Benjamin Steinberg (conductor)

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Benjamin Steinberg
Benjamin Steinberg.jpg
Born(1915-03-15)March 15, 1915
DiedJanuary 29, 1974(1974-01-29) (aged 58)
Alma mater Curtis Institute of Music
  • Artistic Director
  • Conductor
  • Violinist
Known for
Pearl Sondak
(m. 1939;died 1994)
ChildrenBarbara Steinberg

Benjamin Steinberg (March 15, 1915 – January 29, 1974) was an American concert violinist, conductor, and civil rights activist, who is best known for being the founding artistic director of the pioneering Symphony of the New World. The first racially integrated orchestra in the United States, its history-making premiere took place at New York City's Carnegie Hall on May 6, 1965. [1] [2]

Symphony of the New World

The Symphony of the New World was a symphony orchestra based in New York City. It was the first racially integrated orchestra in the United States. The Symphony gave its debut concert on 6 May 1965 at Carnegie Hall, conducted by Benjamin Steinberg, who said of the orchestra, "We have a lot of talent in this city, and we have to create the opportunities to present it to the public".

New York City Largest city in the United States

The City of New York, usually called either New York City (NYC) or simply New York (NY), is the most populous city in the United States and thus also in the state of New York. With an estimated 2017 population of 8,622,698 distributed over a land area of about 302.6 square miles (784 km2), New York is also the most densely populated major city in the United States. Located at the southern tip of the state of New York, the city is the center of the New York metropolitan area, the largest metropolitan area in the world by urban landmass and one of the world's most populous megacities, with an estimated 20,320,876 people in its 2017 Metropolitan Statistical Area and 23,876,155 residents in its Combined Statistical Area. A global power city, New York City has been described as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world, and exerts a significant impact upon commerce, entertainment, research, technology, education, politics, tourism, art, fashion, and sports. The city's fast pace has inspired the term New York minute. Home to the headquarters of the United Nations, New York is an important center for international diplomacy.

Carnegie Hall concert hall in New York City

Carnegie Hall is a concert venue in Midtown Manhattan in New York City, United States, located at 881 Seventh Avenue, occupying the east side of Seventh Avenue between West 56th Street and West 57th Street, two blocks south of Central Park.


Early years

Playbill for Steinberg's recital as "Little Ben", age 11 Benjamin Steinberg at 11.jpg
Playbill for Steinberg's recital as "Little Ben", age 11

Benjamin Steinberg was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 15, 1915, to Moses and Annie Steinberg. His parents were from Odessa (then part of Czarist Russia, now the Ukraine) and had fled to the United States following the anti-Jewish Odessa pogrom of 1905 and the failed Russian Revolution that year. Benjamin first performed violin on the concert stage as an 11-year old in 1927. [1]

Odessa Place in Odessa Oblast, Ukraine

Odessa is the third most populous city of Ukraine and a major tourism center, seaport and transportation hub located on the northwestern shore of the Black Sea. It is also the administrative center of the Odessa Oblast and a multiethnic cultural center. Odessa is sometimes called the "pearl of the Black Sea", the "South Capital", and "Southern Palmyra". Before the Tsarist establishment of Odessa, an ancient Greek settlement existed at its location as elsewhere along the northwestern Black Sea coast. A more recent Tatar settlement was also founded at the location by Hacı I Giray, the Khan of Crimea in 1440 that was named after him as "Hacıbey". After a period of Lithuanian Grand Duchy control, Hacibey and surroundings became part of the domain of the Ottomans in 1529 and remained there until the empire's defeat in the Russo-Turkish War of 1792.

Ukraine sovereign state in Eastern Europe

Ukraine, sometimes called the Ukraine, is a country in Eastern Europe. Excluding Crimea, Ukraine has a population of about 42.5 million, making it the 32nd most populous country in the world. Its capital and largest city is Kiev. Ukrainian is the official language and its alphabet is Cyrillic. The dominant religions in the country are Eastern Orthodoxy and Greek Catholicism. Ukraine is currently in a territorial dispute with Russia over the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014. Including Crimea, Ukraine has an area of 603,628 km2 (233,062 sq mi), making it the largest country entirely within Europe and the 46th largest country in the world.

