Aeolian Hall, 1912-1927: “A building without precedent”

By Lisa A. Kozenko

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In October of 1912, a few weeks before the formal opening of Aeolian Hall, the New York Times announced:

New York’s newest music hall, which is to harbor the concerts of the Symphony Society, the Kneisel and Flonzaley Quartets, and several other organizations, as well as a great number of recitals, will be opened this week. Aeolian Hall is on West Forty-third Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. The builders of the new concert hall have had in mind not only the establishment of a place where concerts could be heard to the greatest advantage, but also a temple of music . . . The stage is large enough to comfortably seat the largest symphony orchestra, yet so cleverly have the plans been laid that a single soloist can stand there alone without the large vacant space being apparent.

This is the second in a series of posts about the New York Chamber Music Society. The first post explored the founding of the group. Future posts will look at the musicians in the group, its repertoire, and composers of the time. There will be a salon-style concert, commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the NYCMS’s first major performance, on December 20, co-sponsored by The Gotham Center and featuring the chamber music of Mozart, Bach, and Bax, plus a special piece written for the occasion. Email here for more information.

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From all contemporary accounts it was an ideal choice for chamber music recitals. The acoustics were better-suited to small ensembles than, say, Carnegie or Mendelssohn Hall. It was well-located,accessible from both 42nd and 43rd streets, easy to reach by subway or bus. (The Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company began subway service between Brooklyn and Manhattan in 1915.) It was larger than Mendelssohn, seating 600 more (1800 total), and smaller than Carnegie, much too large for ordinary recitals. And it was close to restaurants, clubs, theaters and other entertainment.

The bold, grandiose advertisement the Hall printed in concert programs and newspapers trumpeted:

This building is without precedent. Giving space under one roof to a magnificently appointed concert hall, a floor of model studios, and a Sales-Exposition which will eventually comprise practically every known form of musical merchandise, this structure is the first really complete musical center the world has seen. It embodies a true and logical union between musical art and musical commerce, providing for every possible need of the artist, the teacher, the student, and the public. Here one may listen to a concert or recital under conditions as ideal as modern architecture can make them. In the last analysis this immense structure typifies, in the magnitude of its proportions, the world-wide appreciation of Aeolian-built instruments and Aeolian merchandising methods. For the visible growth of any business is merely the tangible evidence of public approval.

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How did the critics -– the only barometer of public approval then available -– like the new hall? The first reported, “The acoustics of the auditorium cannot be said to have had a satisfying test yesterday, for a piano recital cannot furnish one... But … it seems likely that sounds will be distinct in the Aeolian.” The standard-bearing New York Times agreed:

The new hall, so far as could be discovered from this recital, possesses acoustic properties of the most excellent. The tone carried freely and fully in all ranges of dynamics, and there appeared to be a rich and ample resonance. Further experience soon to be gained will test its capacity for the voice, the string quartet, and the orchestra. Its promise is of the best. It seems at first sight smaller than its stated capacity… The ceiling looks low and the gallery and boxes small. It has a suggestion of intimacy that many have hoped for and will welcome.

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The establishment of Aeolian Hall was another decisive event in the history of chamber music in New York City, because it was among the first to be constructed with all forms of music in mind, not just orchestral or solo recital. Carnegie Hall, for example, was not built to accommodate smaller ensembles acoustically. There was no other hall in the city that was built to the specifications that Aeolian was. As the New York Times explained, describing the next major classical music event at the new venue:

At last the New York Symphony Orchestra will have a chance to sound and be heard. After its two seasons of handicap at the Century theatre and The New Theatre, a place that was not intended for orchestral music on the stage, and that was exceedingly unkind to it when produced there, the Symphony Orchestra will now give its concerts in Aeolian Hall. The first one took place yesterday afternoon and will be repeated tomorrow afternoon. There was a large audience that made the hall look full.

The new hall seemed well adapted to orchestral music, even played by an orchestra of the size of Mr. Damrosch’s. The various instrumental voices, while they fuse sufficiently, are clearly distinguishable.

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Many of the players in Damrosch’s Symphony Orchestra would later be engaged by Beebe for the New York Chamber Music Society (NYCMS), a pivotal group in the history of chamber music in the city. So its players were by then already accustomed to the acoustics of the relatively new space. But it was the Kneisel Quartet that was was the first to perform chamber music in the new space, giving the first of a series of subscription concerts four days later. Sylvester Rawling, writing for The Evening World reported that “universal opinion” among the “typical Kneisel audience of serious and fashionable music lovers” was that a fine replacement had been found for Mendelssohn Hall, “the most famous exemplar” for “the exploitation of chamber music…The intimacy between the performers and the listeners that is essential for the proper understanding of music of this sort was maintained, while the larger floor space permitted the seating of many eager-to-be subscribers who for years vainly had sought for places.”

For Carolyn Beebe of the newborn NYCMS it was no doubt news of great import. Two years later the NYCMS gave the first of twenty-four programs they would perform at Aeolian Hall (every Tuesday and Friday evening at 8:15 pm, for the low price of $2.50, or $59 today). The last concert took place in February of 1925, ostensibly their tenth season. By November, they had moved to the salon concert format at the Hotel Plaza. It could be the sale of the Aeolian Company to Schulte Cigar Stores that summer precipitated the move. Or that in 1924 the International Composers Guild, a similar organization in size and concept, known for programming more challenging modern music, began performing in the Hall as well. But Aeolian remained a major concert venue until 1927, when it ceased operation for good. The stage demolished, a five-and-dime store moved in to occupy the building’s ground floor.

As the New York Times wrote:

Today will see the closing of the doors of New York’s Aeolian Hall, which in fifteen years has been host to over five million people. The stage in not only to be darkened but demolished, except for three square feet to be cut from the platform and transferred to the new building at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Fourth street.

According to the old hall’s director H.B. Schaad, there is “probably no place of public entertainment of its size” that has held as many notables among its audiences. Its official opening took place on Friday afternoon, Nov. 8, 1912, with a concert of the New York Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Walter Damrosch, with Maggie Teyte as soloist. Since that time there have been over four thousand five hundred events and over five thousand artists have made their appearance there.

Paderewski made his reappearance at an Aeolian recital, after an absence of five years, in November 1913. The late Ferrucio Busoni gave his only recital there on his last trip to America. Igor Stravinsky presented his own works in his only evening of chamber music. A few other more famous have been Rachmaninoff, Stokowski, Ysaÿe, Heifetz, Elmann, Hofmann, Mengelberg, Emma Calve, the Kniesel and the Flonzaley Quartets. George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” played by the composer with Paul Whiteman had its premiere at Aeolian Hall.

In the final analysis, the NYCMS would possibly not have existed if Aeolian Hall was not built. It was a perfect hall for an ensemble of their size, thus the appropriate music could be programmed, knowing that any performance would be the best sounding acoustically, the most accessible to the public, and a great showcase for the critics to opine on the performances and the music. Additionally, the New York composers she commissioned not only took into consideration who they were writing for but also the acoustical space -– having a premiere at Aeolian Hall was a great honor. Whatever the reason, the NYCMS had established itself in New York City at Aeolian Hall and, were now able to move to another location knowing they would have an audience to follow.


Lisa A. Kozenko is a professional oboist, with a DMA from The Graduate Center. She teaches at The New School.