Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: The Damrosch Dynasty: Where Would We Be Without Them?

Frank Heino Damrosch
Frank Heino Damrosch (1859-1937)

We mark the birth on June 22, 1859 – 161 years ago today – of the German-born American conductor and educator Frank Heino Damrosch.  

Permit me, please, a personal reminiscence before moving on to establish why Frank Damrosch, his father Leopold, his brother Walter and his sister Clara were nothing less than the first family of American music from the 1870s through the 1920s.  

It was one of those days I will never forget.  We all have them – a wedding; a graduation; the birth of a child; heaven help us, the death of someone dear – days during which events occur that by their sheer magnitude become indelibly printed in our memories. 

Many thousands of us had just such a day on Sunday, October 19, 1991.  It was a hot, martini-dry, cloudless and very windy day in the San Francisco Bay Area; fire weather, as it is colloquially known.  We were at the end of our so-called “dry season”; it hadn’t rained since March.  We were also in the midst of a multi-year drought, and dead trees, dried out eucalyptus bark (eucalyptus trees molt/shed like Siberian Huskies in July); dried leaves and brush and pine needles had accumulated everywhere, particularly on the shake (that is, wooden shingle) roofs of the older houses across the hills of Oakland and Berkeley.

The fire started on Saturday, October 18, at 7151 Buckingham Boulevard in the hills of south Berkeley, most likely caused by a carelessly discarded cigarette.  It was extinguished, and a fire engine stayed on site to guard against flare-ups.  But that wasn’t enough, and at about 10:30 in the morning on the following day – Sunday, October 19th – super dry, super hot, 65+ m.p.h. winds reignited the fire, which had been smoldering deep down in what’s called “duff”: pine needles, rotted leaves, and various other deep-seated organic debris.  Within minutes people were running for their lives; tragically, 25 of them didn’t make it.  The fire spread with incredible speed, burning at over 2000o F, swirling capriciously through the densely wooded, densely occupied canyons of north Oakland and south Berkeley.

The initial plume
The initial plume

I was sitting at my piano working on a set of etudes that I would entitle Dude ‘Tudes about 3 miles south of where the fire started when I saw a huge plume of white smoke rising just over the hill above my house.  It looked like movies/videos I’d seen of a volcanic cloud boiling and billowing upwards.  I told my wife that something nasty was happening, and I ran up Leimert Avenue to the top of the hill to see what was going on.  A crowd had gathered; no one said a word.  Looking north along the deep, wide canyon formed by the Hayward Fault (on which sits Highway 13) we watched the beast grow and spark and surge; the eucalyptus trees exploded in front of it, popping like champagne bottles, spreading burning pitch in every direction.  The smoke was no longer white but black; I’ve since learned that meant that not just vegetation but structures were burning as well.  

I high-tailed it back down the hill to my house, turned on the TV, and told my wife what I’d seen.  She appropriately freaked and gathered up the kids (my daughter Rachel was 5 years old and son Samuel, 20 months old) just as helicopters flew over our neighborhood with the announcement that we should “prepare to evacuate.”

Fire at Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood
Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood at about noon; not a single one of these houses survived

“Prepare to evacuate.”  Now that was a most interesting exercise, one I hope never to experience again.  What would any of us take if we were given 15 or 20 minutes to leave our potentially doomed houses?  (And remember, this was long before the “cloud” and the web had just been invented; pretty much everything we had – including my lecture notes, music manuscripts, my library – was in hard copy.) So: what did we choose to take? We grabbed Samuel’s diaper bag and stroller and Rachel’s dollhouse (her favorite toy); we threw some clothes and toiletries in a bag; I took my computer (a second generation Mac), the composition notebooks I’d just been writing in and whatever photo albums I could easily lay my hands on.  My wife grabbed her jewelry and our important papers (the deed to the house, our insurance policy and passports).  And then what?  Our books and recordings and videos?  My cocktail shakers? (My collection was young but not insubstantial.)  My wife’s shoes? (Her collection was quite substantial.) 

(Excuse me, but allow me to offer you all an unsolicited piece of advice.  If you haven’t already, digitize your family photos, videotapes, and home movies and store them in the cloud.  I know you’ve been putting it off, but do so no longer.)

Bessie Hurwitz Greenberg in 1916
Bessie Hurwitz Greenberg (1894-1971) in 1916

I don’t remember if my wife took anything else during our “evacuation”, but I did.  When forced to decide what was, at the time, the most precious object I owned, I took my paternal grandmother’s framed diploma from the Institute of Musical Art, where she graduated with the class of 1916.

My grandmother’s diploma
My grandmother’s diploma

I know: I’ve talked about my grandmother Bessie Hurwitz Greenberg in previous posts; she was both the musical doyen and the musical taskmaster of my family.  The Institute was the most prestigious private school of music in the United States at the time she graduated with her degree in teaching piano and so (along with the Curtis Institute, founded in 1924) the Institute has remained, having been renamed the Juilliard School in 1926.  My grandmother’s diploma is, for me, true family history: a document of excellence earned by the child of Belorussian immigrants who had come to America, penniless, some 30 years before from some unknown shtetl in the Russian Empire.

