The Federal WPA Music Project is a Major Presence at WNYC

History Notes: Volume 2, Issue 13

Friday, April 08, 2011 - 12:00 AM

From the mid-1930s to early 1940s, the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) distributed thousands of transcription discs to hundreds of radio stations around the United States, including WNYC.

The WPA sponsored many New York City-based music groups who performed regularly on WNYC during the Depression, including the WNYC Concert Orchestra, the Amsterdam String Ensemble, The Manhattan Chorus, The Municipal Dance Orchestra, the Morningside String Trio, the Waverly Brass Band, the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra, Juanita Hall's Negro Melody Singers and the New York Civic Orchestra (whose 1939 recording of Tchaikovsky's elegy from his Serenade for Strings can be seen at left). 

In fact, in 1936, about half of WNYC's broadcast hours were underwritten by the Federal Music Project (FMP), with an average month accounting for 135 broadcasts. By the end of 1940, the New York City WPA Music Program reported it had provided nearly 1,100 hours of WNYC broadcasts that year. WNYC's Assistant Director Seymour N. Siegel wrote: "If the Federal Music Project has helped the City Station by supplying a substantial  sustaining musical basis, WNYC in turn has unquestionably brought infinitely larger audiences than could ever be crowded into a concert hall.  In the program of educating the listening public to the appreciation of the higher type of music, WNYC has done its part."

The WPA FMP and subsequent WPA Music Program were also platforms for discussions about music, music education and the premieres of new works. In 1939, composer Roy Harris presented 30 illustrated lectures entitled Let's Make Music, under the auspices of the WPA Composers' Forum Laboratory. The series, which dealt with the fundamentals of composition, were broadcast by WNYC and attracted wide attention with an added enrollment of more than 1,300 active participants who received mimeographed copies of the lessons so that their study could be continued at home.

That same year WNYC's World's Fair studio played host to a Composers' Forum concert and a composers roundtable. During WNYC's second annual American Music Festival in 1941, the WPA program assisted with an orchestra of 100 musicians drawn from the WNYC Concert and New York Civic Orchestras.  Among the composer-led works was Philip James' satirical suite Station WGZBX, and the world premiere of Morton Gould's Spiritual for String, Choir and Orchestra. Deems Taylor conducted his composition The Highwayman, with Richard Hale singing baritone. With the United States' entry into World War II, WPA funds were cut significantly and came to an end by June, 1943.

WNYC's Seymour N. Siegel on the WPA and WNYC from February 4, 1937. (WNYC Archive Collections)


Broadcast on WNYC today in:

1925: Dr. Gladwyn Kingsley Noble discusses "voices of the night." Noble was the head of the herpetology department at the American Museum of Natural History.  He was the author of many books, among them, The Pectoral Girdle of the Brachycephalic Frogs.

1939: Municipal court judge Dorothy Kenyon talks about "women in the law." Kenyon, a feminist and political activist, began her career doing legal research for the Versailles treaty, supported the labor movement, battled prostitution, served on UN commissions, championed women's rights, fought Senator Joseph McCarthy, and pressed for civil rights.

1943: In this episode of the Great Americans series we hear The Story of Marian Anderson.

1953: New York Governor Thomas Dewey accuses New York City Mayor Impellitteri of proposing unsound fiscal programs.

1964: Josephine Baker talks about her adopted children at the Overseas Press Club.

2005:The Grammy-winning South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs live for The Leonard Lopate Show. Then, Grover Crisp tells us about restoring Sam Peckinpah’s first large-scale Western, Major Dundee. Stephen Chow mixes comedy and martial arts in his latest film, Kung Fu Hustle.


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