Symphony of the New World

Symphony of the New World
Photograph of premiere concert of the Symphony of the New World at Carnegie Hall.jpg
Benjamin Steinberg conducting the premiere concert of the orchestra at Carnegie Hall on May 6, 1965
LocationNew York City
Principal conductorBenjamin Steinberg

The Symphony of the New World was a symphony orchestra based in New York City. It was the first racially integrated orchestra in the United States. The Symphony gave its debut concert on 6 May 1965 at Carnegie Hall, conducted by Benjamin Steinberg, who said of the orchestra, "We have a lot of talent in this city, and we have to create the opportunities to present it to the public".[1]

The symphony's musicians were graduates of such respected music schools as Juilliard, Eastman School of Music, the Manhattan School of Music, and the New England Conservatory. Its performances were broadcast on the Voice of America and Armed Forces Radio to audiences worldwide.[1] Ebony Magazine pronounced it, "for both artistic and sociological reasons, a major development in the musical history of the United States".[1]

Steinberg continued as music director and conductor until 12 December 1971, when a dispute between him and some of the orchestra's members resulted in his resignation backstage shortly before the start in order for the concert to continue under his baton. Financial difficulties, caused by the general economic situation and by a delay in receiving $100,000 of scheduled grants led to the rest of the 1971–72 concert season being cancelled. The Symphony gave its last concert on Sunday, 9 April 1978.


In 1940, Steinberg had begun to work with conductors Dean Dixon and Everett Lee to establish the first fully integrated professional symphony orchestra in the U.S. The dream never materialized because of insufficient funds.[2][3]

When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed on July 2, flutist Harold Jones remembers, "There was a nucleus of people: Elayne Jones, Harry Smyles, Joe Wilder, Wilmer Wise, Kermit Moore, Lucille Dixon. We all got together and had these meetings. 'Are we interested?' Everyone jumped to the idea. 'Yes. Let's do this. We're going to do it -- have an integrated orchestra.' The standards of the musicians were very high. We had to deal with personnel. Designating the spots to play was a big-time meeting. Benny organized who was going to be first chair, who was going to be second. Then he asked, 'How many concerts would you like to do?' We discussed it, and he took it to heart. Benny went out and got the money. He asked Zero Mostel, who was doing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum on Broadway at the time."[4]

The series of meetings produced the mission statement for the Symphony of the New World, an orchestral expression of the Civil Rights Movement. The name was chosen to reflect the conviction that segregated ensembles were "not of today's world".[5] The mission statement was written by Benjamin Steinberg as Music Director and 11 founders: Alfred Brown, Selwart R. Clarke, Richard Davis, Elayne Jones, Harold M. Jones, Frederick L. King, Kermit D. Moore, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Ross C. Shub, Harry M. Smyles, and Joseph B. Wilder.[6] The goals of The Symphony of the New World were:

  1. To create job opportunities for the many talented non-white classical instrumentalists who have so far not been accepted in this nation's symphony orchestras.
  2. To present qualified conductors and, as a basic responsibility, qualified non-white conductors under professional standards.
  3. To give concerts of the highest artistic and professional standards in communities of low-income families, such as Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem areas of New York City. However, the orchestra will periodically appear in Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, and in many of the city's schools and colleges.
  4. To so establish the Symphony of the New World as to make it our nation's cultural beacon in the eyes of the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.[6]

The orchestra debuted with 36 black and 52 white musicians.[7] Beyond the mission statement, the Symphony wanted to integrate the symphonic stage with female musicians, as well; in 1975 the then director said it was 40% black, with most of those being black women.[8] Among the orchestra’s original sponsors were Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Paul Creston, Ruby Dee, Langston Hughes, Hershy Kay, Gian Carlo Menotti, Zero Mostel, Ruggiero Ricci, and William Warfield.[6]

A gift of $1000 from the Equitable Life Assurance Society and many small donations from Black supporters provided the initial backing for the Symphony of the New World.[2][3] Zero Mostel also contributed.

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