Though there was excitement in early 1889 about New York's proposed new "Music Hall" funded by industrialist Andrew Carnegie, many eyebrows were raised regarding its location, far uptown on 57th and 7th Avenue (30 blocks from the entertainment and shopping centers of Manhattan), where its neighbors were a riding academy and stables and some residences. (4) (7, p. 14) Not only was the location criticized for being too far uptown, but people also questioned its enormity: three halls in one building, with the largest seating 2,800! Why would many people travel so far just to hear music? (7, p. 9) Of course, history proved the critics wrong, and one of those critics, William Steinway (who said it would be a "White Elephant"), played an interesting role in helping establish Music Hall, now known as Carnegie Hall, as one of the world's most prestigious and desirable music venues. In response to the potential success of Carnegie Hall, William decided to close the performance venue in Steinway Hall in 1890 and converted the space.
Leopold Damrosch was one of the great icons in the musical world of New York in the later part of the 19th Century. To quote an exhibit at the Rose Museum at Carnegie Hall, "The story of Carnegie Hall began in Europe with Leopold Damrosch, who left Germany for New York in 1871 with a letter of introduction from Franz Liszt. Damrosch quickly established himself as one of New York's leading musicians by organizing the Oratorio Society [choral] and the New York Symphony Society." (8) Damrosch originally came to conduct the Arion Chorus. He realized that the music halls built by piano manufacturers, such as Steinway and Chickering Halls, were primarily designed to show off their products and had seating capacities of 1,500 or less, with stages too small to meet the needs required by larger ensembles of the symphony and oratorio societies. Those venues that did have the capacity to accommodate a full symphony orchestra and large choral groups were opera houses and theaters, but most available dates were already devoted to plays and operas.(9, p. 24) Leopold instilled his dream of a music house designed to meet the needs of the Symphony and Oratorio Societies into his son Walter. After Leopold died in 1885, the 25-year-old Walter stepped into his father's shoes, directing both the Oratorio and Symphony Societies.(8) Both Leopold and Walter worked and associated with William Steinway; indeed, the Damroschs are mentioned 70 times in William's diary.
In 1887, Carnegie married late in life to Louise Whitefield, an active participant and singer in the New York Oratorio Society. On their honeymoon cruise to Scotland, Louise introduced Andrew to fellow traveler Walter, whose father, Leopold, Carnegie knew and admired. The two enjoyed each others' company, and Carnegie invited Damrosch to stay with him and Louise in his castle in Scotland after Damrosch finished his study in Germany.(7, pp. 25, 26) According to Carnegie Hall's web site, "It was there, at an estate called Kilgraston, that Damrosch discussed his vision for a new concert hall in New York City. Carnegie expressed interest in committing a portion of his enormous wealth to the project, and the idea of Carnegie Hall was born." (1)
By mid-1889, construction of Carnegie Hall was underway on 7th Avenue in what was then the outskirts of New York City in an area previously known as "Hog Town." (5)(Diary, 1889-08-30) The influence of the New York Oratorio Society in the new hall's development continued with the selection of William Tuthill as the architect for the project. In addition to being an architect, Tuthill was Secretary for the Oratorio Society and a Symphony cellist.(1) Relying on his and other musicians' understanding of indoor acoustics, Tuthill designed a six story, three-auditorium facility, with the main hall seating 2,800, a small recital hall seating 250, and a lower level theater seating 1,500.(1)(2) Ironically (given Carnegie's vast wealth from steel mills), the building was designed so that there would be no steel support beams. Instead, construction consisted of "concrete and masonry walls several feet thick—a fortunate choice considering the fine acoustical properties they proved to have. The building, with its striking Italian Renaissance-style façade of terra cotta and iron-spotted brick, was completed in 1891." (1) Indeed the acoustics were, and continue to be, superb. It is unfortunate that more information is not available on the initial construction and design of the building. Gino Francesconi, Director of Carnegie Hall's Archives stated that "...a full description on the development of the architecture has yet to be done since most of the architect's papers and drawings are still missing, as are the original board minutes for the Music Hall Company of New York." (2) Of course, the building itself is wonderful testament to the quality of the design and construction.
