Leopold Damrosch

The New York Philharmonic

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Biography
Leopold Damrosch

1876–77

b. Posen, Germany [now Poznan, Poland], October 22, 1832
d. New York, February 15, 1885

Dr. Leopold Damrosch (he had received a medical degree from Berlin University in 1854) was already an active figure on the New York musical scene when he made the pilgrimage to Bayreuth to hear Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 1876. That same year, he succeeded Carl Bergmann at the helm of the New York Philharmonic. Damrosch was not the orchestra’s first choice; they wanted Theodore Thomas but only on condition that he give up conducting his competing ensemble. Thomas wouldn’t acquiesce, and Damrosch’s energy and strong musical temperament seemed promising. Damrosch’s programming for the season, in addition to works by the old masters—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, as well as the first American performances of Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto in G Minor and Goldmark’s Rustic Wedding Symphony. 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, Leopold Damrosch’s tenure with the Orchestra was over.

Damrosch then formed his own orchestra, which gave the American premiere of Brahms’ First Symphony. In 1880, he was awarded an honorary doctor of music degree by Columbia College. The following year, Damrosch conducted the American premiere of Berlioz’s Requiem with a 1200-voice chorus and an orchestra of 250 in New York’s first great musical festival. He was also a major force in establishing German repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera. Damrosch was also a published composer whose works included an oratorio, Ruth and Naomi, the cantata Sulamith, as well as other choral works

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