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The Rockefeller Foundation's (RF) most extensive commitment to music spanned slightly more than two decades. It began with programs to commission new works for the Louisville Symphony Orchestra in the 1950s, continued with support for individual composers, and reached its high point in 1976 with a project to distribute the 100-disc Recorded Anthology of American Music to schools, libraries and United States Information Service (USIS) cultural centers around the world.

Recording session for Columbia Records, 1953


The RF did not begin to think seriously about how it might expand its humanities funding to include a program in music until after World War II. But earlier grants signaled an emerging and opportunistic interest on the part of the Foundation in funding music-related programs. The Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky had begun its Berkshire Festival concerts in 1938. Only a year later RF stepped in with a $60,000 grant to help the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood get off the ground; it opened in 1940 as a training ground for musicians and conductors. While the appropriation was considered to be “out-of-program,” Jerome Greene, a major proponent of the Berkshire grant, wrote a decade later:

… I always attached importance to an occasional opportunity to do something unrelated to program if it offered a chance to support a new and sound enterprise at a moment of great strategic significance … Adaption to newly discovered needs, with the money to meet them, if they were important enough, was always claimed as one of the advantages of a great and sufficiently fluid fund.[1] 

Another music project also had continuing resonance, for better and for worse. Hans Eisler, a German composer working at the New School for Social Research, was given a grant in 1940 to study music composition for film. His work yielded both new scores for film and theoretical writings about the relationship between music and moving images. In the 1950s, however, the funding for Eisler was among the RF grants questioned by the congressional committees investigating foundation relationships with subversive organizations and individuals when Eisler faced accusations of being a Soviet agent and was placed on a Hollywood blacklist.   

While the Foundation had supported the fields of drama and film since the 1930s, only in 1948 did talk begin in earnest about an arts program that would include music. The Foundation brought together musical luminaries including Quincy Porter, Virgil Thomson and Otto Luening to discuss possible avenues for RF involvement in music projects. The group proposed fellowship programs to nurture young musicians and conductors and funding for the publication of musical recordings and scores.

Placing a Bet in Louisville

In 1953, after several years of planning, the first grant in a more expansive music program was awarded. The Louisville Philharmonic Society received $400,000 to expand its commissioning and recording programs. Since 1948 the Louisville Orchestra had been commissioning new works by prominent composers, among them Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud and Virgil Thomson. The orchestra aspired to perform a new work for each week of its forty-six week season. The goal was to expand the market for new music through repeat performances, broadcasts and recordings.

Orchestra during performance, Louisville, Kentucky

Orchestra during performance, Louisville, Kentucky

The decision to award the initial grant to the Louisville Symphony Orchestra was heavily debated by RF staff. John Marshall made several visits to Louisville to meet with its mayor, Charles Farnsley, who enthusiastically sold the project, noting that any comparable endeavor would be lost on a big city and that the choice of Louisville would garner attention among outsiders surprised that a city of that size would take on such an initiative. Considering the proposal, Marshall wrote following his visit with Farnsley in 1952: “If the scheme seems, as it must at first, audacious, this may turn out to be its most engaging quality. Certainly, there is an opportunity to do something of this sort in Louisville with good reason to believe that in the present context there it could have as much if not more success than in some other location.”[2]

The project in Louisville reveals an unstated aim of RF’s cultural programs in the 1950s and 1960s. With Cold War cultural competition in mind, the Foundation supported the arts to demonstrate American ideals and promote the potential of American culture abroad.

New Directors and Directions

Following the Louisville grant, the RF entered an active period of supporting American music and musicians. Scholarships were funded at Tanglewood; the American Symphony Orchestra League received money to help train conductors; audience development projects were supported through Young Audiences, an organization dedicated to bringing concerts into elementary schools; small regional symphonies were supported; an electronic music program at Columbia University received funding in 1958; and even more substantial funds flowed into new music projects and composer residencies beginning in the mid-1960s.

Support for music continued after 1964 in a new Arts Division under the directorship of Norman Lloyd. For the first time, though only briefly, the arts were separated from the humanities. Lloyd’s program supported composers, including a special grant for African-American composers, and funded eleven orchestras to perform and record little-known works by American composers. Howard Klein, a Juilliard-trained composer and a former music critic, succeeded Lloyd. He continued to support new music, especially through the International American Music Competition at Carnegie Hall.  Seeing how difficult it was for individuals to receive support, Klein persisted in making grants to talented artists in every field and ultimately began to work with intermediaries such as Meet the Composer to manage the selection of grant recipients.

Coda and Decrescendo

The RF's support for music culminated in its Recorded Anthology of American Music, a project planned for the American bicentennial in 1976 and representing the Foundation’s largest financial commitment to music. An independent nonprofit recording company, New World Records, was established to produce, manufacture and distribute a 100-record survey of the nation's music. With an investment of some $4 million, the record sets were distributed to music schools, libraries, radio stations and USIS centers around the world.

In the early 1980s the Arts and Humanities were re-combined in a single program. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the RF implemented international and intercultural programs intended to reinforce the Foundation’s overall global goals. Music organizations and composers were essential in the new program that included funding for artists at international festivals and exhibitions.

The heady quarter century that began with grants to advance American music at the Louisville Symphony ended with offerings of American music world-wide. By 1999 investment in culture had declined, yielding to other priorities at the Foundation. Today, music making and performance are supported through the Foundation’s NYC Cultural Innovation Fund.

[1] Letter from Jerome Greene to Chester I. Barnard, February 9, 1950, Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), RG 1.1, Series 200R, Box 212, Folder 2537.

[2] Interview notes by John Marshall, October 7, 1952, RAC, RG 1.2, Series 200R, Box 372, Folder 3239.

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