Walter W. Naumburg

About the Foundation

Established in 1926, the Naumburg international competitions have been described by the New York Times as “in its quiet way, the most prestigious of them all.”

The Walter W. Naumburg Foundation continues in the pursuit of ideals set out by Walter Naumburg. His desire to assist the young gifted musician in America has made possible a long-standing program of competitions and awards in solo and chamber music performance, composer recordings, conducting and commissions.

It was Mr. Naumburg's firm belief that such competitions were not only for the benefit of new stars, but very much for those talented young artists who would become prime movers in the development of the highest standards of musical excellence throughout America.

The solo competition disciplines rotate from year to year, encompassing piano, violin, and voice.

 

Officers & Directors

Robert Mann, President

Officers

Board of Directors

History

“Nearly 21 years ago I met a young woman who seemed to me to sing very well but the managers refused to consider her because she had never given a recital in public and had never received notices from newspapers. She had to go from one friend to another and collect enough money to pay for a recital, and this gave me the idea of starting the Foundation.”

History neglected to write down the name of this young woman, who sowed a seed that many others would reap. Few American musicians, however, would fail to recognize the name of the man to whom she described her plight—with, evidently, such effective eloquence. Walter Wehle Naumburg was a banker. More importantly, in this context, he was a music lover of the most active sort—not only a listener, but an amateur cellist of considerable attainments. And music was as integral a part of his heritage as the financial expertise that made possible his historic and continuing contributions to American musical life.

The Naumburg household had always resounded with music. Walter’s father Elkan, himself the son of a cantor, held weekly chamber music evenings in which the likes of Leopold Damrosch, Theodore Thomas, and Marcella Sembrich took part; Damrosch’s Oratorio Society of New York was organized in the Naumburg parlor and christened by Elkan’s wife Bertha. Walter, born on Christmas Day 1867, was naturally destined for a career in the family business, but music early assumed an important role in his life: he took up the cello at the age of eight, and while at Harvard (Class of 1889, cum laude) he played with the Pierian Sodality orchestra. The prosperity of the family banking firm, founded in 1893, did not diminish Walter’s participation in musical life. To the contrary—he helped organize the Society of Amateur Chamber Music Players, took part in weekly quartet sessions, attended concerts regularly, and joined in his father’s project of sponsoring free public concerts (which gave rise, eventually, to the bandstand on the Mall in Central Park and a long-lasting series of summer concerts held there).

In 1923, after fifty-six years of bachelorhood, Walter Naumburg married Elsie Binger, a distinguished ornithologist. Five years later, the family bank closed its doors and he retired— without, however; in any way diminishing his involvement in life or music. Rather, merely reading the list of his continuing activities is enough to exhaust even the most vigorous among us: service on the advisory councils of the Harvard and Princeton music departments; chairman of the Music Committee of Town Hall; president of the Musicians Foundation; trustee or director of Mt. Sinai Hospital, the Northeastern Conservatory of Music, the American Museum of Natural History, the New England Conservatory of Music, the Salvation Army, the National Federation for Junior Musicians, and the Greenwich Audubon Nature Center. An inveterate, observant traveler (some 45 Atlantic crossings), a man who clearly believed that one’s education was never finished, Walter Naumburg also kept up his cello playing until the age of eighty-five.

And of course there was also the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation, the result of that encounter with the eloquent young lady. At once generous and frugal, Mr. Naumburg obviously felt that, even in its benevolent uses, money should be made to work at maximum efficiency. If what young musicians needed to set careers in motion were New York reviews, then the most effective thing one could do for them might be to arrange recitals so they could get those reviews. In 1925, Walter Naumburg sponsored a series of auditions for young pianists and violinists to select three who gave promise of benefiting from the opportunity of a Town Hall recital.

From today’s vantage point, the significance of Mr. Naumburg’s idea may not be obvious. But in 1926 New York had very many newspapers that devoted space to classical music reviews, and a multitude of critics with a wide range of sympathies. Any debut was certain to be reviewed, and likely to elicit a considerable variety of responses. Furthermore, New York was then the exclusive capitol of the concert-management business, and professionally managed concerts were virtually the only means whereby a performer could reach the public. Radio was still in its infancy, television only a dream; recordings were granted to only the biggest names in the business; there was no “youth market,” no “college circuit,” no more than a handful of publicists—nor was the institutional largesses of foundations and governments yet directed towards the performing arts. A contract with a New York management was the sine qua non for a performing career, and New York heeded not what the “provinces” said; only the local seal of approval really counted (or, even better recommendation from the more exalted climes of Europe).

