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Walter Johannes Damrosch (30 January 1862–22 December 1950) was a conductor, composer, and educator, who significantly influenced the American public’s appreciation for music. Born in Breslau, Prussia (now Poland), Damrosch was the son of an eminent German-American conductor, Leopold Damrosch and his wife Helene. Damrosch’s musical training was largely at the hands of his father and the great German conductor Hans von Bulow.

Damrosch came to the United States with his family in 1871. When his father died, he left his son with a triple legacy in music—enthusiasm for the operas of Wagner, the continuance of the work of the Oratorio Society, and the preservation of the New York Symphony. At his father’s passing, Damrosch became assistant conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and music director of the New York Symphony Orchestra and the Oratorio Society. Under his direction, both the opera and the symphony orchestra toured the United States, introducing music to people in the hinterlands of the west and south.

Damrosch also played a key role in the construction of Carnegie Hall. During an ocean liner trip to Europe, Damrosch met Andrew Carnegie and spelled out his dream of a hall in New York City built especially for music. Shortly after that fortuitous meeting, Carnegie, backed by the support of the local community, provided the money for its construction.

In 1894, Damrosch founded his own opera company, the Damrosch Opera Company, with the main purpose of conducting Wagner’s operas so that Americans could be exposed to the great German operas. Damrosch also wrote several operas himself, including The Scarlet Letter, Cyrano, and The Man Without a Country.
When the New York Symphony Society was reorganized, Damrosch again served as director in an effort to broaden his expertise to include orchestral works as well as opera. One of his most notable accomplishments during this time was working with members to provide free, ongoing radio concerts for public schools and colleges.

During World War I, Damrosch was the conductor for the troops in France. His contacts led to the establishment of a summer music school at Fontainebleau, where many American musicians were trained over the coming decades. Damrosch took his New York Symphony to Europe in 1920, making it the first American orchestra to be heard in Europe.

In defiance of Blue Laws, Damrosch introduced Sunday afternoon concerts for workers who had only this day off. It was not until he was named music director of the National Broadcasting Company that he made his most significant contribution to broadening the public’s appreciation for music. He developed a Music Appreciation Hour for young people. Through this program he reached over seven million young people who would gather in school rooms across the country to hear a rolling voice with a German accent, greet listeners with “Good morning, my dear children.” When this greeting came over the air, children responded and listened readily to his “Fun in Music” concerts that were interspersed with humorous and friendly remarks. His concerts proved to generations of young Americans that music, to be good, need not be dull.

Damrosch, in addition to his orchestral activities, also spent a good deal of time authoring articles on music for contemporary magazines of his day, including Better Homes and Gardens and Etude magazine.
Damrosch held honorary music degrees from Columbia University, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, Brown University, Dartmouth College, and New York University. He was also the author of My Musical Life (1923).

Contributed by Drew Pickle, Baylor University

References

Damrosch, W. J. 1923. My musical life. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Hapka, C. 2003. U.S. Opera: Walter Johannes Damrosch. Available at:
http://www.usopera.com/composers/damrosch.shtml

Keilman, T. 2001. Wayman Adams, American artist: Walter Damrosch. Round Rock, Tex.: I-Enternet.

Pace, R. 2000. Walter Damrosch. New York: Oratoria Society of New York.

Staff writer. 1950. Walter Damrosch dies at age of 88. In The New York Times 23 December: 1, 16.
Willow Grove Park. 2002. Walter Damrosch: The author. Willow Grove, Penn.: Accidentals Unlimited.

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