Joseph White: Making history

Portrait1

Cuban-born violinist Joseph White’s 1875 debut with the Philharmonic Society of New York was both a triumph and enormously significant – as the orchestra’s first performance with a soloist of African descent. Yavet Boyadjiev explores the event itself and the circumstances surrounding it

During the second half of the 19th century, the increasingly prosperous and cosmopolitan city of New York emerged as the leading cultural centre of the US. Dominated musically by German immigrants and hardly a step behind European capitals, the city established such first-rate musical institutions as the Academy of Music (1854), Steinway Hall (1866) and the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York (1842), staging the latest operas and performing up-to-date symphonic repertoire. Individual entrepreneurial promoters established a vibrant music scene with chamber music and solo recitals by major European soloists. Attracted by lucrative fees, violinists such as Ole Bull, Pablo de Sarasate, Camillo Sivori, Camilla Urso, Henry Vieuxtemps and Henryk Wieniawski performed in New York as part of larger American tours made possible by improved transportation, increasingly sophisticated audiences and a strong press following.

The Cuban-born violinist Joseph White (1835–1918, born José Silvestre de los Dolores White Laffita) made New York his base during an eleven-month tour of the US from August 1875 to July 1876. During this period, he gave at least 33 performances in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Philadelphia and Boston, with the majority of these taking place in the then-separate cities of New York (now Manhattan) and Brooklyn. And of the 26 known appearances in what is now New York City, one stands out as uniquely important, not only for White himself but as an event of greater cultural significance. In December 1875, he became the first soloist of African descent – on any instrument – to perform as a soloist with the Philharmonic Society of New York, the orchestra now known as the New York Philharmonic, the oldest symphony orchestra in the US…

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