Thomas A. Reed
Lawyer, MCNY Board of Directors
Biography to come.
Remarks on Walter Damrosch Before MCNY Concert, by Thomas A. Reed, January 27, 2019:
I would like to tell you how my great uncle, Walter Damrosch, an early President of the Musicians Club of New York, was largely responsible for Carnegie Hall. Walter’s father, Leopold, my great-grandfather, was the founder of what has been called “America’s First Family of Music.”
Leopold Damrosch had become a highly regarded violinist and conductor in Germany. He was close to and admired by both Wagner and Liszt, and later on conducted performances of Wagner’s operas at Bayreuth. Leopold married Helene von Heimburg, a singer who had studied under Liszt. Liszt became the godfather of Walter’s older brother Franz, later known as Frank.
But Leopold’s prospects for a successful career in Germany were not promising following Bismarck’s rise to power around 1870. A societal shift away from music and the arts toward militarism was evident. So in 1871, he accepted an invitation from a German-American male choral group, the Arion Society in New York, to become its leader. He brought his family, then comprised of Helene and four children, Frank, Walter, Marie, and Clara, over with him. (His last child, Elizabeth, my grandmother, was born in 1872 here in New York.)
Soon after arriving here, in 1873, Leopold founded a new singing society, the Oratorio Society, which is still active. Then in 1878 he established an orchestra, the New York Symphony, in addition to the already existing Philharmonic. In 1884 he was invited to manage and conduct the second season of the newly formed Metropolitan Opera, and introduced German, primarily Wagner, operas to the repertory. (The first season of the Met had been devoted exclusively to Italian opera.) But then, six days before the end of that season, Leopold took ill and died. His son Walter had to take over the remaining performances in New York and then take the company on tour, which he did with great success. Walter was not asked to continue with the Met Opera beyond that season, but at age 23 he took over from his father to lead both the New York Symphony and the Oratorio Society.
At this stage Walter recognized that he seriously lacked conducting knowledge and experience, so in early 1887 he wrote to his father’s old friend, the famous pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, and arranged to spend time in Frankfurt with him that spring and summer to fill in the gaps in his musical education. When Walter sailed for Europe in April 1887, it so happened that on the same ship were Andrew Carnegie, who was already on the Board of Directors of the New York Symphony Society, and his brand new bride, Louise Whitfield, who sang in the chorus of the Oratorio Society. The three of them became friends, and by the time the Carnegies debarked in England, Walter had been invited to join them in Scotland later in the summer after his time with von Bülow. He accepted, and had many conversations with Carnegie; he also entertained all the guests by playing the piano for them after dinner and expounding on the music he performed. Among the other guests staying with the Carnegies that summer were James G. Blaine, Republican Senator from Maine and unsuccessful candidate for U. S. President in 1884, with his wife and two daughters. One of these daughters, Margaret, would later become Walter’s wife.
Walter was invited back to join the Carnegies in Scotland again in 1888. In the course of numerous conversations, he listened to Carnegie speak of his ideas for promoting education and peace, and in turn spoke to him of New York City’s musical needs, persuading him to accept the presidency of both the Oratorio Society and the Symphony Society. Leopold had discussed the need for a new hall with the Symphony Society’s Board as early as 1884, but Walter now pushed the discussions hard, and within three years New York City had its new hall—originally called simply the Music Hall, because Mr. Carnegie, out of modesty, did not at first want to have his name on it. To open the new hall on May 5, 1891, Walter, with the financial support of Mr. Carnegie, persuaded Tchaikovsky to come to America and share with him the honors of conducting the Symphony Society and the Oratorio Society for the gala opening night and five more concerts to follow, including one in which Tchaikovsky led the orchestra in his Piano Concerto No. 1. So the Symphony Society and the Oratorio Society had a wonderful new home, and a year later the Philharmonic joined them there as well.
Walter went on to have a very successful musical career in the first decades of the 20thCentury. The New York Symphony and the Philharmonic merged into the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York in 1928, so after that he no longer had his own orchestra, but he continued on as a regular guest conductor of the combined orchestra. He also continued to offer Children’s and Young People’s Concerts and did much to advance the careers of American musicians and composers, especially George Gershwin. He commissioned Gershwin’s Concerto in F with the New York Symphony in 1925 and premiered his work An American in Paris with the combined orchestras in 1928. He also believed in spreading the gospel of classical music as far and wide as he could. In the 1930’s he collaborated with his friend David Sarnoff, then the head of the National Broadcasting Company, to offer a weekly Music Appreciation Hour radio broadcast that Walter used to explain classical music to children in public schools across the U.S. as part of their required curriculum. (There may be some in our audience who are old enough to recall these classes. I remember once reading a very funny “Observer” column by the great and just recently deceased New York Times reporter Russell Baker, in which he recalled playing hooky from this class so he could avoid listening to “boring old Walter Damrosch.”)
In focusing on Walter I do not mean to slight his siblings, including especially his older brother Frank, who focused primarily on vocal music, including conducting the Oratorio Society at various times, and music education, being responsible among other things for founding the Institute of Musical Art, now known as the Juilliard School, and their sister Clara, who married David Mannes, a violinist in the Symphony Society, and together with him founded the Mannes School of Music, now a college and a division of the New School University. My own grandmother, Elizabeth or “Ellie,” was also very musical, though without a professional career. She did offer periodic lecture recitals of Wagner operas, both singing and playing the piano.
If anyone would like more background on the Damrosch family and its accomplishments, I highly recommend George Martin’s 1983 book, The Damrosch Dynasty: America’s First Family of Music, of which the Musicians Club has a copy; it is also available in libraries and on the second-hand book market at a very reasonable price.