So Mr. Naumburg hit upon the specific point in a musician’s career where the application of money might most efficiently generate results. For that initial set of auditions, 37 candidates were heard; 22 reached the final stage, and three—all violinists—were awarded Town Hall recitals. The patron seems to have been thereby convinced of the project’s value, for on June 8, 1926, a new foundation was incorporated, bearing his name, its stated purpose “to give public hearings for deserving music students.” The original directors were the founder, his wife, Hugo Grunwald, Charles F. Osgood, and Eustace Seligman. For the next two decades and more, the Foundation’s exclusive activity comprised the annual auditions, followed in the fall by the Town Hall debuts of the previous season’s winners.

The precise arrangement of the annual auditions was in the hands of Mrs. Anna C. Molyneaux, an experienced concert manager, affectionately known as “Mama Molyneaux.” She processed the applications~ checked the contestants’ repertories to see that they met the requirements (often with the assistance of the Foundation’s directors; in later years, Louis Persinger brought his encompassing knowledge of the literature to bear upon this particular problem), scheduled the auditions, engaged the jurors, hired accompanists when needed, and then managed the debut recitals. Mr. Naumburg watched from the sidelines—and, at the recitals, from his Town Hall box—maintaining a scrupulous impartiality with regard to matters musical while keeping an eagle eye on matters financial.

This fine balance emerges clearly in his correspondence~ now in the Foundation’s files. When the increased number of applications necessitates hiring additional jurors, there is no question that money will be forthcoming: “As for the larger number of applicants being handled by the judges, that, it seems to me, would involve additional expense which the Foundation would have to assume for the purpose of getting really deserving applicants, and which it ought not to evade on that account.” But the same year another kind of unexpected expense draws another response: “It may be that the Naumburg Foundation is being run too elaborately. Perhaps we should not send out as much literature and have as many telephone calls as everybody seems to want.. .When allis said and done, I have not found anyone as yet who is willing to raise my income.’

The earliest Naumburg auditions were limited to pianists and string players. Beginning in 1928, singers were also admitted, but the single harpist who auditioned (without success) in 1931 remained an isolated foray beyond these three categories, which did not change during Mr. Naumburg’s lifetime. The high-water mark of applications was reached in 1931: of 223 who entered, 157 were auditioned and 28 deemed worthy of the finals. The number of winners was never fixed; if the jurors found only one candidate qualified for a debut recital, only one was selected_although Mr. Naumburg was evidently willing to sponsor as many as six recitals when the talent was there. And it certainly was there: a perusal of the list of winners (page 10) reveals names still familiar today, as well as many who pursued honorable careers without attaining enormous celebrity—and indeed it seems that Mr. Naumburg felt strongly about the importance of encouraging “non-star” talent, the kind that keeps the wheels of musical life spinning at all levels. As in any competition, some of those who didn’t win also went on to notable achievements—but jurors can’t be expected to be prophets as well. The Naumburg average was remarkably high, and the continuing throngs of applicants in those years certainly testify to the value placed by young musicians on the opportunity that was offered them.

In 1947, when the usual age limit of thirty years was temporarily relaxed to accommodate those engaged in other than musical activities during the years 1941-45, applications peaked again, with a total of 208. The postwar years also brought a new impulse that proved significant for the Foundation’s long-range future. Over time, the Board of Directors had come to include a number of distinguished musical figures: in addition to Mr. Naumburg (President) and his wife (Secretary and Treasurer), there were Ernest Hutcheson, recently retired as President of The Juilliard School; Daniel Gregory Mason, composer and MacDowell Professor Emeritus at Columbia University; Louis Persinger, the violinist and teacher; Roy Dickinson Welch, Chairman of the Music Department at Princeton University; and Willem Willeke, once cellist of the Kneisel Quartet and now director of the Berkshire Music Colony. At the 1946 board meeting, two more directors joined, with the understanding that the Foundation would now undertake to assist American composers as well as performers: Aaron Copland and William Schuman (Mr. Schuman had shortly before been named Hutcheson’s successor as President of Juilliard). Under Mr. Schuman’s chairmanship, a committee was named to study further initiatives. By the 1948 board meeting, the committee had concluded that the most pressing need was recordings of American music, and a plan was evolved for the annual selection of a major work deemed worthy of recording.

