conductor Carnegie Hall. Throughout its long history, it has premiered many new choral works.

Kent Tritle was appointed as the Society’s 11th music director in January 2006, succeeding longstanding director Lyndon Woodside who had died the previous year.


Various individuals are credited with inspiring Damrosch’s decision to found the Oratorio Society of New York including Anton Rubenstein, Marie Reno (wife of the Society’s longtime secretary Morris Reno), Elkan and Bertha Naumburg, and three unnamed women who felt New York needed a singing society like the ones they had heard on a recent trip to Germany. Bertha Naumburg is said to have suggested the name. Rehearsals began in March 1873 and on December 3, the Society presented its first concert. One year later, on Christmas night, the Society began what has become an unbroken tradition of annual performances of Handel's Messiah. These have been held at Carnegie Hall since its opening in 1891. From its earliest days, the Society played an integral role in the musical life of the city, presenting its own concerts and performing at musically and historically significant events. 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 subscriber and supporter of the Society, or perhaps at the suggestion of 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 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 Pyotr Ilyich 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 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 Mass in B Minor (1927), Dvořák's St. Ludmila (1993), Britten's The World of the Spirit (1998), and Filas’ Song of Solomon (2012), as well as works by Handel, Liszt, Schütz, Schubert, Debussy, Elgar, Saint-Saëns, and many others, including contemporary composers.


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. International in scope, it is the only significant competition devoted to the art of oratorio solos. In 2006, the Competition was renamed the Lyndon Woodside Oratorio-Solo Competition in honor of the late Dr. Woodside’s dedication to the competition since its inception. The Society’s Education Program offers high school students in New York City classroom instruction and free tickets to its concerts. It also reaches out to teens by contributing tickets to High 5 Tickets to the Arts. The Society was instrumental in the 2010 founding of the New York Choral Consortium, a member organization comprising 50 choral groups—professional and avocational—throughout the metropolitan area, dedicated to celebrating and advocating for choral music.

Awards and honors

On its 100th anniversary in 1973, 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 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."

In March 2003, the Oratorio Society of New York received the UNESCO Commemorative Medal and the Cocos Island World Natural Heritage Site Award for its series of benefit concerts in Costa Rica. In 2004 the Society received a certificate from the St. Petersburg Submariners Club commemorating its concerts there.


The Society made its European debut in Munich in 1982. Since then it has performed throughout Europe and in Asia and Latin America. In 2011 it performed at the 10th International Festival of Sacred Music and Art in Rome. The Society will perform in Köthen, Leipzig, and Dresden in August 2015.

Music Directors

  Term Lifespan
Leopold Damrosch 1873–85 1832–85
Walter Damrosch 1885–98 1868–1950
Frank Damrosch 1898–1912 1859–1937
Louis Koemmenich 1912–17 1866–1922
Walter Damrosch 1917–21 (2nd time)
Albert Stoessel 1921–43 1894–1943
Alfred Greenfield 1943–55 1902–83
William Strickland 1955–58 1914–91
T. Charles Lee 1959–73 1915–94
Lyndon Woodside 1973–2005 1935–2005
Kent Tritle 2006–


Dr. F. A. Barnard 1873–74
W. S. Coe 1874–75
W. L. Goodwin 1875–76
Rev. William H. Cooke 1876–88
Andrew Carnegie 1888–1919
Charles Schwab 1919–21
No president 1921–28
Henry Sloan Coffin 1928–49
Donald H. Gray 1949–59
Caramai Carroll Mali 1959–63
Beatrice Shuttleworth 1963–73
Joseph Brinkley 1973–90
Ellen L. Blair 1990–99
Richard A. Pace 1999–

Works conducted by their composers

February 22, 1875 Leopold Damrosch Ruth and Naomi
May 4, 1881 Leopold Damrosch Festival Overture
April 20 & 22, 1882 Leopold Damrosch Sulamith
April 18 & 19, 1883 Max Bruch Jubilate amen
May 5, 1891 Peter I. Tchaikovsky Marche solennelle
May 7, 1891 Peter I. Tchaikovsky Suite No.3 for Orchestra
May 8, 1891 Peter I. Tchaikovsky Pater noster
May 9, 1891 Walter Damrosch To Sleep
Peter I. Tchaikovsky So schmerzlich
Piano Concerto, Op. 23
January 4, 1895 Walter Damrosch The Scarlet Letter
April 24 & 25, 1896 Georg Henschel Stabat mater
March 19, 1907 Edward Elgar The Apostles
March 26, 1907 Edward Elgar The Kingdom
December 8, 1908 Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 2
April 7, 1920 Sergei Rachmaninoff Springtime
April 12, 1935 Walter Damrosch Golden Jubilee
March 25, 1938 Albert Stoessel Festival Fanfare
February 20 & 21, 1941 Walter Damrosch Cyrano
March 1, 1957 Howard Hanson Elegy in Memory of Serge Koussevitsky
Lament for Beowoulf
May 8, 1962 Virgil Thomson Missa pro defunctis
April 7, 1968 T. Charles Lee Farewell, Voyager, Much Yet for Thee
November 8, 1980 Aaron Copland Fanfare for the Common Man
November 8 & 9, 1980 Aaron Copland Short Symphony
Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson
The Tender Land (excerpts)


  • Archives of the Oratorio Society of New York, 1873–present.
  • Damrosch, Walter. My Musical Life. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1926.
  • Hendrick, Burton J. and Daniel Henderson. Louise Whitfield Carnegie: The Life of Mrs. Andrew Carnegie. New York: Hastings House, 1950.
  • Krehbiel, H. E., Choral Music in New York: Notes on the Cultivation of Choral Music and the Oratorio Society of New York. 1894.
  • Martin, George. The Damrosch Family. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.
  • Stebbins, Lucy Poate and Richard Poate Stebbins. Frank Damrosch: Let the People Sing. Durham: Duke University Press, 1945.

External links

  • Oratorio Society of New York Website
  • Carnegie Hall official site
  • review of December 21, 2011 concertThe New York Times
  • review of March 13, 2007 concertThe New York Times
  • List of significant cultural institutions in New York City, New York Public Library
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