A hundred years ago, on Tuesday, May 5, 1891, all the newspapers in New York City - some 15 dailies and another 15 or so weeklies and foreign-language journals - had one major local story on their minds: the opening of the Music Hall, on the corner of Seventh Avenue and West 57th Street in Manhattan.
This was the new temple of music built by Andrew Carnegie at a cost of $1.25 million. The immense sum boggled the mind of the journalists; it was mentioned again and again, in the pre-opening stories and in the May 6 articles about opening night. And of course, there were the facts and statistics. Three thousand seats! Room for 1,000 standees! (Fire laws were less stringent in those days.) Fireproof construction! Bigger than the Metropolitan Opera! Lit by 4,000 of Edison's electric lamps!Even papers that had no cultural coverage let their readers know what was in the offing. The Mail and Express ran a piece on May 2 listing all the programs and giving a biography of the featured guest of the opening festivities, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, from Russia.
Walter Damrosch was in charge of the five-day festival. He was the 29-year-old son of Leopold Damrosch, who had founded the Oratorio Society and conducted German opera at the Met and the orchestra at the Symphony Society.
When Leopold died in 1885, his son assumed his duties. Walter Damrosch arranged for Tchaikovsky's participation and conducted the first New York performance of Berlioz's "Te Deum" on opening night.
As with the opening of Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center in 1962, workmen had been laboring desperately for weeks to get the Music Hall finished. At that, it was not entirely ready, but at 8 p.m. May 5, Damrosch walked onto the stage, looked at the 400 members of the Oratorio Society and the hundred or so orchestral players, and bowed to Carnegie in Box 33, to Secretary of State James G. Blaine in an adjoining box, to the elite of New York society and to the expectant audience.
(Not present was William Burnet Tuthill, the hall's architect and acoustician. He had arrived, gone to his box, looked at the slender supports under the top balcony and turned white. Would the balcony collapse? He rushed home and spent the night going over the mathematics of the stresses involved.)
Damrosch brought down his baton, and everybody in the hall broke into "Old Hundred," a favorite American hymn. Then came The Speech.
Bishop Henry Codman Potter of the Episcopal diocese opened by saying that he had no oration to offer. He then proceeded to orate for an hour, delivering a history of music from the Psalms of David to the recent years of the Symphony Society. He droned on and on. The Herald reporter wrote on May 6 that it was "with a sigh of relief" that the audience finally stood to sing the national anthem, "America."
The Post reporter called the oration "slightly overpowering," especially the bishop's attempt at humor, "which, unfortunately, fell rather flat." The Herald reporter wrote that "culture yawned" during the speech.
Finally, Damrosch came out to lead the orchestra in Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3, and the musical part of the festival was under way.
The question on everyone's mind, as it would be 80 years later in Lincoln Center, was the acoustics. The New York Times, on May 3, had predicted perfect sound and quoted Tchaikovsky as saying that the acoustics were "almost unapproachable." But the reports on May 6 were eagerly read.
In 1891, there were no bylines in New York papers, but the most respected music critics were William James Henderson of the New York Times, Henry E. Krehbiel of the Tribune and Henry T. Finck of the Post. They all admired the acoustics. So did the World.
The critic from the Commercial Advertiser, however, had reservations and wanted to hear what the hall would sound like under more normal circumstances. The Press also advised everyone to wait and see.
Tchaikovsky, who was to conduct his own music in four of the six concerts, was the focus of attention. He led off on opening night with his "Marche Solenelle." Most critics agreed that this was not major Tchaikovsky, and they were right. (Later in the week, his Suite No. 3 was a great success.)
But all the critics had wonderful things to say about Tchaikovsky as a conductor - which must have amused him. He was a poor conductor and knew it. He hated to stand in front of an orchestra.
As for Tchaikovsky's compositions as a whole, there was no argument. The press called him a peer even of Anton Rubinstein. Damrosch said he was at least on a par with Brahms and Saint-Saens.
The bewildered Tchaikovsky coped bravely with his exposure to American journalism and said all the right things. "Americans," he told the World on May 8, "remind me very much in their general wide-heartedness and splendid hospitality of Russians."
Some unusually interesting festival pieces were offered during the week. One concert was devoted to "The Seven Last Words" by Heinrich Schutz, Bach's famous predecessor, and was respectfully received by most critics.
To Henderson, who had a progressivist view of music history, it was good to hear old music like that once in a while, even if 17th-century composers were "vacant of the glorious gains in harmony, melodic latitude and instrumentation" of later periods.
But Finck dismissed it, adding gratuitously that Tchaikovsky's symphonies were much more interesting, because they showed "two centuries of evolution" since Schutz.
The Oratorio Society had workouts in Mendelssohn's "Elijah" and Handel's "Israel in Egypt." At one concert, the sextet from Mozart's "Nozze di Figaro" was sung, to be greeted by Finck with the observation that the opera was "decidedly antiquated and is rarely sung at the present day, modern audiences being accustomed to richer food."
The final day's programs, on May 9, left everybody happy. In the afternoon, Tchaikovsky's B-flat-minor Piano Concerto was played by Adele aus der Ohe, who was a pupil of Liszt and the wife of Anton Seidl, the esteemed conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic.
Then came Beethoven's Fifth, songs by Damrosch and Tchaikovsky, and the Prelude and Flower Maidens' Scene from Wagner's new "Parsifal." The festival concluded with "Israel in Egypt."
Amid all the hoopla, real enthusiasm and understanding of the importance of the Music Hall, one thing was missing. A search through the newspapers of the day failed to turn up a single editorial greeting this glamorous new fixture in the city's and the country's cultural scene.