Biographies Walter Damrosch, 1862-1950

Image: Walter Damrosch
Walter Damrosch, [date unknown]. Prints and Photographs Reading Room, Library of Congress.

A member of one of America's foremost families of musicians (often dubbed by scholars as the "Damrosch dynasty"), Walter Damrosch was the second child and youngest son of Leopold and Helene Damrosch. The patriarch of this prestigious musical family, Leopold (1832-1885), was a distinguished composer and conductor who had served as the lead violinist in the court orchestra at Weimar, an appointment bestowed on him by Franz Liszt. His eldest son, Frank (1859-1937), was also a renowned conductor, as well as a music educator. It was from this talented heritage that Walter Damrosch emerged as one of America's leading musicians.

Damrosch studied piano and composition in Germany before immigrating to the United States with his family in 1871. He continued his musical training under his father, serving as assistant conductor for his father's all-German season at the Metropolitan Opera in 1884 and 1885. Damrosch unexpectedly made his Metropolitan debut on 11 February 1885 conducting Wagner's Tannhäuser after his father was stricken by pneumonia and was unable to perform. After Leopold's death, Damrosch was hired by the Met as assistant conductor and assistant manager; he remained on the Met's roster until 1891. In addition, Damrosch succeeded his father as director of both the Oratorio Society and New York Symphony Society; for the latter, he remained conductor until the organization's merger with the New York Philharmonic in 1928.

In 1887, Damrosch traveled to Frankfurt am Main, Germany, to study conducting under Hans von Bülow, who was then at the height of his career as a pianist and conductor. Aboard the steamship to Germany, Damrosch met Andrew Carnegie, whom he later convinced to build Carnegie Hall as a rehearsal and performance venue for the New York Symphony and Oratorio Societies. Having conducted the American premiere of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony on 1 February 1890, Damrosch invited the Russian maestro to New York in honor of the Hall's opening on 5 May 1891.

On 17 May 1890, Damrosch married Margaret Blaine, daughter of politician James G. Blaine, then Secretary of State, but also a former presidential candidate (he had lost to Grover Cleveland). Among the guests at the highly publicized wedding were cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, and Benjamin Harrison, president of the United States. Margaret would bear Damrosch four daughters: Alice, Margaret (known as Gretchen), Leopoldine, and Anita.

Damrosch's professional achievements included the foundation of the Damrosch Opera Company in 1894, which became one of the Met's strongest rivals. The company premiered Damrosch's The Scarlet Letter, an opera based on the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in 1896. In addition, Damrosch commissioned George Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F. With Gershwin as soloist, Damrosch led the New York Symphony in the work's premiere on 3 December 1925. Damrosch also conducted the American premiere of Gershwin's An American in Paris on 13 December 1928. In 1927, Damrosch served as musical consultant to NBC and produced the "Music Appreciation Hour," a radio series for schoolchildren that ran from 1928-1942.

Damrosch is recognized as an important figure in American music, not only as a conductor and educator, but also as a composer. His setting of "Danny Deever," from Rudyard Kipling's Barrack-Room Ballads, is one of Damrosch's most famous songs. Damrosch also made significant contributions to American opera. In fact, along with Samuel Barber and Deems Taylor, Damrosch is, to date, one of only three American composers to have premiered more than one opera at the Met: Cyrano de Bergerac in 1913 and The Man without a Country in 1937. Despite his German origins, Walter Damrosch is credited with the promotion and dissemination of American music.

Further Reading

Damrosch, Walter. My Musical Life. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1923.

Martin, George. The Damrosch Dynasty: America's First Family of Music. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1983.

Selected Works at the Library of Congress

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Walter Damrosch, 1862-1950
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-  Damrosch, Walter -- 1862-1950
-  Biographies
-  Songs and Music
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Martin, George. The Damrosch Dynasty: America's First Family of Music. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1983.
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