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The Musical Digest

(New York, 1920-1948)

Prepared by Richard Kitson
Online only (2024)

The index for years 1920 to 1926 will be available in the RIPM Index in January 2024. Years 1927 to 1948 will be available in July 2024.


The American music periodical, The Musical Digest [RIPM code MDG], was published in New York City under the editorship of its founder Pierre van Rensselaer Key,[1] from 25 October 1920 (Vol. I, No. 1) until Key’s death in December 1944 (Vol. 27, No. 2), and continued under the sponsorship of publisher Henry H. Reichhold and editorship of Alfred Human, from January-February 1945 (Vol. 27, No. 3) until its final issue December-January 1948-1949 (Vol. 30, No. 9), when it concluded owing to "prohibitive publishing costs."[2] Key's journal was published in two formats. First, regularly, as a weekly musical newspaper, from the periodical's inception until 26 December 1926 and sporadically in newspaper format from January to 31 May 1927[3]; and second, at first sporadically in 1926,[4] and regularly beginning at Vol. XII, No. 8 (7 June 1927) as a magazine. The newspaper numbers, which comprised from eight to twenty pages, were printed in four-column format, with titles and by-lines, and were organized topically with a considerable number of photographs supporting opinions and ideas in reviews and reports. Magazine numbers of varying sizes which comprised thirty to eighty pages, were printed in two- or three-column format and organized quite differently: a cover page, advertisements, a table of contents, articles, reviews and photographs and concluding advertisements.

Pierre van Rensselaer Key, born in Grand Haven, Michigan on 28 August 1872, was educated at the Chicago Musical College. He joined the staff of the Chicago Times-Herald in 1898 as assistant music critic, and subsequently served as music and dramatic critic for the Chicago American, and later as city and night editor for the Chicago Examiner. In 1907 Key joined the New York World as music editor and critic and served in these capacities until 1919, the year of his founding of The Musical Digest. Possessor of a highly developed tenor voice, Key was one of the two highest paid church singers in Chicago, and, with New York music writer and critic William J. Henderson, was "considered among the most authoritative judges of the human voice in America."[5] His personal contributions to The Musical Digest are the organization of extensive reviews of concert and opera performances entitled “digests”, as they contained materials derived from several sources; regular editorial columns commenting on problems, solutions and positive developments in American musical life, in "Pierre Key's Observations," covering all aspects of American musical life of the period in reviews and commentaries, and in editorials about important aspects of American musical life. In addition to his newspaper and periodical work, Key was author of authoritative biographies of Enrico Caruso and John McCormack,[6]  each based on his personal acquaintance with these important singers, and, in his The Business of Singing, he explained vocal technique with advice and made pertinent remarks on the teaching methods of average singing professors.[7] As a teacher, Key lectured at the Julliard School of Music. His musical dictionaries and handbooks were created to assist the eager music student in the search for musical knowledge.[8] Key was also well-known as a radio commentator and director of radio programs.

The scope of the periodical was enormous owing to the immense geographical distances between cities with musical activities in the United States, and the enormity of changes that came about in the 1920 to 1948 period. Affecting musical matters were the recovery of the nation following the First World War of 1914-18, the influenza pandemic which followed the First World War, the financial crash of 1929 and the ensuing depression, the Second World War and its aftermath, as well as the great advance of musical knowledge and technology related to musical activities. The varied responses of the American musical world to each of these aspects of musical life is reflected throughout the hundreds of reviews, correspondence, reports and articles in The Musical Digest.

Musical criticism plays an enormous role in the pages of this periodical. Each issue contains regular comprehensive reviews of operatic, concert and recital performances, and publications of new music and books about music in the major American cities: the five east coast cities: Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D. C.; the mid-west cities: Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis; and the cities of the Pacific Coast: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. Less regular are other centers such as New Orleans and Atlanta. The special feature in most of these reviews is the inclusion of extracts from the major local newspapers from cities and towns in all parts of the country. For the first decade of this publication, the names of the music critics and titles of the newspapers are given; James G. Hunecker, Henry Krehbiel, William J. Henderson, Pitts Sanborn, Deems Taylor, Alexander Fried, and Bruno Zirato are to be found in such reviews and individual articles. (In later years, names of critics and newspaper names were not included, and this practice disappeared without comment, but extracts of anonymous critical opinion continued to be included).

Foremost are those reviews and articles about operas, chiefly performed by the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York City and on tour, the Chicago Civic Opera Company at home and also on tour, and the touring ensemble of the San Carlo Opera Company with its seasons of well-known Italian and French operas, commencing in Montreal or New York City, and extending westward to the Pacific Coast, concluding in Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington, and the Canadian cities of Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia. Opera performances in cities between these Eastern and Western locations also received critical comments. Other touring opera companies and local opera companies in Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D. C. receive fairly extensive reports and local critical reviews.

