b. Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), January 30, 1862
d. New York, New York, December 22, 1950
Walter Damrosch was part of a New York musical dynasty. He followed closely in the footsteps of his father, Leopold, a musical giant who had founded the Oratorio Society of New York, established German opera at the Metropolitan Opera, and conducted a single season of the New York Philharmonic. Walter and his older brother, Frank, a conductor and music educator, both directed the Oratorio Society at various times. While Frank was chorus master at the Metropolitan Opera, Walter was the assistant conductor, at first with his father, and then continuing under Anton Seidl after Leopold’s death in 1885. Most notably, Walter took over his late father’s music director position at the New York Symphony Society at the age of 23. With this orchestra, he secured Carnegie Hall as its main concert hall, sharing the podium at the opening concert on May 5, 1891, with Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. He led the ensemble in the US premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, later premiering important works by Rachmaninoff and Gershwin.
Walter Damrosch was elected to conduct the New York Philharmonic 1902–03 season in part because the board knew of his good relationship with Andrew Carnegie, their new president. Damrosch defeated his predecessor, Emil Paur, by a vote of 46 to 13. Unfortunately, Walter Damrosch’s season was almost as ruinous as Leopold’s had been a quarter-century earlier. Subscriptions were coming to a lull while competition from other ensembles increased. To ensure the Orchestra’s future, Damrosch created the Orchestra’s endowment, a permanent fund open to the organization in case subscriptions slowed.
Despite the new financial security, Damrosch left the Philharmonic and returned to the New York Symphony, with the aim of broadening his musical reach. He focused on his compositions; among other works, he wrote four operas, including The Scarlet Letter and Cyrano de Bergerac. During World War I, Damrosch organized a bandmasters’ training school in France for the American Expeditionary Force. In 1914, he received an honorary doctorate from Columbia University, as had his father. In his later years, Damrosch eventually guided the New York Symphony toward its 1928 merger with the Philharmonic. After the merger, he was appointed musical advisor to NBC and due to his interest in musical technologies, he became the first person to conduct an orchestral concert broadcast across the United States. Damrosch continued his involvement with technology by hosting the radio program Music Appreciation Hour until his retirement in 1942.