Skip to main content

Robert S. Whitney papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: 1988_099-UA

The Robert S. Whitney papers in the University of Louisville Archives span his career in the music field from 1917 to 1983. The bulk of the material is from the "Whitney Scrapbooks" and pertains to his involvement with the Louisville Orchestra as conductor from 1937 to 1967. The scrapbooks primarily consist of clippings from the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Times relating the events and activities of Whitney and the Orchestra during his tenure. All of the Louisville Orchestra's season and special concert performance programs from 1937 to 1965 are included. The items remain in the same order as Whitney himself had placed them in his scrapbooks; they are arranged by orchestra year, but are not in exact chronological order as to the months and days. In addition to the scrapbooks, the Whitney papers include a separate box of clippings and articles regarding Whitney's career as conductor and also as Dean of the University of Louisville's School of Music, a post he held from 1956 to 1971. Some miscellaneous Orchestra material, mostly financial, includes Rockefeller grant information, 1955-57, and a Louisville Orchestra Board of Directors Handbook, 1982.

The collection is rich in material from the "Whitney Project," an oral history documentary of the Louisville Orchestra which was produced by Whitney in cooperation with Dr. Joseph Maloney, Director of the University of Louisville Institute of Community Development and the University's radio station WUOL. This particular project was actually the second part of an oral history documentary that was aired on WOUL in 1977 and titled "In Retrospect." While the first part centered on the Louisville Orchestra in its first decade under conductor Whitney, the material in this collection pertains to the orchestra's rise to international prominence as the first to play the works of contemporary composers, especially pieces from American artists. The "Whitney Project" items in this collection include the initial plans of the project, correspondences to and from composers whose compositions were commissioned by the Louisville Orchestra, recordings of interviews with the composers, and transcripts of two of them. There are twenty-three cassette tapes including the edited version of the actual program which aired on WOUL (1981?).

A later accession added albums and compact discs of the orchestra's first edition recordings. The album recordings were directed by Whitney and the CD recordings were directed by Lawrence Leighton Smith, a later director of the Louisville Orchestra. The accession also included a school class photograph, drawings, plaques, and certificates relating to Whitney.

Also included is a 1903 poster bearing a photograph entitled "Buffalo Bill's Wild West." The image depicts the visit of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, with a royal party, to the Wild West Camp at Olympia, London, England, on March 14, 1903. Robert Whitney's father, Robert Paul Whitney, was a member of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show Cowboy Band and was accompanying the show at this time.

Accession 1997-136 added correspondence between Whitney and composers whose scores were recorded for the First Edition series of music recordings. Another series of correspondence in this accession contains letters from composers and others on the twentieth anniversary of the project. This accession also contains three of the commissioned scores from the First Edition series. The material dates from 1937 to 1957.

Accession 2004-003 added personal papers, artifacts, and cassette and reel-to-reel tapes. This accession has not yet been processed.

For more information regarding Robert S. Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra see the Louisville Orchestra records and Charles Farnsley papers.


  • 1917-1983


Conditions Governing Use

Copyright has been transferred to the University of Louisville and there are no additional restrictions.


17.375 linear feet

Biographical / Historical

Robert S. Whitney (1904-1986) was born in England of an English mother and an American father and spent his childhood and early adult years in Chicago. The Whitneys were a musical family and Robert, his father and four sisters played together as a chamber music ensemble. Also, he and sisters Grace and Noreen performed as the "Whitney Trio," a group often heard on WMAQ, Chicago, where Robert was a radio announcer. His formal musical training was taken at the American Conservatory of Music, Chicago, where he studied piano and musical composition. He began composing at the age of 18 and, in 1934, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed his "Concerto Grosso."

In 1937, at the age of 33, Whitney became the first musical director of the Louisville Orchestra, then known as the Louisville Civic Symphony. He earned national renown as a champion of contemporary music when in 1948 the Louisville Orchestra began commissioning the works of current composers. With grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Orchestra recorded these works on a series of First Edition records, unique in that it was the first time an orchestra manufactured and distributed its own recordings. In 1949 the Orchestra, near financial insolvency, scheduled a final concert for January 4, 1950. For that performance Whitney selected an arrangement by a young American composer, William Schumann, titled "Judith" and invited Martha Graham, a modern dancer, to be the soloist. The response was so overwhelming that not only did the Board rescind its "death sentence," but the Louisville Orchestra was invited to present the piece at Carnegie Hall in New York City. There the performance drew rave reviews from the New York critics and launched Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra to the forefront of 20th-century American orchestras. In 1965 Whitney and the orchestra were invited by President Lyndon B. Johnson to appear at a "White House Festival of the Arts," in recognition of their service to contemporary music.

Believing that music appreciation started at an early age, Whitney inaugurated the "Making Music" concerts series in which he and the orchestra played for thousands of Kentucky school children, exposing them to the fundamental principles of music.

From 1956 to 1971, Whitney served as dean of the University of Louisville's School of Music. During 1976 he served as station consultant for the University's FM radio station WUOL, where he helped plan and evaluate programs.

On 4 April 1967, Whitney conducted his final concert with the Louisville Orchestra. But on November 19, 1983, he again conducted the Orchestra in honor of the opening of the Kentucky Center for the Arts, whose 2,400 seat auditorium was named Whitney Hall. He passed away on November 22, 1986 at the age of 82.

Among the acclaim Whitney achieved were the American Composers Alliance Leaf; the Ditson Award; the first Giovanni Martini Award from Bellarmine College (1962); and honorary degrees from the University of Louisville, the University of Kentucky, and Hanover College. He appeared as a guest conductor for orchestras in Europe and South America.


Robert S. Whitney papers
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid is in English.

Repository Details

Part of the University of Louisville Archives and Special Collections Repository

Ekstrom Library, Lower Level Room 17
Louisville KY 40292
502 852-6752