Nikolai Sokoloff (1886-1965)

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On July 26, 1935, WPA Administrator Harry Hopkins appointed Nikolai Sokoloff to direct the Federal Music Project (FMP) [1].  Sokoloff would lead the FMP until he resigned in April 1939, shortly before the FMP was converted into the “WPA Music Program” due to the dissolution of Federal Project Number One.  In 1943, one of his successors wrote: “He had seen the end of his dream approaching and his temperament could not have endured the detachment of the Washington office under the WPA Music Program.  The monuments of his planning and organizational ability still stand and should demand a large chapter in the history of American culture.  Every official of the Federal Music Project who worked in close contact with Dr. Sokoloff has enjoyed a stimulus and inspiration which will last long after the personal association has ceased.  He carved his own record and it has endured well” [2].

Nikolai Sokoloff was born to Grigori and Marie Sokoloff, on May 28, 1886, in Kiev, Russia [3].  Something of a child prodigy, Sokoloff was already playing violin for the Kiev Orchestra at age 12, enrolled at Yale University’s School of Music at age 13, and “ held the first violinist’s chair in the Boston Symphony Orchestra” at 16.  He then studied for several years in France, became the conductor of the San Francisco Philharmonic, and even conducted concerts for American soldiers in France during World War I.  After the war, he became the conductor of the Cleveland Symphony, a position he held from 1918 to 1932 [4].

As director of the FMP, Sokoloff faced criticism for his dim view of popular music, given his preference for a strict regimen of the classics [5], and also for his bad relations with unions [6].  Nonetheless, Sokoloff was praised for his organizational skills and led the FMP to impressive attendance figures.  For example, from January 1 through September 15, 1936, “WPA orchestras gave concerts before an attendance of 32,000,000 persons throughout the United States” [7].  And despite his erudite musical tastes, Sokoloff spoke highly of new music discovered through the FMP, stating: “An amazing wealth of creative talent has been brought to light by WPA music activities, and these native compositions have had repeated performance” [8].

Sokoloff believed that more people should have the opportunity to hear good music, and that the WPA was paving the way for music to have a larger and more egalitarian role in American culture.  In 1938, he remarked: “Since WPA set up this project to retrain and rehabilitate unemployed professional musicians, aggregate audiences exceeding 93,000,000 persons have heard these musicians in more than 133,000 programs and performances…There is abundant reason to believe there is now a desire for music commanding a greater audience than the nation had ever known before, and this brings us to a proposition of whether music in the United States shall be a luxury available only to persons of the higher income levels or whether music will take its place in the cultured program and pattern  of this country side by side with the free public library, the public museum and the educational system” [9].

After leaving the WPA, Sokoloff conducted the Seattle Orchestra for brief period of time, and eventually set up an orchestra in LaJolla, California [10].  He died in LaJolla on September 24, 1965, at the age of 79 [11].  Sokoloff was married three times and had three children with his first wife, Lyda: Boris, Martin, and Noel [12].

Sources: (1) “Four Will Direct Arts Work Relief,” New York Times, July 27, 1935.  (2) George Foster, National Program Director of the WPA Music Program, Federal Works Agency, Record of Program Operation and Accomplishment: The Federal Music Project, 1935 to 1939; The WPA Music Program, 1935 to 1943, 1943, p. 19, available to view or download at (University of Rochester, accessed December 18, 2015).  (3) “Sokoloff, Nikolai,” The Encyclopedia of  Cleveland History,, accessed December 18, 2015.  (4) Ibid., and Nick Taylor, American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA; When FDR Put the Nation to Work, New York: Bantam Books, 2008 (pp. 283-284 of 2009 paperback edition).  (5) See previous note, Taylor, American-Made, p. 284.  (6) See, e.g., “Union Would Oust WPA Music Head,” New York Times, December 11, 1935.  (7) “32,000,000 Hearers Won By WPA Music,” New York Times, October 11, 1936.  (8) “’Musical Wealth’ Found By Sokoloff,” New York Times, November 29, 1936.  (9) “6,000 On WPA Join Music Week Fetes,” New York Times, April 24, 1938.  (10) See note 3, and also “Sokoloff Quits Seattle Orchestra,” New York Times, January 15, 1941.  (11) “Obituaries,” New York Times, October 11, 1965. (12) See note 3.

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