In 1887, wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie met Walter Damrosch, conductor of the Oratorio Society of New York, on a trans-Atlantic cruise. They became friends, and Damrosch shared his vision for a new concert hall for his organization, which Carnegie decided to build. Carnegie Hall—then known simply as the Music Hall—opened in 1891.
The high-profile venue launched with a spectacular five-day music festival, at which Tchaikovsky conducted two of his works. Since then, Carnegie Hall has hosted more than 46,000 concerts and events—Walter Damrosch took part in nearly 850 of them.
Carnegie Hall was designed by the architect William Burnet Tuthill, who played the cello.
To improve the building’s acoustics, Tuthill omitted popular design elements of the time such as heavy curtains and chandeliers, and gave the main auditorium an elliptical interior with a domed ceiling.
The building has been through a number of changes over the years. In the 1920s the front stairs, pictured, were removed when the city decided to widen 57th Street, and ground-level storefronts were added (they included four restaurants, a barbershop, a dry cleaners and a nightclub). The stores, which compromised the beauty of the building’s original design, were removed during a major restoration in 1986.
In 1960, a no-longer-profitable Carnegie Hall narrowly escaped demolition when the city purchased it, turning it into a public institution. It received added protection and recognition when it was a declared a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and a New York City Landmark in 1967.
In the early 20th century, Carnegie Hall was where musical reputations were built and careers were launched.
In its first three decades, Carnegie Hall hosted many of the greatest composers and musicians of the time, including Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Gershwin, Stravinsky and Bartók, as well as opera legend Enrico Caruso.
Carnegie Hall’s distinction extends to nonmusical performances. Notable speakers have included presidents and prime ministers (Grover Cleveland, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson), civic leaders (Booker T. Washington, women’s suffragists Carrie Chapman Catt and Ethel Snowden, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and writers (Ernest Hemingway, J.K. Rowling).
It was at Carnegie Hall that Rowling revealed the character of Dumbledore was gay in 2007.
The great American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, pictured, became famous when he made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1943, at the age of 25. He was called in as a last-minute replacement for the New York Philharmonic conductor Bruno Walter, who had the flu. (Bernstein later served a long tenure as the Philharmonic’s music director.) The outstanding performance was broadcast on national radio; the next morning Bernstein was on the front page of The New York Times.
Over the course of his career, Bernstein would conduct more than 375 concerts at Carnegie Hall.
Carnegie Hall has a long history of presenting jazz music, starting with James Reese Europe’s Clef Club Orchestra in 1912. (Pictured: Charlie Parker, 1947)
Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, pictured, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane are among the jazz luminaries who have appeared at Carnegie Hall.
Billie Holiday headlined at Carnegie Hall in 1948, a few days after being released from prison on a drug charge. The concert—her first in nearly a year—sold out a week in advance, and Holiday was reportedly so nervous backstage that she pricked herself while pinning a flower in her hair. The performance turned out to be a great success.
Ernest Tubb and members of the Grand Ole Opry were the first country musicians to perform at Carnegie Hall, in 1947.
They were followed by more country, rock, folk and pop artists—Bo Diddley and Etta James in the ’50s; Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles in the ’60s; Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Billy Joel and Liza Minnelli in the ’70s.
In 1985, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Melle Mel performed at a benefit concert for the political documentary A Matter of Struggle. They were the first hip-hop artists to appear at Carnegie Hall. (Pictured: Jay-Z, 2012)
Perhaps the highest profile hip-hop concert the venue has hosted happened in February this year, when Jay-Z put on a pair of shows benefitting the United Way of New York City and the Shawn Carter Scholarship Foundation.
“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” goes the old joke. “Practice, practice, practice.” One of the most prestigious concert venues in the world, Carnegie Hall has hosted some of the greatest classical, opera and jazz musicians of the last century. Click through our photo slide show to learn more about this venerable New York attraction.
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