Established in 1926 by banker and amateur cellist Walter Wehle Naumburg (1867–1959) for the sole purpose of helping young classical musicians launch careers on the basis of a recital in New York's Town Hall, the Naumburg Foundation and its competitions have evolved over the years in response to the changing position of art music in American society and the changing requirements of a successful career launch. More about this.
Up until Naumburg's death, annual awards were given to an indeterminate number of pianists, string players, and singers. Beginning in 1960, this shifted towards the current pattern of a triennial rotation between pianists, string players, and singers, with multiple prizes in each category. Chamber music awards were added in 1965, and from 1949 through 1983 there was also a recording award that resulted in releases on the Columbia and CRI labels.
Naumburg's support for music extended to service as a New England Conservatory trustee. The fund he established here supports an endowed faculty position, currently occupied by President Emeritus Laurence Lesser, as well as a student scholarship.