1905 Russian Revolution wave of mass political and social unrest that spread through vast areas of the Russian Empire

The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a wave of mass political and social unrest that spread through vast areas of the Russian Empire, some of which was directed at the government. It included worker strikes, peasant unrest, and military mutinies. It led to Constitutional Reform including the establishment of the State Duma, the multi-party system, and the Russian Constitution of 1906.

Career in music


Steinberg was a violinist in the first violin section of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, playing on their nationwide radio broadcasts in 1943 under the baton of conductor Arturo Toscanini. He was later first violinist with the Pittsburgh Symphony conducted by Fritz Reiner, with whom he also studied conducting. Other conductors under whom Steinberg performed were Otto Klemperer and Leopold Stokowski. [1]

The NBC Symphony Orchestra was a radio orchestra established by David Sarnoff, the president of the Radio Corporation of America, especially for the celebrated conductor Arturo Toscanini. The NBC Symphony performed weekly radio concert broadcasts with Toscanini and other conductors and served as house orchestra for the NBC network. The orchestra's first broadcast was on November 13, 1937 and it continued until disbanded in 1954. A new ensemble, independent of the network, called the "'Symphony of the Air'" followed. It was made up of former members of the NBC Symphony Orchestra and performed from 1954 to 1963, notably under Leopold Stokowski.

Arturo Toscanini Italy-born American conductor

Arturo Toscanini was an Italian conductor. He was one of the most acclaimed musicians of the late 19th and of the 20th century, renowned for his intensity, his perfectionism, his ear for orchestral detail and sonority, and his eidetic memory. He was at various times the music director of La Scala in Milan, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and the New York Philharmonic. Later in his career he was appointed the first music director of the NBC Symphony Orchestra (1937–54), and this led to his becoming a household name through his radio and television broadcasts and many recordings of the operatic and symphonic repertoire. Toscanini had absolute pitch.

Fritz Reiner Orchestra conductor

Frederick Martin "Fritz" Reiner was a prominent conductor of opera and symphonic music in the twentieth century. Hungarian born and trained, he emigrated to the United States in 1922, where he rose to prominence as a conductor with several orchestras. He reached the pinnacle of his career while music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Conductor and music director

Steinberg began conducting in 1941 with the National Youth Administration (NYA) Symphony, having studied under Pierre Monteux. [1] He conducted a performance of Darker America, written in 1924 by African-American composer William Grant Still. The performance was broadcast on WNYC (AM) radio in New York city on April 16, 1941. In the composer's program notes, Still wrote that the piece "is representative of the American Negro. His serious side is presented and is intended to suggest the triumph of a people over their sorrows through fervent prayer... the prayer of numbed, rather than anguished souls." [3]

National Youth Administration

The National Youth Administration (NYA) was a New Deal agency sponsored by the Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the United States that focused on providing work and education for Americans between the ages of 16 and 25. It operated from June 26, 1935 to 1939 as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and included a Division of Negro Affairs headed by Mary McLeod Bethune who worked at the agency from 1936 to 1943. Following the passage of the Reorganization Act of 1939, the NYA was transferred from the WPA to the Federal Security Agency. In 1942, the NYA was transferred to the War Manpower Commission (WMC). The NYA was discontinued in 1943.

Pierre Monteux French conductor

Pierre Benjamin Monteux was a French conductor. After violin and viola studies, and a decade as an orchestral player and occasional conductor, he began to receive regular conducting engagements in 1907. He came to prominence when, for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company between 1911 and 1914, he conducted the world premieres of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and other prominent works including Petrushka, Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé, and Debussy's Jeux. Thereafter he directed orchestras around the world for more than half a century.

William Grant Still American composer

William Grant Still was an American composer of more than 150 works, including five symphonies and eight operas.

As early as 1940, Benjamin Steinberg began to work with black conductors Dean Dixon and Everett Lee to establish the first fully integrated professional symphony orchestra in the U.S. [4] It would take another two decades to be achieved, however.

