Walter Johannes Damrosch (January 30, 1862 – December 22, 1950) was
a German-born American conductor and composer. He is best
remembered today as long-time director of the New York Symphony
Orchestra and for conducting the world premiere performances of George
Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F (1925) and
An American in Paris
An American in Paris (1928).
Damrosch was also instrumental in the founding of Carnegie Hall.
1 Life and career
2 Criticism by Adorno
3 Importation of French musicians
7 External links
Life and career
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Damrosch was born in Breslau, Silesia, a son of Helene von Heimburg, a
former opera singer, and the conductor Leopold Damrosch, and brother
Frank Damrosch and music teacher Clara Mannes. His
parents were Lutheran (his paternal grandfather was Jewish).
He exhibited an interest in music at an early age and was instructed
by his father in harmony and also studied under Wilhelm Albert
Felix Draeseke at the
Dresden Conservatory. He
emigrated with his parents in 1871 to the United States.[citation
During the great music festival given by his father in May 1881, he
first acted as conductor in drilling several sections of the large
chorus, one in New York City, and another in Newark, New Jersey. The
latter, consisting chiefly of members of the Harmonic Society, elected
him to be their conductor. During this time a series of concerts was
given in which such works as Anton Rubinstein's Tower of Babel, Hector
Berlioz's La damnation de Faust, and Giuseppe
Verdi's Requiem were
performed. He was then only 19 years of age, but showed marked ability
in drilling large masses.
A dinner menu containing Walter Damrosch's signature from an 1893
Lotos Club "state dinner" in his honor.
In 1884, when his father initiated a run of all-German opera at the
Metropolitan Opera in New York, Walter was made an assistant
conductor. After his father's death in 1885, he held the same post
Anton Seidl and also became conductor of the Oratorio and
Symphony Societies in New York.
On May 17, 1890, he married Margaret Blaine (1867–1949), the
daughter of American politician and presidential candidate James G.
Blaine. They had four daughters: Alice, Margaret (known as Gretchen),
Leopoldine, and Anita. In 1946 Margaret Gretchen Damrosch Finletter
published From the Top of the Stairs, an autobiography of her
childhood growing up with music and meeting many famous people.
Damrosch was best known in his day as a conductor of the music of
Richard Wagner and was also a pioneer in the performance of music on
the radio, and as such became one of the chief popularizers of
classical music in the United States. He conducted famed solo harpist
Vincent Fanelli from 1908 to 1911. At the request of General
Pershing he reorganized the bands of the A.E.F. in 1918.
One of his principal achievements was the successful performance of
Parsifal, perhaps the most difficult of Wagner's operas, for the first
time in the United States, in March 1886, by the Oratorio and Symphony
societies. During his visit to Europe in the summer of 1886, he was
invited by the Deutsche Tonkünstler-Verein, of which
Franz Liszt was
president, to conduct some of his father's compositions at
Sondershausen, Thuringia. Carl Goldmark's opera Merlin was produced
for the first time in the United States under Damrosch's direction, at
Metropolitan Opera House, 3 January 1887.
Walter Damrosch ca. 1899
Although now remembered almost exclusively as a conductor, before his
radio broadcasts Damrosch was equally well known as a composer. He
composed operas based on stories such as
The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter (1896),
Cyrano (1913), and The Man Without a Country (1937). Those operas are
very seldom performed now. His Wagner recordings are still widely
available. He also composed songs such as the intensely dramatic Danny
Damrosch was the National Broadcasting Company's music director under
David Sarnoff, and from 1928 to 1942, he hosted the network's Music
Appreciation Hour, a popular series of radio lectures on classic music
aimed at students. (The show was broadcast during school hours, and
teachers were provided with textbooks and worksheets by the network.)
According to former
New York Times
New York Times critic
Harold C. Schonberg in his
collection Facing the Music, Damrosch was notorious for making up
silly lyrics for the music he discussed in order to "help" young
people appreciate it, rather than letting the music speak for itself.
An example: for the first movement of Franz Schubert's Unfinished
Symphony, the lyric went
This is the symphony,
That Schubert wrote and never finished.
