80 Years Later: Music from the 1939 New York World’s Fair

William Grant Still (left) and W.C. Handy (right) look at Still’s commissioned score for the New York World’s Fair with the Trylon and Perisphere under construction in the background. Circa 1938 Jul 28. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection, [LC-USZ62-138400]

It’s Sunday, April 30, 1939, the opening day of the 1939 New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York City. The fair commemorates the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s presidential inauguration in New York City while looking forward to “The World of Tomorrow.” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gives the first televised address of any American president. Admission to the World’s Fair is 75 cents. The country is a decade into the Great Depression and on the brink of a second world war.

And, music in our collections played a starring role it all.

In 1938, William Grant Still (1895-1978) – the Mississippi-born composer, student of George Whitefield Chadwick and Edgar Varèse, blues mentee of W.C. Handy, and first African-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra (the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936) – was commissioned by the New York World’s Fair, Inc. to compose the official theme. Although publicly touted as a color-blind competition, original records in the New York Public Library’s official records of the 1939 New York World’s Fair and scholarship produced from them disprove this gentle version of the story. Those sources reveal the truth only primary sources can tell, that Still’s initial selection did encounter racist push-back during the process.

 

 

Still’s composition Rising Tide (sometimes referred to as Victory Tide), with lyrics by Albert Stillman, played on a constant loop inside the Perisphere for the multi-media exhibit Democracity (or The City of Tomorrow), a vision of urban life in the future with projected images, narration, and music.

Designed by Wallace K. Harrison and J. André Foulihoux, the Perisphere was the largest globe ever built – 180 feet in diameter, 18 stories in height, twice the size of Radio City Music Hall. Each hour, more than 8,000 spectators entered through the Trylon, a triangular obelisk 610 feet high and ascended to Democracity on the world’s two largest escalators. Six minutes later, they exited down the Helicline, a curving ramp from which they would glimpse their first overview of the Fair.[1]

The Music Division holds a piano-vocal holograph score of Rising Tide by William Grant Still because it was submitted for copyright registration by his publisher J. Fischer and Bro. in 1939. (It is one of many holograph scores by Still in our collections, including From the Black Belt, Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American Symphony,” the opera Troubled Island, and Reverie for organ.) “On a description by Henry Dreyfuss, designer of the Theme Center [Perisphere’s Democracity], and by Kay Swift, Still set out to compose this music with stopwatch, much as he would have composed film music,”[2] like his film scores for Columbia Pictures in Hollywood.

Who conducted the recording of Still’s expanded orchestration for SATB and orchestra that played on a continuous 6-minute loop? None other than the great maestro Andre Kostelanetz. He recounts in his memoirs that he had to use two click-tracks to time everything perfectly. The Andre Kostelanetz collection contains his heavily annotated score with the narrative text held in place with long pushpins, as well as correspondence and working documents related to the New York World’s Fair project.

Envelope from the New York World’s Fair, Inc. with official Trylon and Perisphere logo from Andre Kostelanetz’s concert files. 1938 Dec 8. Box 1159/Folder 15, Andre Kostelanetz collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

In addition to primary music sources related to the music of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the Music Division has a trove of published sheet music full of images of the iconic Trylon and Perisphere. One was officially licensed by the corporate New York World’s Fair, Inc. – Verna Love’s “Hello There! New York World’s Fair” – and one was incorrectly touted as the official theme to pacify racist feelings toward William Grant Still, George and Ira Gershwin’s “Dawn of a New Day.” Most songs and sheet music covers were topical with good-old-fashioned visual marketing using a major current event to sell songs.

The New York World’s Fair repeated for a second season, April to October 27, 1940 because it wasn’t nearly as big of a financial success as the corporation had hoped. But, that means even more great music got composed and performed, like Ferde Grofé’s orchestration for Paul Whiteman of Trylon and Perisphere, here in the Music Division in the Ferde Grofé collection.

On a personal note, 1939 is right in my wheelhouse of Art Deco design. I’ve collected a first day cover and commemorative postage stamps from the 1939 New York World’s Fair – just like another musician stamp collector, violinist Jascha Heifetz, whose papers we hold in the Music Division and whose musical stamp albums are at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

Vera Love and Lou Levan. “Hello There! New York World’s Fair,” sheet music cover. 1939. Call number M1677.2.N4L1939.
George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin. “Dawn of a New Day,” sheet music cover. 1939. Call number M1677.2.N4G1939.

[1] Barbara Cohen, Steven Heller, and Seymour Chwast, Trylon and Perisphere: The 1939 New York World’s Fair (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1989), introduction.

[2] Verna Arvey, “William Grant Still” in William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 334.

One Comment

  1. BIll Scanlan
    April 29, 2019 at 9:32 am

    My dad was in his first year at Columbia in New York, so his summer job was driving the pedal carts around the 1939 World’s Fair. Among his passengers…Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney! Might’ve been a publicity event, but it was a lasting, sweet memory for a kid from Elizabeth, NJ.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.