The Metropolitan Opera Company, under the directorship of Giulio Gatti-Casazza until 1935 and thereafter directed by the Canadian tenor Edward Johnson, was a feature topic in season announcements and performance reviews. Gatti-Casazza's managerial period featured a strong basic repertoire of Italian, French, German and Russian operas performed by an equally strong ensemble featuring important European singers, Beniamino Gigli, Giovanni Martinelli, Lucrezia Bori, Maria Jeritza, Maria Mueller, Giuseppe De Luca, Ezio Pinza, Friedrich Schorr and Feodor Chaliapin among the many. American singers engaged in this period included Geraldine Farrar, Louise Homer, Paul Althouse, Mario Chamlee, Clarence Whitehall, Richard Bonelli and numerous other native singers in comprimario roles. Important conductors during these decades were Arturo Toscanini and Tullio Serafin for Italian operas, Louis Hasselmans for French operas, and Arthur Bodanzky for the German repertoire. Gatti-Casazza brought new European operas to the Metropolitan Opera stage each season, including Catalani's Loraley, Puccini's Turandot, Erich Korngold's Die tote Stadt, and Richard Strauss' Die ägyptische Helen, and two operas by American composer, Deems Taylor, The King's Henchman and Peter Ibbetson, all represented by extensive introductory information, reviews and production photographs. Taylor's operas were hailed as the first truly successful operas by native born American librettists and composer.[9]

Edward Johnson, for thirteen years a notable tenor of the Metropolitan Opera Company, steered the company through more complicated times from 1935 until 1950, introducing several new developments. Like Gatti-Casazza, Johnson sustained a basic repertoire of Italian, French, German and Russian operas. An exceptional production was the twentieth-century opera, Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes in 1948. Johnson employed a strong cast of European singers including Kirsten Flagstad, Karin Branzell, Elisabeth Rethberg, Lauritz Melchior, Herbert Jansen, Maria Caniglia, Bruna Castagna, Lily Pons, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and René Maison prior to the Second World War, and other European singers at the conclusion of the hostilities, including Torsten Ralf, Stella Roman, Martial Singher, Set Svanholm among many. Faced with the problems of the depression, the political disturbances in Europe and the eventual Second World War, Johnson and his associates established new adjuncts to regular performances: the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air, broadcast on NBC Radio from 1935 to 1958, in search of competent and talented American opera singers;[10] the creation of the Metropolitan Opera Guild with the assistance of Mrs. August Belmont and Lucrezia Bori for the raising of guaranty funds and creating in 1936 the periodical Opera News, the subscription monies of which were given to the opera company; transference of the ownership of the Metropolitan Opera Company and Metropolitan Opera House by the Metropolitan Opera Association from the original New York City society members in 1940; introduction of an audio device to permit singers to hear one another on the vast spaces of the old Metropolitan Opera House stage; replacement of the Diamond Horseshoe of exclusive box seating for wealthy patrons with parterre seating, including space for a booth for radio broadcasting.[11]

The second American city with a major opera company in this period was Chicago, in which a succession of opera companies rose and fell during the publication years of The Musical Digest: The Chicago Opera Association directed in 1921-22 by the Scottish soprano, Mary Garden; the Chicago Civic Opera Association, Samuel Insull, president, 1922-32; the Chicago Grand Opera Company, 1933-1935; the Chicago City Opera, 1935-1939, Paul Longone, general manager; the Chicago Opera Company, 1940-1946, Henry Weber, general director. The selection of operas by the Windy City opera companies featured a core repertoire of Italian and German operas but was preeminent in the introduction of important French operas, in many cases sung by native French singers and singers specializing in French opera: Debussy's Pelléas et Melisande, Charpentier's Louise, Massenet's Werther, Sapho, Don Quichotte, Cendrillon and Thais, Henri Fevrier's Monna Vanna and Arthur Honegger's Judith, many with Mary Garden herself. Many twentieth-century operas were featured in this repertoire: Richard Strauss's Salome, Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges, Franco Alfano's Risurezzione and Italo Montemezzi's L'amore dei tre re among them. The Musical Digest features extensive reviews from the Chicago daily press, overviews of these opera seasons by Pierre Key himself,[12] and local reviews from the daily presses of the home city and cities visited by the Chicago Civic Opera Company during its extensive tours. Of great importance and considerable interest was the envisioning and building in 1929 of the Civic Opera Building, a forty-two story office tower containing a 3,563 seat opera house, created by millionaire businessman Samuel Insull. The Musical Digest gives a feature position to this undertaking, complete with pertinent exterior and interior photographs.[13]

