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Take A Trip Through 174 Years Of Classical Music

“We’re a little crazy. We’re the only orchestra in the world that numbers all its concerts.”

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The New York Philharmonic has always had a data-collection streak. From the first concert on December 7, 1842, information about every performance — who participated, what was performed, who attended — has been meticulously catalogued and cross-referenced. These days, the Phil even keeps track of minutes played by each performer on stage, similar to how a baseball team would track a pitcher’s pitch count to account for wear and tear.

Now, that information is reaching the cloud in the form of the Philharmonic’s digital archives. Some of the data is even on GitHub. On this week’s episode of our podcast What’s The Point, Barbara Haws, archivist/historian at the Philharmonic, discusses what the digitization process has taught her and others about the rich history of classical music.

Stream or download the full episode above, or subscribe using your favorite podcast app. Here are some photos from my visit to the archives, and excerpts from the conversation.

Barbara Haws, archivist/historian at the New York Philharmonic.

Barbara Haws, archivist/historian at the New York Philharmonic.

Jody Avirgan

A ledger from 1875 marking New York Philharmonic rehearsal attendance. Performers were fined for every event they missed.

A ledger from 1875 marking New York Philharmonic rehearsal attendance. Performers were fined for every event they missed.

Jody Avirgan

A long history of neurotic record-keeping

Barbara Haws: I’ve worked in other archives, but I’ve never seen an archive like this one, that has maintained the level of detail that the Philharmonic has, since the very beginning. It has nothing to do with me. It has to do with the way that they set out in 1842, and the traditions they took on then. But those traditions are still carried out [today]. When I came, I observed what those traditions were, and I said, “I’m not going to be the one to change it.”

And that was before we had such a thing as the digital age, and digital humanities. And little did they know how valuable all of this detail was going to be.

Jody Avirgan: You have to thank yourself that the first people had wonky minds! What if a flake happened to have been the first employee of the Philharmonic?

Haws: Well, partly the reason they kept all this detail is because they were partners, they were a cooperative that managed themselves. So in order to trust each other, they wrote everything down.

The score for Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, used in the first ever New York Philharmonic performance, on December 7, 1842.

The score for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, used in the first ever New York Philharmonic performance, on December 7, 1842.

Jody Avirgan

How patterns will emerge from the digital archives

Haws: Our goal is to digitize every document that’s in the archives, regardless of its significance to us. Our assumption is that we really don’t know, ourselves, what might be of significance to a researcher. And we’ve learned that year in and year out — something rises to the top, and we didn’t realize its meaning. It’s been here all along, it sits quietly where it is until we have enough information to connect the dots, then all of a sudden [it] becomes a new revelation.

Avirgan: And I guess this is the first time that it’s not just up to you to connect the dots. People out in the world are connecting the dots. Has that happened?

Haws: I don’t know, they don’t talk to me anymore! Here in the reading room at this table, [in the] pre-digitization world, people had to come here to do research. So we would talk. I’m still working on [figuring out] how we replicate that discussion. How do we share. But regardless, more will be known, and it will have greater value than could ever be managed at this very small room and this reading table.


If you’re a fan of What’s The Point, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. And be sure to check out our sports show Hot Takedown as well. Have something to say about this episode, or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email, on Twitter, or in the comments.

What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.

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