The Alexandria Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1943, in the depths of World War II. The occasion of its 75th anniversary gives the ASO, and its new Music Director Jim Ross, an opportunity to look back at what our city was like when the orchestra was formed.
The Alexandria Gazette was a daily paper in those days and covered national as well as local news. On the national front, the mood was tense. One front-page Gazette headline in early 1943 quoted President Franklin D. Roosevelt warning Americans that they would have to “tighten their belts” to pay for a $100 billion war program. The Pentagon officially opened in January 1943, and the Parkfairfax apartments were built to alleviate the housing shortage for new workers.
Residents registered for ration coupons at Maury, George Mason, Parker-Gray and other neighborhood schools. Five “nurseries” for more than 100 children ages two to six were opened in Alexandria as part of the Federal Works Agency’s child care program. Douglas MacArthur Elementary opened in 1943, predominantly for children of the Naval Torpedo Factory workers living in Chinquapin Village, and ground was broken for the new Charles Barrett Elementary School. Students from different schools competed to sell the most war stamps and bonds.
One Gazette article implored readers to refrain from “writing of woes at home to soldiers serving on many fronts.” But despite the difficult circumstances, Alexandrians 75 years ago found ways to support each other. The Alexandria Garden Club held victory garden competitions. The Junior Red Cross organized book drives. And a young music teacher at George Washington High School, Miss Lucie Neale Landen, recruited 40 amateur musicians to play orchestral music together and to share that joy with their neighbors. More than any other period in history — thanks in part to the radio age — music composed and performed during WWII was used to boost morale on the home front as well as among the troops.
Landen, a graduate of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, has been described as “a plucky lady with a pithy personality, astringent wit, and a positive, forthright attitude.” She later moved to California and was a high school orchestra teacher for 40 years. It is not known whether she was aware of her role in forming what would eventually become a fully-professional orchestra and the city’s most enduring arts organization.
Many of the issues that confronted Alexandrians in 1943 resonate today: the shortage of affordable housing, the limited availability of high quality childcare and preschool, and the urgent need for school construction to keep pace with rising enrollment. Just as it has throughout history, music continues to serve as a universal language that binds people and communities together. The act of listening to live music together in a public space — among strangers as well as friends — deepens that connection, especially during times of conflict and worry.
As it celebrates its 75th anniversary, the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra invites you to join with them as they continue to make live orchestral music meaningful in the lives of our residents. A special 75th anniversary outdoor concert will be held on the grounds of the Virginia Theological Seminary on Saturday, Sept. 15 at 4 p.m. Led by Maestro Ross, the orchestra will play selections from the Sound of Music, Swan Lake, Americana favorites and light classical music. Lawn tickets are $20 for adults and $5 for youth with VIP seating also available. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.alexsym.org.
Melynda Wilcox is a vice president of the ASO's Board of Trustees.