May 5, 1891: Andrew Carnegie’s Music Hall Opens

When New York City’s Carnegie Hall opened its doors to the public 125 years ago today, it was known simply as the Music Hall. The historic opening night, which kicked off a five-day music festival, featured guest of honor Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky conducting his Marche Solennelle. Several days later the world-famous musician would conduct his Piano Concerto No. 1.

When Tchaikovsky died two years later, a notebook detailing his trip to America was found in one of his suit pockets. The first page was a list of questions—among them, “What kind of cigarettes do men smoke in New York City?”—and a reminder to “check acoustics of the new music hall.”

From Carnegie Hall’s History page at

William Tuthill’s design reflects Gilded Age architectural tastes and engineering. Since the Hall was built shortly before the advent of structural steel construction, its walls are made of fairly heavy brick and masonry, to carry the full load of the structure without the lighter support that a steel framework soon made possible.

The Italian Renaissance design of the exterior reflects the eclectic architectural tastes of the period, which look to European models of earlier centuries for inspiration. Tuthill deliberately chose to keep the styling and decorative elements simple, elegant, and functional, focusing his energies on designing an excellent acoustic environment.

Tchaikovsky in America
After conductor Walter Damrosch convinced Andrew Carnegie to build what would become the famed Music Hall (renamed Carnegie Hall in 1894), he needed a big name draw for the Hall’s opening festivities. At the time, there were certainly very few names bigger than Tchaikovsky’s.

The Russian composer loved traveling, and the lure of the New World was exciting for him. He had a small notebook that he titled Trip to America, which was found in one of his suit pockets after he died. On the first page, he wrote, “Things to ask. Is it safe to drink the water in America? What kind of cigarettes do men smoke in New York City? What kind of hats do they wear? Can I get my laundry done there? Check acoustics of the new music hall.”

When Tchaikovsky arrived in New York in 1891, he was wined and dined everywhere he went. He couldn’t say enough about American hospitality. In his diary, he noted that “in other countries, if somebody comes up to you and they’re nice, you suspect, ‘What do they want?’ Here in America, they don’t want anything. They just want to be nice.”

Tchaikovsky conducted five of his works during the Opening Festival of the Music Hall, starting on Tuesday, May 5. He wrote that he was besieged by tourists and people asking him for an autograph everywhere he went. His image was all over the papers, and people would cut out his photo and ask him to sign the other side. He usually included a musical quote, quickly notating a phrase from his Suite No. 3, which he had conducted during the Opening Festival on May 7—his 51st birthday. “People in the United States know my work better than they do in Russia, in my own home,” he remarked. Here was Tchaikovsky in the flesh, conducting his own music.

For an account of that historic night 125 years ago, see the The Wall Street Journal’s 2011 story, “Opening Night, Before It Was Carnegie Hall.”