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Oratorio Society of New York (Choir & Orchestra)

Founded: 1873 - New York City, New York, USA

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 Leopold Damrosch and is the third oldest musical organization in New York City. The Society had a prominent role in the building of 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 Leopold Damrosch's decision to found the Oratorio Society of New York including Anton Rubinstein, 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 George Frideric 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 given the USA premiere of works as diverse as Johannes 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), J.S. Bach's Mass in B Minor (BWV 232) (1927), Dvořák's St. Ludmila (1993), Benjamin Britten's The World of the Spirit (1998), and Filas’ Song of Solomon (2012), as well as works by G.F. Handel, Franz Liszt, Heinrich Schütz, Schubert, Debussy, Edward Elgar, Camille 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 65 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. Website of Oratorio Society of New York. 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 2015, the Society performed in Halle, Quedlinburg, Dresden, and Leipzig. In 2017, the Society performed at the Teatro Solís in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Music Directors

Leopold Damrosch (1873-1885)
Walter Damrosch (1885-1898)
Frank Damrosch (1898-1912)
Louis Koemmenich (1912-1917)
Walter Damrosch (1917-1921; 2nd time)
Albert Stoessel (1921-1943)
Alfred Greenfield (1943-1955)
William Strickland (1955-1958)
T. Charles Lee (1959-1973)
Lyndon Woodside (1973-2005)
Kent Tritle (2006-Present)

Source: Oratorio Society of New York Website; Wikipedia Website (August 2017)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (August 2017)

Alfred Greenfield: Short Biography | Oratorio Society of New York | Recordings of Vocal Works

Links to other Sites

Oratorio Society of New York (Wikipedia)
Oratorio Society of New York (Official Website)

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Last update: Saturday, August 19, 2017 15:00