By Laine Sulz
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s 1939/1940 season put a unique spin on what was seemingly a typical year. That season marked the organization’s 60th anniversary and with it, the SLSO launched an initiative that piqued the interest of hundreds of composers around the nation.
To commemorate its milestone season, the SLSO held a contest in search of the best new symphonic work by an American composer. The prize? One thousand dollars and a performance of the work played by the orchestra under the baton of then Music Director Vladimir Golschmann.
The SLSO anticipated that the contest would “stimulate creative activity in the field of symphonic works,” according to an article from the St. Louis Post Dispatch. During this time, the U.S. was striving to earn the renown that was being produced by European composers. The article noted that the SLSO’s contest was limited to American composers in an attempt to “focus attention on the increasing importance of a native composer to the symphonic repertoire.”
The contest was an immediate hit. With a panel of all-star judges—conductors Vladimir Golschmann, Rudolph Ganz, and Eugene Goossens—the competition drew international attention. The rules were simple: contestants submitted an original symphonic composition that must not have been previously performed or published, the work was to be dedicated to the 60th Anniversary of the SLSO, and the composition was to be 10 to 30 minutes in length. To ensure fairness and anonymity, contestants were asked to submit their composition with a short motto on the title page, but not the name of the composer. A separate, sealed envelope with the motto and name of the composer was to accompany each manuscript. The deadline for submission was February 1, 1940.
One year after the contest was originally announced, a winner was selected. Out of 200 entries, Antoni Van der Voort took home the $1,000 prize for his 25-minute-long, four-movement symphony, Sinfonietta. The 60-year-old violinist and composer was a native of Holland, but became a citizen of the U.S. in 1909 when he joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a violinist.
Sinfonietta began as a string quartet, but the composer adapted the composition into a symphony to fit the parameters of the SLSO’s competition. In an interview with The St. Louis Star and Times, Van der Voort characterized his work as “an expression of myself; not modern music, not romantic nor classical in style. It is thoroughly individual in form and expression.”
In November 1940, the SLSO played his award-winning piece, earning roaring applause from the audience. Critics praised the composition as well, describing it as charming, craftsmanlike, and comparing it to the work of famed composer Ottorino Respighi. In an interview with Time Magazine on the night of the premiere, Van der Voort proclaimed, “The sun is shining today for me.”
More than 80 years later, the SLSO has furthered its reputation as a champion of living composers.
The SLSO regularly programs works by composers of today, with music by these composers making up about one-quarter of the music in the 2022/2023 season. The SLSO also commissions new works, with world premiere commissions by James Lee III and Kevin Puts scheduled for the 22/23 season, alongside another world premiere by Guillaume Connesson and a U.S. premiere by Helen Grime.
Through the SLSO’s annual Composer Workshop, launched in 2022, the SLSO invites young composers to bring in their own work and have it revised by a renowned composer, then played by our orchestra. Last year, Grammy Award and Pulitzer Prize winning composer John Adams took the week to work with young composers and bring their compositions to life on Powell Hall’s stage.
Laine Sulz is a member of the SLSO Communications Team.