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.