The Bryant Park Concerts of Recorded Music

By Danielle Cordovez, Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound
February 7, 2022
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
A promotional poster for the "Outdoor Record Concerts."

Bryant Park Concerts of Recorded Music, * L (Special) 20-1, Box 3, Folder 6, Notices, [n.d.].

In 1937, Columbia Records donated 500 newly published 78 rpm recordings to The New York Public Library's Music Division, then located at the flagship branch on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. Collecting recorded music was a new and unprecedented concept for public libraries in the 1930s, and the Music Division was unsure of what to do with its collection. Still, the record library grew, and other major labels like Decca and RCA Victor also began to donate new releases.

A black 78 rpm record of the Richard Strauss opera Der Rosenkavalier

A 78 rpm recording  of the Richard Strauss opera Der Rosenkavalier  donated to the Music Division "Compliments of the Columbia Phonograph Co. Inc." Call no.: *LR 73

By 1947, the Music Division's collection had grown to an estimated 3,000 discs. With no means for the public to access these records, the division began hosting free monthly public programs featuring music from the new record library on Wednesday afternoons and evenings in the Library's lecture room 213. The record library was the first major sound archive open to the general public.

 An unidentified Music Division staff member pulling records.

Bryant Park Concerts of Recorded Music, *L (Special) 20-1, Box 3,
Folder 7, Photographs, [n.d.].

The idea for outdoor concerts came from a patron's suggestion to hold the concerts in the back of the Library in Bryant Park. With financial support from the pianist, singer, and songwriter Lanny Ross, the Music Division purchased equipment, hired a disc jockey, and in 1948 began holding midday concerts from noon to 2 PM on weekdays. The Union Dime Savings Bank funded the outdoor concerts from 1949 until the programs ended in 1968. The Bryant Park concerts became a popular lunchtime haunt, averaging 2,000 attendees daily.

Curious patrons reading the music program for that day .

Bryant Park Concerts of Recorded Music, *L (Special) 20-1, Box 3,
Folder 7, Photographs, [n.d.].

Concertgoers enjoying the music.

Bryant Park Concerts of Recorded Music, *L (Special) 20-1, Box 3,
Folder 7, Photographs, [n.d.].

Assistant chief Philip L. Miller (who later became chief of the Music Division) recognized the importance of collecting and archiving recordings. His visionary zeal was instrumental in the success of the concerts, which he curated, organized, and provided commentary. One of the most successful was the memorial concert dedicated to the career of Enrico Caruso (1873–1921), where an estimated 5,000 listeners attended on August 2, 1951, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the tenor's death.

Enrico Caruso memorial program.

Bryant Park Concerts of Recorded Music, *L (Special) 20-1, Box 1,
Folder 4, Programs, August 2, 1951.

With support from the Avalon and Rodgers and Hammerstein Foundations, the record library expanded to include listening facilities and a lab in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts when the building opened in 1965 and later became the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound. The archive is currently one of the largest collections in the world and forms part of the Music and Recorded Sound Division.

The concert series is documented in the Bryant Park Concerts of Recorded Music collection (call no: *L (Special) 20-1) and contains concert programs, announcements, articles, correspondence, and photographs dating from 1948 to 1968. Items from this collection are on display on the third floor of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts until April 8, 2022.