Walter Damrosch in 1908
Although Damrosch took an interest in music technologies, he recorded
sporadically. His first recording, the prelude to Bizet's Carmen,
appeared in 1903 (on Columbia, with a contingent of the New York
Symphony credited as the "Damrosch Orchestra"). He recorded very few
extended works; the only symphony he recorded was Brahms's Second with
the New York Symphony shortly before the orchestra merged with the New
York Philharmonic (again for Columbia, in 1928), and he recorded the
complete ballet music from the opera Henry VIII by Camille
Saint-Saëns, with the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington,
RCA Victor in the early 1930s.
Walter Damrosch died in
New York City
New York City in 1950.
Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center is named in honor of his family. The
public school P186X Walter J. Damrosch School in the Bronx is named
after him. A collection of photographs and other items compiled by his
daughter Anita is among the
Special Collections of the Lovejoy Library
at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Criticism by Adorno
Walter Damrosch ca. 1914
Damrosch was the target of Theodor W. Adorno's criticism. Adorno,
without always naming Damrosch, wrote during his rather unhappy tenure
at the "Princeton Radio Research Project", funded by Sarnoff's RCA,
that the Damrosch approach towards popularizing classical music was
infantilizing and authoritarian, and part of a broader, if not
centrally planned, system of domination.
Adorno showed ways of teaching both children and adults about
classical music that would describe its form simply, whereas Damrosch
focused on being able to identify pictures of composers, instruments,
and the bare bones of symphonic themes. Adorno's criticism, regarded
by some of his colleagues as ground-breaking and by others as pedantic
(and by some as both) resulted in his being eased out of the Radio
Research Project. Adorno contrasted what he considered a dead end
(being able to whistle the theme of the Fifth Symphony) with the child
who hears a string quartet in the next room and cannot sleep because
the music holds his attention.
Adorno felt that Damrosch's musical pedagogy was a justification of
class oppression, in which the conductor, without actually "working"
at least in the sense that the musicians "work", is shown as "above"
the mere musicians, none of whom can be said to play other than a
part. Without claiming that the symphony orchestra was completely a
product of capitalism (while pointing out that to be economically
viable it had to find a place in exchange), Adorno saw the Radio
Research Project and Damrosch as introducing, to children and working
class adults, a justification of alienation and oppression.[citation
Importation of French musicians
In April 1905 Damrosch went to
Belgium looking for
musicians for the New York Symphony Orchestra, which he directed from
1885 to 1928. He engaged five musicians: oboist Marcel Tabuteau,
flutist Georges Barrère, bassoonist Auguste Mesnard, and clarinetist
Leon Leroy from France, and trumpeter Adolphe Dubois from Belgium.
Damrosch was fined by the musician's union for not advertising for
musicians from New York, but the emigrating musicians were allowed to
stay. In addition to achieving the intended effect
of improving the quality of the New York Symphony Orchestra, Damrosch
brought the United States five extremely fine musicians. Tabuteau
(q.v.) was particularly influential. He served as principal oboist of
Philadelphia Orchestra from 1915 to 1954 under Leopold Stokowski
and, just as importantly, taught in
Philadelphia at the Curtis
Institute of Music.
Laila Storch wrote, "During the thirty years during which Tabuteau
taught at the Curtis Institute of Music, he came to exercise a
decisive influence on the standards of oboe playing in the whole
United States, as well as raising the level of woodwind achievement in
general. Nor was the impact of his teaching confined to winds alone,
as the many string players and pianists who attended his classes will
testify." Barrère was well known as conductor of his own
ensembles and as an influential teacher as well as for being the
long-time principal flute player (1905–1928) in the New York
Symphony Orchestra. Although perhaps less known, the other three
Damrosch imports were important additions to the pool of New York
musicians. Mesnard (from 1913 to 1928) and Leroy (from 1911 to 1914)
were principal players in the
New York Philharmonic
New York Philharmonic after leaving the
New York Symphony Orchestra. Nathaniel Shilkret's payrolls show
Mesnard played in Shilkret's orchestras for more than thirty radio
The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter (1894) - opera in three acts based on Hawthorne's
romance of that name; published by Breitkopf and Härtel
The Manila Te Deum - for solos, chorus, and orchestra, written in
honor of Dewey's victory at Manila Bay; published by the John Church
Three songs, published by the John Church Company
Sonata for violin and piano
At Fox Meadow, published by the John Church Company
Cyrano (1913) - a grand opera in four acts, libretto by W. J.
