Carnegie Hall’s Note-Worthy History

On opening night, May 5, 1891, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a Russian composer whose name is synonymous with greatness, took the stage at Carnegie Hall (at the time called Music Hall) and ushered in a new era for music in New York and the United States as a whole. Today, as the hall celebrates its 125th anniversary, the music venue remains as instrumental to arts and culture as ever.

Industrialist Andrew Carnegie conceived of a new concert hall just four years prior to that opening night. Plans were set into motion soon after the need for a venue was presented to him and parcels of land across from Central Park in New York City’s Midtown—at the time considered the suburbs—were purchased. In 1890, the cornerstone of the historic building was cemented into place with Carnegie proclaiming: “It is built to stand for ages, and during these ages it is probable that this hall will intertwine itself with the history of our country.”

Carnegie Hall, showing the building as it originally appeared in 1891
Photo of Carnegie Hall, showing the building as it originally appeared in 1891. (Courtesy of Carnegie Hall Archives)

Since its inception, the building, fashioned in the Gilded Age style, has been praised for its superior acoustics and elegant, functional design. Musicians from across the globe have stood on the hall’s main stage, bringing in new music, art and ideas. “Selling out Carnegie Hall became like a high watermark of somebody’s artistic achievement. … It really sort of acted as an anchor for America’s growing cultural identity,” says Gino Francesconi, director of the archives and the Rose Museum at Carnegie Hall, a role he’s held for 30 years.

In 1960, the city of New York purchased the hall, saving it from imminent demolition and securing it as a permanent piece of the city’s culture and history. “It’s a fascinating story. … How it was almost knocked down, how it started [and] is really unique in the United States,” Francesconi says. “In my opinion, it actually even helped us as a country … [providing] a cultural security.”

Berliner Philharmoniker performing last season in the hall's Stern Auditorium.
Berliner Philharmoniker performing last season in the hall’s Stern Auditorium. (Chris Lee)

The hall has continually evolved with the times, welcoming addresses from prominent figures including Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt, as well as historic performances by classical composers like Igor Stravinsky (who conducted the New York Philharmonic for his U.S. debut at the hall), jazz greats like Duke Ellington and pop sensations like The Beatles.

In honor of its 125th year, the hall has commissioned an unprecedented project under the guidance of Executive and Artistic Director Clive Gillinson. Between the 2015 and 2020 seasons, established and emerging leaders in the music world will be commissioned to create and perform a minimum of 125 new works. This bold undertaking celebrates the history of the iconic hall, while at the same time forging its path into the future. For beloved Carnegie Hall, the show must—and definitely will—go on.

Watch it:
These Carnegie Hall performances through the end of 2016 are not to be missed.

Berliner Philharmoniker
Nov. 9 and 10

Marking one of the final perfor­mances with Sir Simon Rattle as the Berliner Philharmoniker artistic director, this program highlights the stunning works that came out of Europe throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


Andrew Bird
Dec. 12

Sometimes called a one-man orchestra, multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird will bring his unique violin techniques and melodic vocals to the stage for a night rich in genres.

By Briana Verdugo
Lead photo by Jeff Goldberg/Esto