Oratorio Society of New York

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The Oratorio Society of New York is a non-profit membership organization which performs choral music in the oratorio style. The Society was founded in 1873 by conductor Leopold Damrosch. Elkan and Bertha Naumburg were Leopold Damrosch's close friend and Bertha Wehle Naumburg gave the group its name. It is New York City's second oldest cultural organization. The Society had a prominent role in the building of Carnegie Hall, and it has premiered many new choral music works over the years.

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.


In 1873, Leopold Damrosch founded the Oratorio Society of New York in the 'back parlor' of Elkan Naumburg's 48th Street home. Bertha Wehle Naumburg (1843–97), Elkan's wife, gave it that name. Elkan probably helped to form the group and he served briefly on its board, when it first began. Leopold Damrosch and others performed weekly in the Naumburg family parlor during the 1870s, 80s, and 90s, [see Elkan Naumburg]. 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. These have been held 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 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), Antonín Dvořák's St. Ludmila (1993), and Benjamin Britten's The World of the Spirit (1998), as well as works by Handel, Liszt, Schütz, Schubert, Debussy, Elgar, Saint-Saëns, and many others, including contemporary composers.

Awards and honors[edit]

On its 100th anniversary in 1973, the Society was presented with the Handel Medallion, a prestigious New York City cultural award, for its contributions to the musical life of the city. 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."


The Society has performed in many parts of the world, including London, Paris, Vienna, Warsaw, Munich, Salzburg, Spoleto, Beijing, St. Petersburg, Prague, Budapest, Florence, Venice, Zagreb, Helsinki, Dublin, Athens, Mexico City and San José, Costa Rica. For its four concerts in Costa Rica, held for the benefit of the Friends of Coco Island Foundation, the Society was awarded the UNESCO World Heritage Commemorative Medal.

The Society visited Budapest in June 2007 and performed a concert at the Bartók National Concert Hall in the new Palace of Arts (Budapest), to benefit the Franz Liszt Academy of Music.


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