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Walter Damrosch (Conductor, Arranger)

Born: January 30, 1862 - Breslau, Prussia
Died: December 22, 1950 - New York City, New York, USA

The distinguished German-American conductor, music educator and composer, Walter (Johannes) Damrosch, was the son of the eminent German-American conductor and violinist, Leopold Damrosch (1832-1885), and brother of the German-American conductor and teacher, Frank (Heino) Damrosch (1859-1937). Walter Damrosch exhibited an interest in music at an early age and was instructed by his father in harmony and also studied under Wilhelm Albert Rischbieter and Felix Draeseke at the Dresden Conservatory.

Walter Damrosch went to New York with his family in 1871, where he continued his music studies. In 1884, when his father began his season of German Opera in New York, Walter was made an assistant conductor. When his father fell ill, he received some deathbed coaching from him and made his Metropolitan Opera debut conducting Tannhäuser on February 11; 1885, just 4 days before his father succumbed. He remained on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera (under Anton Seidl) until 1891. He also served as his father's successor as conductor of the Oratorio Society of New York (1885-1898) and the Symphony Society of New York (from 1885). In 1887 he pursued training in conducting with Hans von Bülow in Frankfurt am Main. In 1894 he founded the Damrosch Opera Company in New York, which he conducted in performances of German operas until 1899, both there and in other major USA cities. From 1900 to 1902 he was again on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera. He was conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1902-1903. After the reorganisation of the Symphony Society of New York in 1903, he was its conductor until it merged with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1928. In 1920 he conducted the Symphony Society of New York on a major tour of Europe. In 1912 he took over the symphonic concerts for young people originally organised by his brother, and he also conducted young people's concerts with the Symphony Society of New York.

Walter Damrosch's interest in music education prompted him to utilise the medium of radio to further the cause of music appreciation; on October 19, 1923, he conducted the Symphony Society of New York in its first radio broadcast from Carnegie Hall. He the National Broadcasting Company's music director under David Sarnoff, and in 1926 he inaugurated a regular series of radio broadcasts, which were later aired as the "NBC Music Appreciation Hour" throughout the USA and Canada from 1928 to 1942. This was a popular series of radio lectures on classic music aimed at students. (The show was broadcast during school hours, and teachers were provided textbooks and worksheets by the network.) According to former 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

He also served as musical counsel to NBC from 1927 to 1947. Damrosch conducted the USA premieres of Tchaikovsky's 4th and 6th symphonies as well as scores by Wagner, Gustav Mahler, and Edward Elgar. He also conducted premieres of works by American composers, including world premiere performances of George Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F (1925), and An American in Paris (1928), is best remembered today.

Walter Damrosch was best known in his day as a conductor 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 USA. Although now remembered almost exclusively as a conductor, before his radio broadcasts he was equally well-known as a composer. The 1911 Britannica stated:

Damrosch... the eminent conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra, and of various operatic undertakings, has established his position as an original and poetic composer, not only by his opera, The Scarlet Letter, but by such songs as the intensely dramatic Danny Deever.

Walter Damrosch went on to compose operas based on stories such as The Scarlet Letter (1896), Cyrano de Bergerac (1913), and The Man Without a Country (1937). Those operas are very seldom performed now. His Wagner recordings are still widely available.

Although Walter Damrosch took an interest in music technologies, he recorded sporadically. His first recording, the prelude to Georges 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 the Johannes Brahms Second with the New York Symphony shortly before the orchestra merged with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (again for Columbia, in 1928), and he recorded the complete ballet music from the opera King Henry VIII by Camille Saint-Saëns, with the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C., for RCA Victor in the early 1930's.

Walter Damrosch received honorary doctorates from Columbia University (1914), Princeton University (1929), New York University (1935) et al. In 1929 he was awarded the David Bispham medal. In 1932 he was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 1938 he received the gold medal. His autobiography was published as My Musical Life (New York, 1923; 2nd edition, 1930).

On May 17, 1890, Walter Damrosch married Margaret Blaine (1867-1949), the daughter of American politician and presidential candidate James G. Blaine. They had four daughters.


Dramatic: Operas:
The Scarlet Letter (Boston, February 10, 1896)
The Dove of Peace, comic opera (Philadelphia, October 15, 1912)
Cyrano de Bergerac (New York, February 27, 1913; revised 1939)
The Man without a Country (May 12, 1937)
The Opera Cloak (New York., November 3, 1942)

Incidental Music To:
Euripides' lphigenia in Aulis (Berkeley, 1915) and Medea (Berkeley, 1915);
Sophocles' Electra (New York, 1917)

Manila Te Deum (New York, 1898)
An Abraham Lincoln Song for Baritone, Chorus, and Orchestra (1935)
Dunkirk for Baritone, Men's Chorus, and Chamber Orchestra (NBC, May 2, 1943)
chamber music; songs.

Source: Bakerís Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians (1997); Wikipedia Website (incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (May 2009)

Walter Damrosch: Short Biography | Arrangements/Transcriptions: Works | Recordings

Recordings of Arrangements/Transcriptions of Bachís Works




Walter Damrosch


Bach-L. Damrosch: Gavotte from Suite for solo cello in D major No. 6, BWV 1012, transcribed for orchestra

Links to other Sites

Walter Damrosch (Wikipedia)
Walter Damrosch, 1862-1950 [biography] (Library of Congress)
Walter Damrosch (Oratorio Societry of New York)
Walter Johannes Damrosch (US Opera)
Walter Damrosch (Morrison Foundation)
Walter Damrosch (Brittanica Encyclopedia)
Walter Damrosch - Biography (IMDB)


Walter Damrosch: My Musical Life (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1923)
W. Henderson: "Walter Damrosch," Musical Quarterly (January 1932)
G. Damrosch Finletter: From the Top of the Stairs (Boston, 1946)
F. Himmelein: Walter Damrosch: A Cultural Biography (diss., University of Virginia, 1972)
M. Goodell: Walter Damrosch W D. and his Contributions to Music Education (diss., Catholic University of America, 1973)
George Martin: The Damrosch Dynasty: America's First Family of Music (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1983)

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