As the new music hall was being built, William Steinway would occasionally drive by the site via horse and carriage to monitor its progress.(Diary, 1889-08-30, 12-04) With the opening of Carnegie's Music Hall on the horizon, Steinway & Sons decided to convert Steinway Hall's performance venue into piano finishing and regulating studios, which was accomplished by 1890.(10) But Steinway now had to book his "artists" in other venues in New York. Prior to the new Music Hall's completion, William Steinway was skeptical of the success that it and a couple of other contemplated new halls (Madison Square Garden and another on Madison Avenue) would enjoy. "I do not see how even one new hall this size [Carnegie Hall] will ever pay expenses... Mr. Carnegie's hall will never pay. Take our present Philharmonic concerts, for instance. There are six in a season, and they are not given at a loss because they are supported by subscription. But increase the number of these high-class concerts to 12 and financial disaster would be certain. The Public can only stand a certain amount of this sort of music. NO, SIR, three new halls for New York are apt to prove white elephants...."(7, p. 53). He went on to say in the March 20, 1889, Musical Courier article, "Suppose, for instance, you want to give a monster concert in one of your new halls. Your orchestra, we will say, must be 100 strong. Each member of it gets $7 for playing at the concert and $2 for every extra rehearsal, so that $1,000 is a fair figure ...for the orchestra alone. Then you are obliged to pay soloists and the rent of the hall and other little bills, so that an audience of 1,500 paying $1 could not begin to defray expenses. Not very encouraging, is it? But such are the facts." (7, p. 53) William Steinway's competitor, Charles F. Chickering, went on to say much the same in the same edition of the Musical Courier, "How is it possible to make a success of three new halls, each designed to accommodate twice the number of people? It's absurd! It can't be done... Music Halls in this town can't be made to pay." (7, pp. 52-54)
Carnegie's Music Hall opened with a flourish on May 5, 1891, with a very successful five-day schedule featuring the legendary Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.(Diary, 1891-05-05) Music Hall was acclaimed the day after its first concert in The New York Times, "IT STOOD THE TEST WELL". The article went on to say, "The city is now provided with a building in which concerts of all kinds can be given with advantage. The new Music Hall ... which is substantially a present to the music lovers of New York from one of their own number, Andrew Carnegie...." (3) But despite its successful opening, Music Hall had relatively few bookings during its initial season. According to Richard Schickle's, The World of Carnegie Hall, "The number of recitals was amazingly low, and the small number of bookings at the hall a source of concern to the board...all told the main hall had only 50 bookings for the season." (9, p. 61). Newer information from the Carnegie Hall archives shows many more bookings that first season.(2)
Meanwhile, Steinway & Sons' London office encouraged William Steinway to book a sensational young Polish pianist, Jan Paderewski, for an American tour with a Steinway instrument, which he did. Steinway was very impressed with the young artist, but not sure whether or not his popularity in Europe would translate to America. Indeed, when Paderewski arrived in New York, after a rather difficult Atlantic crossing, the Steinway representative meeting him, Charles Tretbar, greeted the young European star saying, "You have had brilliant successes in London and Paris, but let me tell you, Mr. Paderewski, you need not expect anything like that here in America... We are not easily pleased here." (9, p. 58)(11) No longer having his own hall, Steinway booked the first few concerts at the old Madison Square Garden Hall, which sat 1,500. (1) Despite Tretbar's remarks, which unnerved Paderewski, and a grueling schedule, the charismatic performer instantly became very popular.(6)(9, p. 58)
In November of 1891, shortly after Paderewski's arrival, Steinway took a chance by booking his new artist at the much larger Music Hall, and sold every one of the 2,800 seats.(Diary, 1891-11-17) Indeed, Steinway found out that the larger venue really did pay off, since he made a large profit from the sold-out performances. Of course, the success of the Paderewski concerts encouraged other artists and their managers to test the waters of the new Music Hall. An exhibit at The Rose Museum at Carnegie Hall states, "Other managers tried to get their artists to match Paderewski's feat of selling out Carnegie Hall. As one critic put it simply, 'What a difference 30 blocks makes."(8) In essence, music lovers would travel the distance to hear quality performers at a quality venue. In part, thanks to William Steinway taking a chance on Music Hall, selling out Carnegie Hall became the new benchmark for successful performers.
Both Carnegie Hall and Steinway & Sons have succeeded in remaining icons of the musical world and continue to be the best in their class even 121 years after the first concert was heard at Music Hall. The bond between the two organizations continues to this day. Every auditorium in Carnegie Hall has a couple of Steinway D Concert grand pianos at no cost other than maintenance and tuning to the Hall. Clearly the connection between the two was demonstrated when in 1925 Steinway Hall (showrooms) and its corporate headquarters moved from 14th Street to 57th Street, a block away from Carnegie Hall... way uptown.
(The author thanks Gino Francesconi, Director of Carnegie Hall's Archives, and the Rose Museum for their cooperation. Readers interested in finding out more about Carnegie Hall are encouraged to visit their web site, www.carnegiehall.org/History/The-Carnegie-Hall-Story/, and/or tour and visit the Rose Museum at Carnegie Hall)
2. Francesconi, Gino, Carnegie Hall Director of Archives, emails to Greg Morris, February 7, 2012, and March 3, 2012.
3. "It Stood the Test Well," The New York Times, May 6, 1891, p. 5.
4. "A New Music Hall," The New York Times, March 15, 1889, p. 4.
5. "The Offal and Piggery Nuisance," The New York Times, July 27, 1859, p. 1.
6. "Paderewski's Concert," The New York Times, November 20, 1891, p. 4.
7. Peyser, Ethel R., The House That Music Built, 1st edition. McBride & Company, c 1936
8. The Rose Museum,154 W. 57th Street, New York, exhibits
9. Schickel, Richard, The World of Carnegie Hall, 1st edition. J. Messner, New York, c 1960
10. "Steinway Hall Closed," The New York Times, May 3, 1890, p. 4.
11. Taylor, David, "Paderewski's Piano," Smithsonian Magazine, March, 1999, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/object_mar99.html, accessed February 26, 2012