Henderson, adapted from Rostand's play; published by G. Schirmer
The Dove of Peace (1912) - comic opera/musical - composer and
co-librettist with Wallace Irwin; published by G. Schirmer
Electra (1918 revival) - play - incidental music composer
The Man Without a Country (1937)
^ "Alexander Street Press Authorization Walter Damrosch: North
American Theatre Online". asp6new.alexanderstreet.com. Retrieved
Carnegie Hall Acoustic Music". acousticmusic.org. Retrieved
^ Martin, G.W. (1983). The Damrosch Dynasty: America's First Family of
Music. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 9780395344088. Retrieved
^ Damrosch, L.; Agócs, K. (2005). Symphony in A major. 54. A-R
Editions. ISBN 9780895795823. Retrieved 2014-12-15.
^ James, E.T.; James, J.W.; Boyer, P.S.; Radcliffe College (1971).
Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary. 1.
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. pp. 1–490.
ISBN 9780674627345. Retrieved 2014-12-15.
^ loc.gov/item/ihas.200035728 Walter Damrosch, 1862-1950
^ Finletter, Gretchen, From the Top of the Stairs (Little, Brown,
^ "Vincent Fanelli, 82, A Harpist, Is Dead". The New York Times. March
3, 1966. Retrieved 2012-01-03. Vincent Fanelli, solo harpist of the
New York Symphony Orchestra under Dr.
Walter Damrosch from 1908 to
1911 and later of the
Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski,
died yesterday ...
^ University Musical Encyclopedia. 1912, the University Society, NY.
^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1922). "Damrosch, Walter Johannes".
Encyclopædia Britannica (12th ed.). London & New York.
^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Music". Encyclopædia Britannica
(11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
^ Adorno, Theodore, Current of Music, edited by Robert Hullot-Kentor,
Polity 2006. ISBN 978-0-7456-4285-7
^ [no author cited], Damrosch Fined $1,000; Didn't Consult Union, The
New York Times, June 1, 1905.
^ Shilkret, Nathaniel, ed. Shell, Niel and Barbara Shilkret, Nathaniel
Shilkret: Sixty Years in the Music Business, Scarecrow Press, Lanham,
Maryland, 2005, p. 27; see also caption to centerfold picture of Henri
Leon Leroy. ISBN 0-8108-5128-8 (Before becoming well known as a
conductor and musical director for
RCA Victor and later RKO and MGM,
Shilkret had been a rehearsal pianist for Damrosch and a member of the
woodwind section of Damrosh's New York Symphony Orchestra; anecdotal
stories about Damrosch are included in Shilkret's autobiography.)
^ Martin, George, The Damrosch Dynasty: America's First Family of
Music, Houghtin Mifflin, Boston, 1983. ISBN 0-395-34408-5
^ Toff, Nancy, Monarch of the Flute: The Life of Georges Barrère,
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005. ISBN 0-19-517016-4
^ Mesnard, Auguste, Mèmoires d'un musicien d'orchestre, unpublished
autobiography; copy deposited at the Southern Illinois University
^ Marcel Tabiteau, profile written by
Laila Storch and published by To
the World's Oboists by the International Double Reed Society, Boulder,
^ Schweikert, Norman, The Personnel of the
New York Philharmonic
New York Philharmonic and
Those Organizations Merging With That Organization, 1842--1992: 1. The
New York Philharmonic
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, 1842--1928; 2. The New York Symphony
Orchestra, 1877--1928 (includes Leopold Damrosch's 1877 orchestra); 3.
New/National Symphony Orchestra, 1919--1921; 4. The New York
Philharmonic- Symphony Orchestra, 1928--1992, unpublished; copy
deposited at the
New York Philharmonic
New York Philharmonic Archives.
Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1900). "Damrosch,
Leopold". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D.
Homans, James E., ed. (1918). "Damrosch, Walter Johannes". The
Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: The Press Association
Media related to Walter Johannes Damrosch at Wikimedia Commons
New York Philharmonic
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