Extremely detailed is The Musical Digest's treatment of the development of symphony orchestras in the United States. In 1920, there were seven notable symphony orchestras, two in New York City, and one each in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cincinnati and Cleveland. The creation of symphony orchestras in Pacific Coast and in interior cities followed in the next decades. Considerable discussion of the societies of lay men and women who supported these performing organizations as guarantors is given prominent journal space. Orchestral concerts received extensive reviews with emphasis on the American premières of new compositions by European and American composers, Reviews of symphony concerts reveal a rich repertoire of both classic and twentieth-century compositions. Noteworthy is the general dislike of "modern music" compositions by almost all music critics of the numerous American newspapers. New York City had two societies giving professional orchestra concerts in the first decade of The Musical Digest's existence: The New York Philharmonic Society orchestra, conducted by a series of Eminent European conductors including Arturo Toscanini, Otto Klemperer, Willem Mengelberg, Albert Coates, Otto Klemperer, and the New York Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Walter Damrosch and occasional guest conductors. These two symphony societies merged in 1926 to become the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Society which added Columbia Broadcasting System radio broadcasts, American tours and the engagements of British conductors, among them, John Barbirolli and Thomas Beecham to its activities. In addition to these local New York City orchestras, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky conducting, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting, gave regular series of concerts in Carnegie Hall.

As they developed in performance skills, orchestras of other cities gave annual concerts in Carnegie Hall. Solo recitals, held in New York City's Aeolian Hall, Carnegie Hall and Town Hall by singers, instrumentalists and choral and chamber music ensembles, were prominent offerings of each musical season, and featured the finest of European, Latin, Canadian and American performers, among them singers Elena Gerhardt, John Charles Thomas, John McCormack and Edward Johnson and other noted singers of the Metropolitan Opera Company; pianists Myra Hess, Alfred Cortot, Walter Gieseking, Guiomar Novaes, Olga Samaroff, Josef Hofmann, Ossip Gabrilowitsch and Harold Bauer; violinists Fritz Kreisler, Bronisław Hubermann, Joseph Szigetti, Erica Morin and Albert Spalding; cellists Pablo Casals and Hans Kindler; the Flonzaley and Hart House String Quartets and the Schola Cantorum and Oratorio Society of New York. The metropolis served in a unique role: its concert halls featured debut recitals of hundreds of American singers and instrumentalists in recital, each performer seeking a positive or outstanding critical notice from the city's newspaper music writers. Such endeavors cost many hundreds of dollars. Unfortunately, ninety-five percent of these young debutantes were ill-equipped technically and interpretatively to achieve the sought-after positive notice. Short but pertinent reviews of these concerts are featured in columns entitled "The Critical Scales" and "The Balance of Opinion." On a number of occasions Pierre Key and other writers wrote articles about this debut system, deploring the ineptitude of these performers, poorly trained by incompetent teachers, and the wastage of monies. Each season's offerings were enriched by programs of the dance given by Anna Pavlova and her Ballet Russe, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn and their Denishawn Dancers and many other American dancers, all of which led to the creation of the Ballet Theater. Annual large choral concerts featured the Oratorio Society of New York, the Dayton Westminster Choir, the Papal Choir of the Vatican, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, the Winnipeg Male Voice Choir and smaller New Yok City ensembles.

Publications of musical compositions by American and European composers, and publications created specifically for young vocal and instrumental students receive thoughtful critical reports. Particularly impressive are the efforts of different groups in the provision of publication of compositions by American composers by means of fund raising. Reports on the achievement of the Carnegie Trust of British Music are included. Books on musical subjects, biographies, teaching methods, orchestration and instrumentation, many English-language translations of important French and German publications, also receive instructive reviews.

At the outset of many issues are articles dealing with business and social events (conventions) of the many American musically related associations, held in major hotels in many different towns and cities, all developed during the journal's period of publication. Of considerable significance are the conventions and annual meetings of nationwide organizations representing professional activities concerning music such as the Music Teachers' National Association, the University Settlement Society, the National Association of American Harpists, to name a few. Pierre Key's weekly comment offers remarks on the "Aggregation of several thousand organizations pledged to advance the best interests of music in their respective communities"[14] Important and significant is the National Association of Music Clubs, representing a women's organization with branches throughout the United States, each sponsoring a recital series with music appreciation instruction in 500 communities, and competitions for young singers and instrumentalists. Speeches of the NFMC President delivered at the annual convention are reproduced in the journal.

Music heard through mechanical means is a continuously developing aspect of American musical life, and is reported on extensively in The Musical Digest. Phonograph recordings and phonograph machines, produced by the Columbia Phonograph Co., the Victor Talking Machine Company and a number of professional manufacturers, receive considerable discussion of ongoing improvements up to the introduction of the long-playing disc, throughout the journal's run. An outstanding contribution to the worldwide musical life was the Columbia Gramophone Co.'s competition for the completion of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony in 1927.[15] Important also are the various forms of player pianos, particularly those that contain information about each composition's formal layout and copies of the actual musical score, printed on the right-hand side roll which activates the piano. These are important records of the pianistic skills of the foremost pianists of the period, Ignace Jan Paderewski, Josef Hofmann, Harold Bauer, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Guiomar Novaes and Myra Hess. Electric organs, as developed by the Allen, Hammond and Wurlitzer manufacturing companies, receive analytical discussion and performance reviews, as does the concert organ in Wanamaker's department stores in New York City and Philadelphia.[16] The complicated developments of radio broadcasting[17] and television[18] transmission---programs, sponsorship, development of National Broadcasting Company, Columbia Broadcasting System and American Broadcasting Company and the role big business played in radio broadcasting, its repertoire, rehearsal and actual broadcasting --- are among the many topics of importance which had to be overcome for the future of these important mediums.

The uses of music by the Hollywood motion picture industry are told in many articles and photographs in various issues, beginning with the development of full symphony orchestras to provide accompaniment for silent films and to develop music appreciation venues by performing the symphonic repertoire.[19] The rise of the motion picture with sound, "the talkies," is a central topic in the special motion picture number.[20] The introduction and technical development of motion picture musical films is featured in "Opera Goes West,"[21] Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, the first opera transformed by Fortune Gallo into the motion picture medium. The complications of writing music for motion pictures discussed by a composer, George Antheil,[22] and musicians in motion pictures are chronicled.[23] Under the title "Green Pastures of Filmland" are five photographs of eminent singers and a pianist [Paderewski] all featured in motion pictures.[24]

Music education New York City and Chicago and in many towns and cities occupies considerable space. Full-page features of many issues, entitled "School and Studio News" and "The Studio Easy Chair" are given for information concerning the curricula of conservatories and music schools, biographical information about teachers and their accomplished professional pupils, concerts and recitals and lists of graduates, as well as photographs of successful teachers and students. An important and ongoing feature is the creation and development of the Julliard School of Music in New York City from a merger of the Institute of Musical Art and the Julliard Graduate School, including the circumstances bequest of Augustus Julliard and various incidents concerning management, faculty, finance and curriculum.[25] The building and financing of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, by the wealthy founder of the Eastman Kodak Company, entrepreneur George Eastman, is celebrated by reports of the building's progress, the opening concerts with extensive photographs of exterior and interior views and continuing news of the institutions development under the direction of noted American composer Howard Hanson.[26] Other important teaching institution are the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, founded by Mary Louise Bok, at which deserving students were given free tuition with famous instrumentalists and vocalists; and the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland, the oldest such institution in the United States. The activities of private music instruction by vocal and instrumental experts feature coloratura soprano Estelle Liebling and pianist Edwin Hughes.

Outstanding are the independent feature articles that appear in almost all issues of the journal. These articles, usually accompanied by a photograph of the author or a picture of some important aspect of his writing, deal with various aspects of musical performance and many topics of contemporary musical life in the United States, Canada, and Europe. From an enormous list of such articles, titles of a few randomly selected articles follow: “How I Became an Athlete” on the personal life of operatic soprano Maria Jeritza; “Ballyhoo or the Goods” by John Tasker Howard; “It’s Springtime on Broadway” by staff writer Madeleine Loeb;[27] “Radio’s Ten-year Record” By Levering Tyson;[28] “Microphone  Personality” by Edmund Kennedy;[29] and “Music Today for the ‘World of Tomorrow’,” about the New York City World’s Fair, by Olin Downes.[30]

An exceptional aspect of American musical life during the Great Depression and the Second World War, was the creation on May 6, 1935 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins, of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The Federal Music Project, part of Federal Project Number One, aimed to help some of the 3.5 million unemployed musicians and writers. The various projects and their performances, under the direction of Nicolai Sokoloff,  are encountered regularly from 1936 through 1942 the journal.[31] The many activities of musical entertainment organizations for servicemen and women continue at the beginning of 1943.[32]

This RIPM Index was produced from copies of the journal held by the Library of Congress and the Sibley Music Library of the Eastman School of Music.


