Musicians Emergency Fund was founded in 1931 to provide performance assistance to professional musicians during the Great Depression. Among the early organizers were Mrs. Ernest Schelling, Mrs. Ernest Hutcheson and Olga Samaroff Stokowski, with Walter Damrosch named as chairman of the board. His executive chairman, Mrs. Vincent Astor (later remarried as Mrs. Lytle Hull), stood midstream in a long career as one of New York’s most caring and persistent promoters of musical life. The advisory board consisted of Mrs. August Belmont, Cornelius N. Bliss, Fritz Kreisler, Clarence H. Mackay, Ignace Jan Paderewski, Frank L. Polk, Marcella Sembrich and Arturo Toscanini, with Paul D. Cravath as treasurer.
In the first year of existence, on February 8, 1932, MEF sponsored a concert for 16,000 at Madison Square Garden, featuring Paderewski at the piano. But the demands of the Great Depression exceeded the bounds even of such a major benefit event. To generate projects that would offer jobs to unemployed musicians, MEF formed committees to explore ideas and started a fund drive to set them in motion. In 1933, MEF began to sponsor opera performances — 13 Russian works, in collaboration with major symphony orchestras. In 1941, a decade after MEF’s founding, came another opera initiative, spearheaded by the Hungarian-born pianist Yolanda Méro-Irion, MEF’s first executive director, and Mrs. Hull. This was the New Opera Company, which would serve as a launching pad for New York City Opera in 1944.
During World War II, MEF’s programs included concerts at military bases and free musical instruction for servicemen. With MEF out of the opera business, Mmes. Méro-Irion and Hull set up the Hospitalized Veterans Service. Though music was first seen as recreation, it soon emerged as effective therapy. Thirty years later, the Hospitalized Veterans Service was taken over by the government’s Veterans Administration. In 1982 MEF was joined by New York University in sponsoring the first International Symposium on Music Therapy.
In 1984, under a new executive director, Marie M. Ashdown, MEF began presenting gifted instrumentalists and singers in Showcase Concerts at Alice Tully Hall with orchestra. Singers chosen by MEF’s awards program included Renee Fleming, Olga Makarina, Cristina Gallardo-Domâs, Alan Held and John Horton Murray. After a decade or so, when entrees for singers had turned into a kind of revolving door, Ms. Ashdown changed the direction of the awards, channeling financial support to the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and to regional companies that could offer young singers stage experience to jump-start their careers.
For Instrumentalists, too, opportunities were growing scarcer. Returning to MEF’s original mandate of providing performance opportunities for professional musicians, Ms. Ashdown proposed a series that in 2002 became the Junior/Senior Concerts. In these events, held in high-profile venues, established artists — frequently members of the teaching generation — performed as colleagues with younger professionals who may have studied with them. Many of those taking part in MEF concerts already hold, or soon acquire, the distinction of world-class performers.
Gary Graffman, Michael Tree, Jaime Laredo, Li Jian, Anthony McGill and Pamela Frank are but a few examples. These “senior” instrumentalists affirm by their collegiality a vital continuity of growth within the ranks of musicians. MEF also has introduced premieres by such composers as Huang Ruo and Jennifer Higdon.
During the Covid crisis, performance musicians found themselves in the untenable position of cancelled contracts. MEF moved in quickly and completely with maintenance assistance on all levels. In keeping with our mandate of serving music and musicians for a consistent 92-year history, MEF also sponsors community-based concerts, providing performance income for classical musicians, serving audiences and artists alike.