May Pole in central park, 1915/Library of congress

What a summer night in Central Park sounded like 95 years ago

Remembering the Goldman Band’s long-since faded music 

It wasn’t so long ago that the only music you could listen to was in real time. To hear something new, you had to be there for a performance or play it yourself.

These days, beats blare from open car windows, pop hooks waft down supermarket aisles, indiscernible melodies leak from the headphones of strangers on the subway.

New technologies have repeatedly changed the relationship between music and public space.

Recording devices have both eroded and amplified our ability to be deliberate about what we hear. You can’t mute the music on the elevator, for instance, but it’s easy to drown it out with a perfectly crafted iPod playlist.

The inevitable question: What other experiences are we blocking out as a result?

Since at least the Sony Walkman, there’s been handwringing over whether such portable devices make us antisocial. (In July 1980, The New York Times called the Walkman — a 14-ounce novelty that cost $200 — “the thinking man’s box.”) The iPod spurred similar concern a quarter-century later, with one reporter going so far as to liken “the iPod people” to an invasion of “zombielike robots.”

The first mobile radios were bulky as suitcases and didn’t come with earbuds. But even in the early days of the phonograph, when a 10-inch record cost 75 cents, live performances long remained the primary way many people experienced music.

New Yorkers of a certain vintage might remember the Goldman Band as a staple on the city’s summer soundtrack.

The band offered free outdoor concerts in Central Park, Prospect Park, and elsewhere from 1918 until breaking up for good in 2005. That legacy is thanks in part to the New Yorkers who fought to keep the concerts in Central Park after the mayor banned them in the 1920s.

The public won its battle, and the Goldman Band’s rendition of “On the Mall” became a long-standing summer tradition in the park. Every year, musicians would play one verse of the boisterous march and the audience would whistle the next.

In addition to Goldman originals, the orchestra played the works of Dvořák, Sousa, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Wagner, Sullivan, Bach, Strauss, Mendelssohn, and others. Countless musicians participated in the 54-piece ensemble over the decades.

Tuba virtuoso and former Goldman Band member Harvey Phillips wrote that the band was at its peak in the years before New York City had air conditioning or television. Back then Goldman shows were held five nights a week in Central Park from June through August, prompting tens of thousands of people to escape “the stifling heat of confining city apartments,” he said.

But the concerts began mainly to bring music to a public space, and to those who couldn’t necessarily afford to pay for tickets.

“There were no concerts in New York at that time [1918] in the summertime,” said founding composer Edwin Franko Goldman in a 1954 interview. “As a matter of fact, the theaters didn’t even keep open in those days. So I felt there was a great need for some music.” (You can listen to the complete interview via WNYC, the radio station Goldman so loved he composed a march in its honor.)

For the first six summers, Goldman raised the money himself to pay for the concerts. In the decades that followed, members of the Guggenheim family underwrote the cost of each year’s performances as a gift to the people of New York. “The concerts are free to the public,” Goldman said in 1954. “They do not cost the city of New York or the taxpayers one penny.”

Goldman was 78 when he died in 1956. According to his New York Times obituary, he had never missed performance.

High attendance to Goldman’s shows apparently earned bragging rights for audience members, too. A 1928 New Yorker column, “Overheard at a Goldman Concert in Central Park,” begins like this:

“I haven’t missed but two concerts in three years.”
“Really? I’ve missed about five.”

In 1926, the New Yorker described the Goldman concerts as “the only ones in New York to which you can listen lying down,” a delightful reminder of just how much the relationship between music and public space has changed in the span of a few generations. (These days, it’s rare to stretch out in the Central Park grass on a sunny day without hearing a tune.)

The Goldman concerts became a phenomenon. Crowds of up to 60,000 routinely turned out for the band’s under-the-stars shows in the 1920s, according to The New York Times. Here’s a screenshot of the setlist from an August 5, 1927, concert in Central Park, as published by The New York Times:

The New York Times 1927

On those summer evenings, “if there was any humanity in you at all, you gave yourself to the night,” the New Yorker said.

New Yorkers must have been particularly grateful for the concert series after the turmoil of 1925, when New York City Mayor John Francis Hylan banned the Goldman Band from playing Central Park.

Thousands reportedly protested the ban, which the band easily skirted by playing from the rooftop of a building on Central Park West overlooking the park, according to a New York Times account. (Hylan, who was apparently fond of such rules, also banned “Christmas gloom” in 1917.)

By 1926, the band was back in the park. From the New Yorker that year:

“Only when the music died away did you sit up. Then arose a sound to which no other sound compares in mystery; a sound like the pattering of heavy rain on the surface of a lake. It was the clapping of thousands of hands in the open air at night.”

One of the songs Goldman’s band played in the 1920s was Offenbach’s “Barcarolle” from “Les Contes d’Hoffmann.” Perhaps this was the dreamy melody still tugging at the New Yorker writer who in 1926 recalled his evening at a Central Park Goldman show this way:

“And if you have not seen New York thus lying quietly and sentimentally in the open, you have still to see her in one of her very gentlest moods.”

In the 1954 recording that WNYC archived, Goldman says the station had broadcast his performances since the beginning. 

Yet WNYC archivist Andy Lanset tells me that none of these performances are known to be in the station’s vault. (The earliest known WNYC recording is from 1927.

Even the “WNYC March” Goldman composed for the station appears lost to time, perhaps because it was on a broken World War II-era glass-based disc, Lanset said. And if any of the station’s Goldman Band recordings from 1938 and beyond are still around, they haven’t yet been digitized.

It’s perhaps fitting that the early Goldman concerts from Central Park existed only for those who heard the notes hanging in the summer night, or crackling over the radio.

Not knowing whether any early recordings survived calls to mind something Harvard music professor Thomas Kelly once said. Kelly teaches a popular course called “First Nights,” the goal of which is to explore what it was like attend the first performances of five famous pieces of classical music.

“Here’s something that didn’t exist a couple of days ago,” Kelly said of the concept in a video produced by Harvard. “It begins. It happens. We listen to it. And now it’s gone. And if you weren’t here, you didn’t hear it. We are the only people in the world who’ve heard this piece.”

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