Leopold Damrosch (October 22, 1832 – February 15, 1885) was a German American orchestral conductor, violinist, and composer. Damrosch was born on Oct. 22, 1832, at Posen, Kingdom of Prussia (now Poznań in Wielkopolskie, Poland), the son of Heinrich Damrosch. His father was Jewish and his mother was Lutheran. Preliminary educated at the gymnasium in his native Posen, he began his musical education at the age of nine, learning the violin in the house of friends against the wishes of his parents, who wanted him to become a doctor. Capitulating to the wishes of his parents he entered the University of Berlin in 1851 and completed his PhD in medicine but during his spare time he studied violin under Ries, and thorough bass with S.W. Dehn and Bohmer. After he completed his degree in 1854, Damrosch then returned to Posen, and soon forsook medicine in order to dedicate his life and energy to music. In 1856 he appeared at Magdeburg as a violin virtuoso, and afterward made a tour of the chief cities of Europe. He gained fame as a violinist and began to play to large audiences in many major German cities including Berlin and Hamburg. He went to Weimar, and was received by Franz Liszt, who appointed him solo-violinist in the Ducal orchestra. Liszt dedicated a symphonic poem (Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo) to Damrosch.
In 1858 Damrosch married Helene von Heimburg (1835 – 1904), a former opera singer of talent, and was baptized a Lutheran. Damrosch first appeared as a conductor during the season of 1859 where he conducted the Philharmonic concerts in Breslau. He also became director of music at the Stadttheater in Posen, where he remained until 1866, but continued to conduct the Philharmonic Concerts at Breslau for three years due to the success of this season. In 1860 he made concert tours with Hans von Bülow and Carl Tausig. In 1862 Damrosch founded a symphonic society in Breslau with an orchestra of eighty performers, modeled after the Gewandhaus concerts of Leipzig. This society gained fame throughout Germany, and Damrosch invited Liszt to conduct several of the performances, an invitation which he accepted. Wagner also accepted the invitation to conduct his own manuscript compositions in the winter of 1867. The society gave twelve annual concerts, and many eminent artists appeared among the performers. Damrosch also established a choral society, and gave recitals as a soloist.
In 1871, Damrosch emigrated to the United States of America at the invitation of the Arion Society in New York to become its conductor. Damrosch’s active personality and strong musical temperament soon made themselves influential in the musical life of New York. He first conducted in the United States on May 6, 1871, at Steinway Hall, as conductor, composer, and violinist. He participated in many concerts over this period and in 1873 he founded the Oratorio Society of New York. Morris Reno and some twelve other lovers of music met at Damrosch’s house and formally pledged themselves to become musical missionaries. Trinity Chapel was secured for a study-room. The first concert of this society was later that year on Dec. 3, 1873, and consisted of a program of selections from Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Friedrich Handel, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and other great Baroque composers, with choir numbering 50 to 60. In 1874 Damrosch gave another concert at the Oratorio Society, this the first with a full orchestra, consisting of Handel’s oratorio Samson at Steinway Hall. For Christmas that year Messiah was performed.
In 1876, Damrosch became conductor of the Philharmonic Society, and in the following year, yielding that place to Theodore Thomas, founded the Symphony Society of New York (now known as the New York Philharmonic) in connection with a number of persons interested in the cultivation of orchestral music. This society became closely identified with the Oratorio Society, and several joint performances were organized. For five years Damrosch worked gratuitously for the Oratorio Society. At the time of his death it had a membership of 500, and ranked among the leading choruses of the world. 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 May 3-7, 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 Dr. Damrosch selected a large number of artists for soloists. Among the choral works performed were Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum and Messiah; Rubinstein’s Tower of Babel (first time); Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Mortes (first time); and Ludwig van 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, Damrosch traveled extensively through the West with his orchestra. In September of 1884, he began a remarkable series of operatic performances as General Manager and chief conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The company had experienced great financial losses during its first season of Italian opera under director Henry Abbey. For its second season it turned to Damrosch to direct the company in German repertory. He went to Germany, and in five weeks brought back a number of artists, who constituted the famous company which first established German opera in America. Damrosch not only personally directed each opera, but at the same time continued his work as director of the Oratorio and Symphony societies. 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 Damrosch’s last effort. He conducted every performance except during the last week of his life, when his health broke down under the strain and he took a severe cold, from which he never recovered. He died of pneumonia in Manhattan, New York City, NY, on Feb. 15, 1885.
Damrosch was one of the great conductors of modern times, and no man, except possibly Theodore Thomas, contributed so largely to the cultivation of good music in America. He was a devotee of Wagner. His works include: seven cantatas; symphony in A; the music to Schiller’s “Joan of Arc”; an opera, “Sulamith”; and many other pieces. His sons Frank Damrosch (1859-1937) and Walter Johannes Damrosch (1862-1950), both born in Breslau, in 1859 and 1862 respectively, and came to America with their father, made their musical careers here. Both succeeded him as conductors of the Oratorio Society of New York. Frank was conductor and teacher. Walter was an eminent conductor, music educator, and composer. His daughter, Clara Mannes, was a music teacher. His grandchildren were musician Leopold Mannes and writer Marya Mannes.
My collection includes the following works by Leopold Damrosch:
Festival Overture in C, op. 15 (1871).
Symphony in A Major (1878).
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources