Attending a Carnegie Hall concert is one of the most memorable things to do in New York City. The Carnegie Hall stage has hosted everyone from Tchaikovksy to The Beatles, George Gershwin to Jean-Baptist, and Duke Ellington to Frank Sinatra. Performing at Carnegie Hall is every musician’s dream and makes every budding artist wonder, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
Perhaps the more exciting question is, “Why is Carnegie Hall so important, and what made it the legend it is today?” Let’s explore the origin story of Carnegie Hall and how it has continued to be the musicians’ gold standard through the 21st century.
THE HONEYMOON GIFT
Carnegie Hall’s history began as a love story. Andrew Carnegie, a steel tycoon, had fallen head over heels in love with Louise Whitifield. While Louise was more than 20 years Andrew Carnegie’s junior, the love between them was deep and true.
Louise was a singer who performed frequently with the Oratorio Society of New York, conducted by Walter Damrosch. Walter Damrosch met up with Louise and Andrew Carnegie during their European honeymoon. During this meeting, Louise and Walter Damrosch convinced Carnegie that New York City needed a new home for music, and thus the seeds of Carnegie Hall were planted. Carnegie agreed to give $2 million to the venture. (That’s over $67 million in today’s money!) This is the reason Carnegie Hall is sometimes referred to as “the honeymoon gift.” Carnegie Hall also raises the bar for many new grooms, as perhaps the most discerning ladies might no longer be satisfied with a ring, and may want to hold out for an iconic music hall!
THE PERFECT LOCATION
We all know the joke “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!” All joking aside, Carnegie Hall is ideally located in midtown Manhattan, at 57th Street and 7th Avenue. At the time of its construction, most people thought it was crazy to build a concert hall at this location. The land was acquired in 1889, a year when 57th Street was still considered the suburbs. In fact, Times Square didn’t even exist yet! What would become known as Times Square was still a carriage building district known as Longacre Square. The idea of building a concert hall at the location was radical. Critics were sure the endeavor would fail. Carnegie was a man ahead of his time, and his belief that 57th Street was the perfect location proved correct.
THE PERFECT ARCHITECT
Andrew Carnegie chose WiIlliam Tuthill to be the main architect for Carnegie Hall. For the project, William Tuthill worked alongside Richard Morris Hunt (who designed the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty) and Adler & Sullivan (who designed the Auditorium Building in Chicago). While the colleagues were very well known, Tuthill was perhaps better known as an amateur cellist and board member for the Oratorio Society. It was perhaps his experience in music that landed Tuthill the gig. In fact, it was Tuthill’s musical experience that made him obsessed with optimizing the hall’s acoustics, which are still to this day considered some of the best in the world. This is credited to Tuthill’s study of European concert halls and “golden ear.”
Some liken the main concert hall’s design to Tuthill’s instrument, the cello. Every aspect of the shape and design is meant to optimize the sound. The seats are covered with mohair instead of velvet. Velvet absorbs sound while mohair repels it. In lieu of a chandelier, which would have negatively impacted acoustics, the lights are inset within the ceiling. Similar to a cello, the hall has curved corners, instead of sharp edges, and a narrow waist where the stage meets the seating. The walls and floor make the main hall seem completely soundproof, free from the persistent, panicked cacophony of the city outside. Carnegie Hall is truly an acoustic masterpiece.
Andrew Carnegie had a revolutionary idea for his music hall. That idea was the balcony. While balconies in and of themselves were far from novel ideas, Carnegie wanted a balcony for the hoi-polloi to be seated in. He wanted everyone to be able to enjoy music, be they a millionaire or near vagabond, struggling to make ends meet. Up to this point, concert halls were seen only as a playground for the elite. Tickets were expensive, and in many halls, one had to buy a seat for the entire season. Carnegie envisioned a balcony, where anyone who wanted to could attend for a low ticket price, or even for free! Yes, balcony ticket holders might have to walk up 137 stairs to get to their seats, but once there, they’d be treated to the best musical performances around. The Carnegie Hall balcony climb was definitely worth it.
GRAND OPENING THROUGH TODAY
May 5, 1891 marked Carnegie Hall’s debut concert. It was a spectacular concert of Tchaikovsky music conducted by none other than Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky himself. Since opening night, Carnegie Hall has seen the world’s greatest musicians grace its stages. Additionally, famous comedians, authors, world figures, social justice fighters, and orators such as Martin Luther King Jr. have made appearances at Carnegie Hall.
Carnegie Hall also features wonderful public tours where you can deep-dive into the venue’s history. On this tour, guests can even enter a museum where the original program for the Beatles performance can be viewed. There happens to be two typos on this program. See if you can find them!
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