Once again, the passing of years and the changing geography of the musical scene may have obscured the significance of this idea, for the recording of American music is today a commonplace, if still inadequate in important ways. In 1948, before the long-playing record had ushered in a new, more broadly-based market for classical discs, few large-scale American works had been recorded. The Foundation’s plan envisaged an independent jury of three to choose the composition, with a sum of money set aside to defray part of the talent costs of the recording. The major companies in the field were approached, and negotiations eventually resulted in a contract with Columbia Records, who agreed to make the recordings, release them, and keep them in the catalogue for at least five years. In this form, the Naumburg Recording Awards endured for some fifteen years, after which it continued under a new arrangement with Composers Recordings Inc. (CR1). The project, initially conceived in the days of 78 RPM recordings, was not without its difficulties: instead of one work in an album, the LP required two or more coupled together, which complicated planning and scheduling, while the cost of orchestral sessions in the United States grew ever more onerous, gradually shifting the focus to chamber music. However, most of the recordings remained in print until the demise of the LP format in the early 1 980s, and more recently the gradual reorganization of the CR1 catalogue on CD has brought some of them back.

The 1 950s saw a gradual shift of generations on the Board of Directors, including the death of Mrs. Naumburg in November 1953. But new recruits were enlisted, and the founder himself continued to flourish, rounding off his ninth decade in 1957, and the following year touring South America by plane. On the 70th anniversary of his Harvard graduation, Walter Naumburg wrote to his surviving classmates: “I go to a great many concerts, such as the Philharmonics, Boston Symphonies and the Philadelphia, also the Bach Aria Society, American Opera Society, Hunter College Series, Metropolitan Opera, Kroll Quartet, and I usually take with me widows of my past friends who have gone before them. My brother says that I have a harem.” But that summer he had to cancel a trip to Europe, and on October 17, two months short of his 92nd birthday, Walter Naumburg died. To nobody’s surprise, he had prepared for that eventuality. His will deeded a substantial part of his residual estate into the hands of the New York Community Trust, the income therefrom to support the Foundation, subject only to the Community Trusts approval of the Foundation’s performance. It soon became apparent that this bequest was generous indeed, yielding an income markedly larger than the Foundation had enjoyed during its founder’s lifetime. Clearly, this allowed—and had perhaps even envisaged—a greater scope of activity, so, after selecting William Schuman as its new President, the board undertook a review of existing and potential programs.

Undoubtedly these great expectations were not the only factor behind the reassessment. In recent years, applications for the annual auditions had been falling off, to 65 in the year of Mr. Naumburg’s death. Clearly, the prospect of a single afternoon recital at Town Hall was, in the current scheme of things, no longer felt to be as significant a step in the launching of a career as it once had been. A change of emphasis seemed called for, and in 1961 the traditional “Naumburg auditions” were replaced by a much more elaborate competition, designed to attract the finest potential talent; rather than offering a small push to several young musicians, the Foundation would give a very big push to just one. Now the winner would receive a substantial cash prize for use in furthering a career, a two-year contract with a professional management, a solo recording, and an appearance with the New York Philharmonic on a Naumburg-sponsored concert; to add to the synergy~ that concert would also feature a young conductor of special promise selected by the Foundation, and would program the latest winner of the Recording Award.

But in the long run, putting all the golden eggs into one big basket did not seem to be the soundest approach and the awards went into a period of reconsideration and retrenchment, no doubt aggravated by unexpected changes in the Foundation’s administration during the early 1960s. When William Schuman undertook direction of the new Lincoln Center organization~ he felt compelled to step down from the presidency of the Naumburgs. Then, distressingly, his successor, Leopold Mannes, who took over in 1962, died suddenly in August 1964. Peter Mennin became President and was instrumental in establishing two special awards for conductors, and in 1965, Robert Mann, first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet and a newly elected board member, created an award for chamber music. To help push forward the renewed programs, Francis Thorne was appointed Executive Secretary in 1970, and in 1971 Robert Mann was elected President. When Thorne resigned in mid-1972, Lucy Rowan assumed his role.

