This December 7 marks the 160th birthday of America's oldest symphony orchestra. One hundred and sixty is not usually a milestone that one celebrates. However, this year, after more than 50 years of pursuit, the New York Philharmonic has acquired the diary of its founder and first conductor, Ureli Corelli Hill, a document that presents a new picture of its earliest years and gives good cause for a major celebration.
In this diary, Hill describes his first voyage to Europe in 1835, and reveals details about musical life abroad that would inform the course that the New York orchestra was to take under his leadership. The New York Evening Star claimed that Hill was the "first American Musician, who has gone to Europe solely with the view of improvement in his profession. . . ."
Hill begins in London, travels through Rotterdam to Kassel then Düsseldorf, back to London and ends up in Paris before returning to New York after two years. While abroad, Hill studied with, among others, the renowned composer-violinist Louis Spohr, who, Hill writes, "look'd upon it as a very novel thing that a person should come . . . such a great distance, to him. . . . He might indeed consider it novel, as I am the first American artist in musick that ever undertook it."
On May 19, 1836, Hill introduces himself to Felix Mendelssohn and is invited to participate in "two grand performances‹the 1st day was Paulus [the oratorio St. Paul]‹the following day Monday, the performance was composed of the Sinfonie No. 9 in D minor of Beethoven. . . ."
Of the Beethoven, Hill writes: "The majesty vigor, genius, originality and the lyric effects of the Sinfonie of Beethoven . . . was indescribably fine. . . . It will be a 100 years before the like can possibly be hoped to be heard in the United States."
Hill returned to New York in the spring of 1837 and took up his regular duties of playing, conducting, and agitating for a better musical life in the city. In 1842, he led a meeting of local musicians who voted to establish the Philharmonic Society of New York. The inaugural concert, which he led, opened with the first complete performance in America of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. Years later, the New York Tribune described how "the musicians almost went wild with delight. . . . They threw themselves into each other's arms laughing, weeping, and applauding in a breath. The effect on the public . . . was similar. The enthusiasm was indescribable. The success of the Society was assured at the start."
Barbara Haws is the archivist/historian of the New York Philharmonic.