b. Posen, Germany (now Poznań, Poland), October 22, 1832
d. New York, New York, February 15, 1885
Leopold Damrosch began his musical education at the age of nine, learning the violin against the wishes of his parents, who wanted him to become a doctor. Capitulating to their wishes, he entered the University of Berlin, completing a medical degree, all the while studying violin under Franz Ries. Upon finishing school, Damrosch decided to dedicate his life and energy to music, garnering fame across Germany and catching the eye of Franz Liszt, who appointed him solo violinist of the Weimar court orchestra. Damrosch first appeared as a conductor during the 1859–60 season, when he conducted concerts in Breslau.
After founding his own symphonic society in Breslau, in 1871, Damrosch emigrated to New York City at the invitation of the Arion Society, where he introduced himself as conductor, composer, and violinist. Damrosch was instantly famous, successfully debuting with the New York Philharmonic on May 6, 1871, performing the Beethoven Violin Concerto. In 1876, he succeeded Carl Bergmann at the helm of the Philharmonic. Damrosch was not the Orchestra’s first choice — it was pursuing Theodore Thomas, who did not wish to give up conducting his competing ensemble. Damrosch’s energy and strong musical temperament seemed promising. His programming for the first season, in addition to works by Handel, Haydn, Gluck, and Beethoven, featured heavy doses of Wagner (including the entire first act of Die Walküre), excerpts from Berlioz’s Les Troyens, works by Schumann and Liszt, and the first American performance of Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Such high-minded programming frightened the typical New York subscriber right over to Thomas’s concerts, and attendance at the Philharmonic plummeted. With ticket receipts at an all-time low, Damrosch’s tenure with the Orchestra was over after one year.
Damrosch then established his own orchestra in 1878, the New York Symphony, which would compete with the Philharmonic for the next five decades. Nonetheless, this new orchestra was prosperous, giving the American premiere of Brahms’s First Symphony. In 1881, Damrosch conducted the American premiere of Berlioz’s Requiem with a 1,200-voice chorus and an orchestra of 250 in New York’s first great musical festival. He was a major force in establishing German repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera as well as a composer whose works included an oratorio, Ruth and Naomi, the cantata Sulamith, and other choral works. Leadership of the New York Symphony passed to his 23-year-old son Walter upon his death in 1885. Damrosch’s Symphony merged with the Philharmonic four decades later, in 1928.