The New York Philharmonic (formally titled the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York) has many long-running traditions. One is numbering our performances (in fact, we're the only symphony orchestra in the world to keep a running tally). Another is the conferring of Honorary Membership in the Society on those who have made outstanding contributions to the Orchestra or to the world of symphonic music. It is bestowed only on rare occasions and only with the unanimous approval of the Board.
In the Philharmonic's second season, 1843-44, the first Honorary Member was the 24-year-old violinist, Henri Vieuxtemps. Obviously taking a casual view of the infant orchestra, the virtuoso booked himself for two performances on the same night: one with the Orchestra, the other, a more lucrative engagement, at the Park Theatre, downtown. While the Philharmonic opened with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, a musician was posted to keep a look-out for the itinerant soloist. (His actions caught the attention of music critic Henry C. Watson, who noted that the musician's actions during the performance‹walking around the stage, going off and coming on‹caused the audience to wonder what these distracting, mysterious movements were about.) During the break at the Park Theatre, Vieuxtemps rushed uptown just as the Philharmonic was finishing the symphony's second movement. The violinist needed to return almost immediately for the second half of the Park's program, so the Philhar-monic delayed the rest of the Beethoven so he could perform one of his own compositions. While his performance was greeted "by repeated, earnest, and hearty applause," the previously distraught Philharmonic look-out blocked his hasty exit and presented Vieuxtemps with his Honorary Membership certificate. That ceremony over, the Orchestra took up where they had left off, and played the final two movements of the Beethoven symphony.
Subsequent induction ceremonies have tended to be less chaotic and more refined, but they have been just as meaningful in the Orchestra's long legacy of recognizing those who have made outstanding contributions. Over the last 166 years, 63 individuals have been so recognized. These include a wide variety of people. Nineteenth-century inductees included Felix Mendelssohn, Jenny Lind, and Richard Wagner, the last of whom wrote in his 1873 acceptance letter: "I look upon the honor as a beautiful reward of my efforts in behalf of art, to have won friends in the new and, for me, unfortunately, strange world whose sympathy has reared me a sort of spiritual home."
In later years Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, and Rudolf Serkin have been recognized in particular for their long and loyal relationship with the Orchestra. Others who were outstanding supporters and admirers of music and the arts have been acknowledged, among them Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and President Harry S. Truman.
The appointment of Honorary Members continues today, with the current roster comprising former Music Directors Pierre Boulez and Zubin Mehta and the Philharmonic's former President and Chairman Carlos Moseley, whom you will see listed at the bottom of the page with the Orchestra's roster. For a complete list of the Philharmonic's Honorary Members, visit nyphil.org/about/honorary.cfm
Barbara Haws is the Archivist/Historian of the New York Philharmonic.