At the bottom right of the diploma is the signature of the president and founder of the Institute, the godson of Franz Liszt, Frank Damrosch, who 161st birthday we celebrate today.

(Before going on I’d finish the business regarding the Oakland Hills Fire. We were lucky: our neighborhood wasn’t touched.  But many of our friends and neighbors were not so lucky, and all told, 25 lives and 3,469 homes were lost that crazy day.]

Frank Damrosch was born in the Silesian city of Breslau.  He came by his musical bona fides honestly: his mother, Helene von Heimburg, was a professional opera singer, and his father Leopold a composer, virtuoso violinist, and conductor.

Leopold Damrosch
Leopold Damrosch (1832-1885)

Frank’s father Leopold Damrosch (1832-1885) rose to fame first as a violinist (he was appointed solo violinist in the Ducal orchestra in Weimar by its director, Franz Liszt) and soon after, as a conductor as well.  In 1871 he immigrated to the United States (with his wife and children Frank, Walter, and Clara in tow), having been invited to do so by the “Arion Society”, an organization founded by German immigrants in 1854 to promote “the perpetuation of love for some of the characteristic elements of German civilization.”  

It took Leopold Damrosch exactly no time to establish himself with American audiences.  On May 6, 1871, he played the violin solo in a performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the Philharmonic Society of New York (the ancestor of the New York Philharmonic).  He proceeded to perform with and to conduct pretty much every extent musical organization in the greater New York area.  In 1876, he was appointed music director of the Philharmonic Society of New York, though, unfortunately, it was a position that he didn’t hold for long: his propensity for programming difficult new music – like the entire first act of Wagner’s Die Walküre – went over like that proverbial lead zeppelin with the symphony’s subscriber base.  In September of 1884 he took over the brand-new – and struggling – Metropolitan Opera in its second season.  He turned the Met around a full 180o, and would have had a long and no doubt glorious career had not a severe cold cut him down on February 15, 1885.  

With Leopold gone, the singular impact of the Damrosch family on American music had, as the song goes, “only just begun.”  

Frank Damrosch – today’s birthday boy – was something of a piano and organ prodigy; among his teachers was the great Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925).  By 1884, the 30 year-old Damrosch was living in Denver, Colorado, where he worked as an organist, conducted the Denver Chorus Club, and supervised music in the Denver public schools.

His skills as an organist, pianist, and conductor notwithstanding, Frank Damrosch’s great calling was as an educator.  He became the supervisor of music in New York City’s public schools in 1897. In 1905 he created his magnum opus when he founded the New York Institute of Musical Art.  Damrosch’s intention was to create an institution on par with Europe’s greatest conservatories of music.  In this he succeeded entirely.

Walter Damrosch in 1889
Walter Damrosch (1862-1950) in 1889

Frank’s baby brother, the conductor and composer Walter Johannes Damrosch (1862 –1950), was to be the most famous of their storied clan.  In his day he was best known as a conductor of Wagner, and to that end in 1894 he founded the Damrosch Opera Company for performing the music dramas of Wagner.  A true pioneer in the use of radio, Damrosch was the music director of the National Broadcast Company (NBC) from 1928 to 1942, during which he hosted a show called “Music Appreciation Hour” that targeted school age kids. 

Walter Damrosch’s most enduring fame was as the conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra.  Founded by his father Leopold in 1878, the 23 year-old Walter took over its directorship when Leopold died in 1885.  This was the orchestra for which Andrew Carnegie expressly built Carnegie Hall, which itself opened in 1891.  Among the many important world premieres Walter Damrosch conducted with the New York Symphony Orchestra was Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 on November 28, 1909, with Rachmaninoff at the piano; George Gershwin’s Concerto in F on December 3, 1925, with Gershwin at the piano; and Gershwin’s An American in Paris, on December 13, 1928.

It was in late 1928 that Damrosch’s New York Symphony Orchestra merged with the Philharmonic Society of New York to form what is now known as the New York Philharmonic.

Last but certainly not least was the third and youngest sibling of the Damrosch brood, Clara Damrosch (1869-1948).  Like her brothers she was a skilled musician – a pianist – and music educator.  

Clara Damrosch Mannes and her husband David Mannes performing together circa 1915
Clara Damrosch Mannes (1869-1948) and her husband David Mannes (1866-1959) performing together circa 1915

In June 1898, Clara married the violinist, conductor, and activist David Mannes (1866-1959).  (For our information, Mannes was concertmaster of Walter Damrosch’s New York Symphony Orchestra from 1898-1912.) Together, Clara and David Mannes concertized across the United States.  But most importantly, they together founded the Mannes School of Music in New York City in 1916, since its founding one of the premiere conservatories in the country.  

Without any doubt, the Damrosch family must be considered as being the most important musical family in the United States from the 1870s through the 1920s.  Now that we know who they are, let us not forget them!

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