Black conductors

Black conductors are musicians of African, Caribbean, African-American ancestry and other members of the African diaspora who are musical ensemble leaders who direct classical music performances, such as an orchestral or choral concerts, or jazz ensemble big band concerts by way of visible gestures with the hands, arms, face and head. Conductors of African descent are rare, as the vast majority are male and Caucasian.

Dean Dixon American conductor

Charles Dean Dixon was an American conductor.

Everett Lee is an American conductor and violinist. He was the first African American to conduct a Broadway musical, the first to "conduct an established symphony orchestra below the Mason–Dixon line", and the first to conduct a performance by a major US opera company.

Symphony of the New World

As the civil rights movement of the 1960s gained momentum in the US, Steinberg founded a committee to create a symphony orchestra of accomplished musicians and conductors, irrespective of race. The mission statement of the Symphony of the New World was written two months before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law. [5] Steinberg accepted the post of Music Director and obtained funding for the orchestra's first season. The debut concert of the first fully integrated orchestra in America was held at Carnegie Hall on May 6, 1965, [1] [2] two months before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law. Steinberg said of the effort, "We have a lot of talent in this city, and we have to create the opportunities to present it to the public". [6]

Civil rights movement social movement in the United States during the 20th century

The civil rights movement in the United States was a decades-long struggle with the goal of enforcing constitutional and legal rights for African Americans that other Americans already enjoyed. With roots that dated back to the Reconstruction era during the late 19th century, the movement achieved its largest legislative gains in the mid-1960s, after years of direct actions and grassroots protests that were organized from the mid-1950s until 1968. Encompassing strategies, various groups, and organized social movements to accomplish the goals of ending legalized racial segregation, disenfranchisement, and discrimination in the United States, the movement, using major nonviolent campaigns, eventually secured new recognition in federal law and federal protection for all Americans.

Civil Rights Act of 1964 legislation

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a landmark civil rights and U.S. labor law in the United States that outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It prohibits unequal application of voter registration requirements, and racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations.

Voting Rights Act of 1965 piece of federal legislation in the United States that prohibits racial discrimination in voting

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a landmark piece of federal legislation in the United States that prohibits racial discrimination in voting. It was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson during the height of the Civil Rights Movement on August 6, 1965, and Congress later amended the Act five times to expand its protections. Designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, the Act secured the right to vote for racial minorities throughout the country, especially in the South. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Act is considered to be the most effective piece of federal civil rights legislation ever enacted in the country.

Sponsors included Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Ruby Dee, Langston Hughes, William Warfield, Aaron Copland, and Zero Mostel. [5] As the orchestra developed, Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price joined the Board of Directors, and James DePriest became Principal Guest Conductor. [5] Another prominent guest conductor was Everett Lee. [7]

The symphony's musicians were graduates of such respected music schools as Juilliard, Eastman School of Music, the Manhattan School of Music, and the New England Conservatory. Its performances were broadcast on the Voice of America and Armed Forces Radio to audiences worldwide. [6] Ebony magazine pronounced it, "for both artistic and sociological reasons, a major development in the musical history of the United States". [6] Following an August 1969, performance by the interracial Symphony, the Asbury Park Press (NJ) was effusive in its praise of Steinberg as the orchestra's "guiding light" in the belief that "discrimination has no place in the world of the symphony orchestra". His conducting was lauded by critic Charles Hill for its "impressive virtuosity". [8]

Steinberg (left) with composer George Walker in 1968 Benjamin Steinberg and Prof. George Walker.jpg
Steinberg (left) with composer George Walker in 1968

While music director of the Symphony of the New World, Steinberg collaborated with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Walker in the premiere of Walker's Address for Orchestra, performed by the Symphony of the New World in 1968. [9] In 1970, Steinberg conducted the Symphony of the New World at the Lincoln Center, New York City, in a performance of I Have a Dream, a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Donal Henahan said of the one-third black Symphony of the New World in 1970, "it regularly demonstrates the validity of its position in the largely lily‐white symphonic world". [10]

Steinberg continued as music director of the Symphony of the New World until October 1971, when he resigned after an acrimonious policy dispute with the orchestra's board. At the time of his resignation, the group had 80 musicians. [11] The papers of the Symphony of the New World reside at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. [2]