[1] For a biography of Pierre Key, see “Pierre Key,” The Musical Digest 27, No. 2 (November–December 1945): 4-5.

[2] Statement of Ownership, Management, Circulation, etc., The Musical Digest 27, no. 4 (May 1946): 4.

[3] Vol. 11, nos. 13-15, 17-19, 21-24, 26, and Vol. 12, nos. 1-7.

[4] Vol. 11, nos. 16, 20, 25, and Vol. 12, no. 3.

[5] "Pierre Key": 4.

[6] Pierre V. R. Key and Bruno Zirato, Enrico Caruso: a biography (Boston: Little Brown, 1922). John McCormack, His Own Life Story (Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1918).

[7] This Business of Singing (New York: Pierre Key Publishing Corporation, 1937).

[8] Pierre Key's Music Year Book (New York: Pierre Key, Inc., 1928-1938). Pierre Key's Musical Who's Who (New York: P. Key, 1931) and Pierre Key's Radio Annual (New York: Pierre Key, 1933).

[9] Giulio Gatti-Casazza’s career at the Metropolitan Opera Company is investigated carefully in 1935, the year of his retirement.

[10] Noteworthy among the winners of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air during the Johnson years were Frank Guarrera, Mack Harrell, Margaret Harshaw, Robert Merrill, Patrice Munsel, Eleanor Steer and Leonard Warren.

[11] For a summary of Edward Johnson's position at the inception of his directorship, see "The Ushering in of a New Regime." The Musical Digest 21, no. 4 (April 1926): [34-42].

[12] See for example, Pierre V. R. Key, "PVRK's Observations," 2, no. 15 (30 January 1922): 12.

[13] See The Musical Digest 14, no. 12: 13-15 for articles and photographs of Insull’s skyscraper building and opera house.

[14] The Musical Digest 3, no. 19 (Tuesday, 27 February 1923): 4.

[15] "Unfinished Symphony Prize." The Musical Digest 12, no. 11 (October 1927): 9, and Pierre V. R. Key, “The Unfinished Symphony.” The Musical Digest 12, no. 11 (October 1927): 23.

[16] K. K., "Signor Bossi Discusses Organs." The Musical Digest 7, no. 17 (19 February 1925): 15.

[17]  See J. W. Muray and Edward Wallerstein, “The Phonograph’s Contribution. A Symposium.” The Musical Digest 26, no. 3 (January–February 1945): 18-29, 46.

[18] See John F. Royal, “Television is Tuning Up” The Musical Digest 26, no. 3 (January–February 1945): 24, 45.

[19] “Serious Music in Motion Picture Theaters," The Musical Digest 4, no. 23 (25 September 1923): 5.

[20] For an extensive overview of the Hollywood studio leaders of the motion picture medium giving opinions about the inclusion of music in films, see “The Story in Pictures," The Musical Digest 22, no. 4 (May-June 1937): 6-11, 18-23, 27.

[21] Edmund Kennedy, “Opera Goes West.” The Musical Digest 14, no. 8 (August 1930): 14-15.

[22] George Antheil, "Composers in Movieland." The Musical Digest 20, no. 4 (April 1935): 18-20.

[23] "Voices on the Screen." The Musical Digest 21, no. 4 (April 1936): 71-73.

[24] “Green Pastures of Filmland.” The Musical Digest 21, no. 11 (November 1936): 22-23.

[25] See Pierre Key, "Educational Outpourings." The Musical Digest 9, no. 16 (2 February 1926): 4.

[26] “Some Eastman School of Music Interior Views." The Musical Digest 11, no. 21 (March 1922): 11.

[27] Madeleine Loeb, “It’s Spring time on Broadway.” The Musical Digest 11, no. 25 (5 April 1927): 27, 64.

[28] Levering Tyson, “Radio’s Ten-Year Record.” The Musical Digest 21, no. 12 (December 1936): 11.

[29] Edmund Kennedy, “Microphone Personality.” The Musical Digest 15, no. 7 (July 1930): 16, 34. A page of caricatures, “Miming It” by Silvester accompanies this article on p. 17.

[30] Olin Downs, “Music Today for the ‘World of Tomorrow.’” The Musical Digest 23, no. 9 (September 1938): 30-33.

[31] “The World of Music. A Year’s Summary.” The Musical Digest 21, no. 4 (April 1936): 25.

[32] “USO Troupe Movements. Stellar Attractions for the Old Camp Grounds.” The Musical Digest 25, no. 8 (Spring 1943): 22-23.