Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Damrosch, Leopold

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DAMROSCH, Leopold, musician, b. in Posen, Prussia, 22 Oct., 1832; d. in New York city, 15 Feb., 1885. At the age of nine years he began to study the violin, but was obliged to practise at the house of friends, on account of the opposition of his parents. Acceding to their wishes, he entered the University of Berlin, was graduated with high honors, and received a diploma as doctor of medicine. But every leisure moment was given to music. He studied the violin under Ries, and thorough bass with Dehn and Bohmer. After his graduation, Dr. Damrosch devoted his time and energies to the study of music, and his fame as a violinist soon reached the large cities of Germany, where he appeared with success. Shortly afterward he went to Weimar, and was cordially received by Liszt, who appointed him solo-violinist in the Ducal orchestra, of which he was the director. Liszt dedicated one of his symphonic poems, “Le Triomphe Funèbre de Tasse,” to Dr. Damrosch, an honor extended to two others only — Wagner and Berlioz. Dr. Damrosch's first appearance as a conductor was at the Philharmonic concerts in Breslau in 1859, where he was highly successful, and conducted them for three years. In these concerts he gave a judicious mixture of popular and classic as well as modern pieces, and in 1862 founded a symphonic society in that city, with an orchestra of eighty performers, modelled after the Gewandhaus concerts of Leipsic. The fame of this society soon extended throughout Germany, and several of the performances were directed by Liszt. Wagner also accepted the invitation to conduct his own manuscript compositions in the winter of 1867. In 1871 Dr. Damrosch came to New York upon the invitation of the Arion society, and made his first appearance, on 6 May, 1871, at Steinway hall, as conductor, composer, and violinist. He founded the Oratorio society in 1873. The societies that had previously existed had failed, from various causes, and the only organizations of this character were the old Harmonic society and the Church-Music association. The work was begun with enthusiasm, and in the year of its organization the first concert was given, with a programme consisting of selections from Bach, Handel, Palestrina, etc. The growth of the society was such that in the following year the first oratorio, Handel's “Samson,” was performed with full orchestra, and on Christmas evening of that year the “Messiah” was given with great effect. It performed Bach's, Beethoven's, Brahm's, Händel's, Haydn's, Mendelssohn's, Mozart's, Palestrina's, and other great works, many of which had never been given in the United States. In 1877 Dr. Damrosch, in connection with a number of persons interested in the cultivation of orchestral music, established the Symphony society. Although a separate organization, it has become identified with the Oratorio society by the joint performance of several notable works. The co-operation of these societies reached its climax in the great “musical festival” which was held in the armory of the 7th regiment in New York, from 3 till 7 May, 1881. The chorus numbered 1,200, the main body being the Oratorio society, which was augmented by various choral societies from neighboring towns. An additional chorus of 1,000 young ladies from the Normal college and 250 boys from the church choirs took part in the afternoon concerts. The orchestra was composed of 250 pieces, and a large number of artists were selected for soloists by Dr. Damrosch. Among the choral works performed were Händel's “Dettingen Te Deum” and “Messiah”; Rubinstein's “Tower of Babel” (first time); Berlioz's “Grande Messe des Mortes” (first time); and Beethoven's “Ninth Symphony.” The audience numbered from 8,000 to 10,000 at each concert, and the enthusiasm for the projector of this enterprise resulted in an ovation on the last night. The degree of Doctor of Music was conferred upon him by Columbia in 1880. In 1883 Dr. Damrosch travelled extensively through the west with his orchestra, meeting everywhere with great success. Italian opera, which, through its “star” system and small repertory, had been losing its hold upon American audiences, received its death-blow in 1884 when Dr. Damrosch proposed German opera to the directors of the new Metropolitan opera-house. In one month, September, 1884, he engaged his company, and began the most remarkable series of operatic performances ever held in this country. The company comprised some of the greatest artists of the German opera-houses, and, in contrast with the hitherto prevailing mode, every part, even the smallest, was carefully presented. Twelve of the operas performed were comparative novelties, the most important of which were Wagner's “Tannhäuser,” “Lohengrin,” and “Die Walküre,” and Beethoven's “Fidelio.” This proved to be Dr. Damrosch's last effort. He conducted every performance except during the last week of his life, when he took a severe cold, from which he never recovered. His musical compositions include several violin concertos, “Sulamith,” a biblical idyl, and a “Festival Overture.” He had thorough command over the modern resources of instrumentation, and his musical ideas are characterized by great nobility and refinement. His violin compositions are prized by violinists as valuable additions to the literature of that instrument. It was as a conductor, however, that he gained his greatest celebrity. He possessed strong personal magnetism, united with power to impart his ideas, which made him an ideal conductor. His aim was always to produce the inner meaning and spirit of a composition. Through his gentle bearing and high culture he gained many warm friends. Never seeking for immediate fame or personal success, he found that high truth which he extended in his art. — His son, Walter Johannes, b. in Breslau, Prussia, 30 Jan., 1862, received his musical education chiefly from his father, but also had instruction from other noted musicians. During the great music festival given by Dr. Damrosch in May, 1881, he first acted as conductor in drilling several sections of the large chorus, one in New York, and another in Newark, N. J. The latter, consisting chiefly of members of the Harmonic society, elected him to be their conductor. Under his leadership this society regained its former reputation, and during this time a series of concerts was given, in which such works as Rubinstein's “Tower of Babel,” Berlioz's “Damnation de Faust,” and Verdi's “Requiem” were performed. He was then only nineteen years of age, but showed marked ability in drilling large masses. During Dr. Damrosch's last illness his son was suddenly called upon to conduct the German opera, which he did with success, and after his father's death was appointed to be assistant director and conductor at the Metropolitan opera-house, and also to succeed him as conductor of the Symphony and Oratorio societies. 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 Dr. 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 his direction, at the Metropolitan opera-house, 3 Jan., 1887.