At the ballet

As Assistant Conductor of the American Ballet Theatre, he conducted the premiere of George Balanchine's Theme and Variations on November 26, 1947. [1] [12] Balanchine choreographed the ballet for prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso and Igor Youskevitch. Steinberg also did a South American tour with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo with Alonso and Youskevitch in the late 1940s, as well as with Melissa Hayden and Barbara Fallis, both of whom joined Alonso's ballet company in Cuba in 1959. [13]

In 1959, Steinberg became the first Music Director and conductor of the Cuban National Ballet, the ballet company managed by Alonso, renamed when Fidel Castro came to power that year. [14] Steinberg remained in that post until 1963, when he returned to the United States following a tour of the Soviet Union as conductor of the Cuban National Ballet Symphony Orchestra. [15]

On Broadway

Steinberg conducted many well-known Broadway musicals, including Leonard Bernstein’s production of Peter Pan (1950), starring Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff. [16] Others include The Golden Apple (1954), The Music Man (1957–1958), and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum . [1]

Appearance before House Un-American Activities Committee

On June 19, 1958, Steinberg testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, having been subpoenaed by the Committee as part of its wide-ranging probe of suspected Communist infiltration into the ranks of professional musicians. He declined to answer questions about certain musicians being investigated for Communist affiliation. [17] Although he did not invoke the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination in his own behalf, Steinberg said that to provide such information about others was an infringement of his right to freedom of association and freedom of speech:

Although I believe every word of the Fifth Amendment is immortal -- part of the Constitution of the United States -- I believe that its use by citizens has been under attack, and I believe it is my patriotic duty to resist this attack by basing my defense here on the fact that Congress has reserved to the people the right of free association and free speech, and it has specifically denied this area to Government. [17]

In response to further questioning by Richard Arens, permanent secretary to the Committee from 1957–1960, Steinberg said, "It is now 11 years since the first investigation of cultural artists, and this is the fourth consecutive year in New York City. I consider this an illegal harassment of members of the entertainment industry". [17]

He continued:

This is beyond the jurisdiction of the committee as it is defined in the House-enabling resolution. It is not pertinent to any subject within the committee's jurisdiction. The resolution creating this committee is unconstitutionally vague and, hence, invalid as the Supreme Court held in the Watkins Case [ Watkins v. United States ], and the questions put by the chairman invades those privileges which I consider to be my birthright, the freedom of association and the freedom of religion. Since I will not testify as to my own associations and beliefs, I would certainly not testify as to those of others. [17]

Personal life and death

Steinberg met his future wife, Pearl (born Sondak, 1918–1994), while they were both studying music at Curtis Institute. In later years, they made their home in Manhattan. Steinberg died on January 29, 1974, of pancreatic cancer and is survived by a daughter, Barbara. [1]

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  9. "George Walker (b. 1922) African American Composer & Pianist". January 1, 2016. Retrieved July 17, 2018.
  10. Henahan, Donal (March 2, 1970). "Leon Bates, Pianist, Is Soloist With Symphony of New World". New York Times. Retrieved July 17, 2018.
  11. Hughes, Allen (February 26, 1972). "New World Group Planning Concert". New York Times. p. 17. Retrieved July 17, 2018.
  12. "George Balanchine, Theme and Variations". New York City Center of Music and Drama. 1947. Retrieved July 18, 2018.
  13. Wirth, Iris (November 23, 2008). "Ballet Nacional de Cuba: sesenta aniversario" (in Spanish). Penúltimos Días. Retrieved August 10, 2018.
  14. Sánchez, Martha (October 17, 2014). "Estados Unidos y Cuba enlazados por el ballet" (in Spanish). On Cuba. Retrieved July 14, 2018.
  15. "Cuban Ballet to tour Russia". Reno Evening Gazette . December 19, 1962. p. 18. Retrieved July 14, 2018.
  16. Imperial Theatre flyer, April 24, 1950.
  17. 1 2 3 4 "Communism in the New York area (entertainment) : hearings before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives. Eighty-fifth Congress, second session". US Government Printing Office. 1958. pp. 2558–2564. Retrieved August 10, 2018.