By Brian Wise

Social distancing. Masks vs. no masks. Business interests vs. scientific guidance. Just over a century ago, the global pandemic caused by what was called the Spanish influenza had drastic impacts on America’s orchestras. How did orchestras back then cope? Is the past prologue?

It ravaged civilization for nearly three years and left at least 50 million people worldwide dead, including about 675,000 in the United States. Yet as the influenza pandemic of 1918-20 swept through the world, American orchestras coped with its effects to varying degrees.

During this period, the Cleveland Orchestra was born, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra built a new hall in just five months, and other ensembles faced upended schedules with a remarkable sense of optimism. But there were cautionary tales too, including the deaths of three violinists in hard-hit Philadelphia, a chaotic tour by a visiting French orchestra, and a sense of collective amnesia once the pandemic had subsided. Together these events offer a historical view as orchestras seek paths out of the 2020 coronavirus.

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