Reflections on Writing the History of the Holyoke Civic Symphony Orchestra

By Dr. Jane Rausch, Professor Emerita, Department of History

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In 2017 the Holyoke Civic Symphony will celebrate its 50th anniversary. As a non-profit organization composed of 60 mostly non professional musicians who come together once a week to rehearse, it has survived, thanks to generous support from Holyoke Community College (HCC) and local businesses. The organization has also thrived because of the efforts of highly motivated instrumentalists and Boards of Directors. These individuals were determined to provide opportunities for people in Holyoke and the surrounding communities both to play and to hear high quality performances of symphonic works of music.

Last October, having completed my latest book on Colombia and looking around for a new project, I rashly offered to write a history of the orchestra (of which I have been a member since 2006) as part of the anniversary activities. Soon I was happily engaged sorting through the three “bank boxes” of documents dealing with the period between 1967 and 1998 that our current business manger was threatening to discard because they were taking up too much space in her tiny office at HCC (!). Working steadily, I now have a 170- page manuscript that is organized as follows: After a brief description of the city of Holyoke and HCC in the 1960s, I discuss the founding of the orchestra and it first years from 1967-1973; its struggle to find an identity, 1973-75; its survival under six different music directors 1975-1985; Its incorporation and continuing search for stability, 1985-1997; and its renewal and new direction under its current music director, David Kidwell, 1998-2017.

This first experience at writing local history has brought me many joys and poses a variety of problems. Among the joys have been learning about the unique history of the city of Holyoke (about which I knew nothing previously); the founding and development of HCC; the inner workings of an orchestra; especially the role played by the Board of Directors, and finally, the qualities a music director must possess if he or she is to mold a group of amateur musicians of widely varying abilities into an ensemble that can perform symphonic music at a near professional level.

Alas, there are also problems. The biggest difficulty has been that the paper documents disappear after 1998. Fortunately, one of the original members of the orchestra loaned me his collection of all the printed concert programs between 1967 and 2010 (the year he retired from the orchestra) which has been a major source of information, but the other primary source– the minutes of the Board of Directors– are harder to come by. Once computers became the main method of communicating and recording information, successive secretaries and business managers seemed to have made no effort to collect or organize digital files. Some past secretaries have sent me their files, but others have erased the information so that there are many gaps in my account. Other problems lying ahead include: how to incorporate the memories, thoughts, and observations of the six or seven individuals who have played with the orchestra for more than forty years; how to include photographs that appeared on occasion in newspaper reviews; and finally, how to get financial support for the manuscript’s publication.

Well, I have two years to sort these matters out. As Albert Schweitzer allegedly said: “There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats,” and I have access to both. Marco, my compañero, is pictured below.

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1 comment
  1. Nice to hear you’ve taken up public history as well as Latin American history. I’ve been doing a side hobby myself, teaching an adult education course on pirates.

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