Damrosch, Dr. Leopold

1832-1885

Well-known as one of America's most able conductors, head of a highly musical and artistic family and the man who started the crusade that led to the establishment in New York of German Opera on a firm basis. He was born at Posen, Prussia, and from his father, a man of culture and means, he inherited a love of music. When nine years of age he commenced the study of the violin and later pursued a course of instruction in medicine at the University of Berlin, graduating with high honors after three years. During this time he devoted his spare moments to music and studied the violin under Ries, and theory and composition under Dehn and Bohmer. Shortly afterward he appeared as a solo violinist in various German cities and was so successful that his reputation soon became a national one. He went to Weimar, in 1855, where Liszt was much impressed with his playing, and gave him the post of solo violinist in the Grand Duke's orchestra. He held this position for eighteen months and through it he met many prominent musicians of the day, Liszt becoming one of his warmest friends. At Weimar he also met Wagner, who took a deep interest in him. Here he met and married the singer, Helene von Heimburg. He went next to Breslau, where he became conductor of the Philharmonic concerts, continuing in that capacity for a year, resigning to go on a concert tour with von Bulow and Tausig. While conductor of the Philharmonic Society he gave a prominent place to the compositions of Wagner, Liszt, and Berlioz, the works of these musicians not being then as well-known as they are today. In 1862, Dr. Damrosch returned to Breslau and organized a symphony society with an orchestra of eighty  players. Nearly all the celebrated artists of the day  appeared at the concerts, among them Rubinstein, Joachim and Mme. Viardot-Garcia, while both Liszt and Wagner took up the baton on several occasions. In 1871, Dr. Damrosch accepted a call from the Arion Society, a male chorus of New York, to become its conductor. He made his debut in this country at Steinway Hall, New York, as conductor, composer and violinist, meeting with an enthusiastic reception. He almost immediately became a factor in the musical life of the metropolis, and two years later organized the Oratorio Society. In 1878 a second society, the Symphony Society, was organized by Dr. Damrosch, the orchestra of which has become noted through his efforts and those of his son Walter, who is at present its conductor. Dr. Damrosch remained conductor of the society until his death. In 1880 he was given the degree of Doctor of Music by Columbia College, New York. In 1881 he conducted the first great musical festival held in New York, with an orchestra of two hundred and fifty and a chorus of twelve hundred. Two years later he made a tour of the western states with his orchestra, and from this time on until his death he conducted various festivals.

Dr. Damrosch was instrumental in establishing German Opera at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. He gathered a company of German vocalists and made of the venture a success, producing Tannhauser, Lohengrin and Die Walküre. The season opened November, 1884, and ended February, 1885, Dr. Damrosch conducting every performance with the exception of the last. He was taken ill with a cold, which rapidly developed into pneumonia, and died five days later. He had in those few months, however, placed German Opera on a firm footing in New York. This had been his one great ambition, and under the direction of Anton Seidl it was continued for six years at the Metropolitan Opera House. The last years of his life were busy and fruitful ones, but so much of his time was taken up with his other duties that his compositions are not numerous. They consist of a biblical idyll or cantata, Ruth and Naomi; a festival overture and other orchestral pieces; various pieces for the violin; a collection of church music, entitled St. Cecilia; Sulamith, a sacred cantata; and several songs. "The secret of his success as a conductor lay in the precision and surety with which he wielded the baton," says one writer, "the fine artistic feeling he brought to bear on the works he interpreted and the faculty he had of imparting that feeling to those under him." Dr. Damrosch took a notable part in the development of music in America and because of his efforts to raise the standard of musical taste, by giving the people the best productions of the art, his name ranks high in the history of music in this country. Two sons of Dr. Damrosch, Walter and Frank, are notable figures in the world of music today, and are ever active in furthering the art.