At this point, regular awards to soloists were resumed, on a new and more modest basis that took into account both the difficulties young performers now faced in making a reputation and the increased cost of this and the Foundation’s other programs. Faced with the effects of inflation upon a basically fixed income, the Foundation decided to rotate the three traditional categories of piano, strings, and voice on a tn-annual basis. The winners received not only a cash prize for career promotion but several recital appearances: two at Alice Tully Hall in successive years—thus allowing the winner an opportunity to follow through and solidify the first impression—and a changing roster of other opportunities: a summer appearance at the Aspen Music Festival, an appearance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia, and Washington repeats of the Tully Hall concerts (initially at the Library of Congress, currently at the Kennedy Center in Washington).

Following up on the 1965 award for chamber groups and a 1971 prize for the performance of contemporary chamber music, the chamber award was made an annual event—a response to the growing significance of chamber music, and the role of homegrown American ensembles in it. A maximum of two groups is chosen each year, and in addition to sponsored New York appearances~ the winners are enabled to commission a new work from a composer of their choice (in consultation with the Foundation); the National Endowment for the Arts co-sponsors this project. Since chamber groups are not as stable as soloists, this award found its share of difficulties (ensembles that disbanded, commissions that weren’t fulfilled), but it has fostered a distinguished and varied list of ensembles devoted to the performance of early music, new music, and everything in between, while the commissioning aspect has yielded two Pulitzer-Prize-winning scores.

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the Foundation combined its resources for 1975-76 and offered prizes to soloists in all three standard categories: piano, violin, and voice, as well as the chamber prize—and in addition staged a gala concert. Though the basic pattern of a soloist award and a chamber award has remained constant up to the present time, the board has continually considered alternatives, putting some of them into effect. In response to the difficulty of arranging recordings of works selected by a jury, it was decided in 1978 to record instead the works commissioned for the winners of the chamber award—as well as the solo award winners.

Outside funding made possible additional competitions: Atlantic Richfield sponsored a viola competition in 1982 and a clarinet award in 1985; the prize here included the commissioning of new works for the winners, as in the chamber competition (this was done again in 1990 and 1991). On other occasions, cello, flute, and (most recently) classical guitar awards have been inserted into the solo sequence. In 1980, recognizing the increased importance of recordings in introducing young artists to a wider public, the Foundation arranged with the Musical Heritage Society to release recital recordings by the solo prizewinners, an initiative that was furthered by a 1984 gift from Philip Naumburg, Walter’s nephew. (In addition to the recording, the current first prize includes a $5,000 cash award; the runners-up receive $2,500 and $1,000, respectively.)

Another occasional practice has been retrospective events, to give additional impetus to careers already launched or works commissioned. When no chamber award was made in 1988, the funds went to a concert of past chamber commissions, and in a similar situation in 1992 a past winner was given fresh recital exposure. The approach of the Foundation’s 70th anniversary gave rise to several retrospective events, climaxed by a gala concert.

The flexibility shown over the years signals the Foundation’s continuing examination of conditions in the profession of musical performance. Among the problems now threatening is an ancient one in a new form: once upon a time, you had to give a concert to get reviews; now, you can give a Tully Hall recital and still end up without any review at all, thanks to the drastic shrinkage of the number of publications reviewing music and the smaller space allotted to art music in those that remain. Beyond that, the future of the recital grows increasingly problematic, at least in terms of the Foundation’s concerns: on many concert series, new performers and new works are less welcome—as, indeed, is serious repertory in general. In recent years, the Foundation office has undertaken to manage new winners for two seasons or until a commercial manager emerges to take them on.

The Foundation’s seventy-five years have evinced initiatives that respond to changing needs and conditions without losing sight of first principles—a necessary condition for the continuing value of cultural philanthropy. Completing three-quarters of a century, the Naumburg Foundation can look back on a history of enduring achievement, reflected in the careers, recordings, and new works tabulated in the remainder of this booklet—and forward to the continuing challenge of keeping its programs responsive in ways that continue to extend Walter Naumburg’s original ideals of giving practical assistance to musical talent.

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David Hamilton