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The Music of the Gilded Age (March 2021): Orchestras and Virtuosos

by John Druesedow

Orchestras and Virtuosos

American Orchestras in the Nineteenth Century, edited by John Spitzer, is an essential source for the history, personnel, geographical distribution, and culture of the American symphony orchestra throughout the nineteenth century. The book covers a broad spectrum, including Theodore Thomas, who—as founder and director of major orchestras of the day, including the New York Philharmonic—stands out as the conductor who earned the greatest renown and respect. Charles Edward Russell’s The American Orchestra and Theodore Thomas, first published in 1927 and reprinted in 1971, is still useful as a portrait of Thomas’s life and labors. Among the many illustrations are a number of nineteenth-century photographs of persons and places that would have been familiar to Thomas. The volume includes seven appendixes, the first of which provides a list of orchestras throughout the United States in existence as of January 1, 1927. The list provides information not easily garnered from contemporary sources, e.g., the date of each orchestra’s founding, the number of players, the number of concerts annually, and the names of the conductors. This volume merits a leisurely perusal.

The best-known members of the musical Damrosch family were Leopold Damrosch (1832–85), who conducted the Metropolitan Opera (in particular, performances of Wagner) until his death, and his son Walter Damrosch (1862–1950), who was renowned as conductor of major New York orchestras, including the New York Symphony Orchestra, and became a household name because of his NBC Music Appreciation Hour (which aired from 1928 to 1942). George Whitney Martin discusses all this in his aptly titled The Damrosch Dynasty: America’s First Family of Music, describing in detail these two men’s careers as symphony and opera conductors and mentioning other family members—in particular Walter’s brother Frank Damrosch, who founded the New York Institute of Musical Art, which subsequently became the Juilliard School.

Anton Seidl succeeded Leopold Damrosch at the Metropolitan Opera in 1885. Six years later, he succeeded Theodore Thomas as conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Seidl was perhaps the leading conductor and proponent of the music of Richard Wagner in the United States (see Horowitz’s Wagner Nights). Seidl was also chosen to conduct the premiere of Anton Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, From the New World, at Carnegie Hall in 1893. This is discussed in detail in Joseph Horowitz’s essay “Dvořák and the New World: A Concentrated Moment,” published in Dvořák and His World, edited by Michael Beckerman.

Frank Van der Stucken also deserves mention in this context. He was one of the very few native-born Americans to become full-time conductor of a major symphony orchestra during this period. He was born in Texas then studied and conducted in Europe during the 1870s and 1880s before returning to the US to become the first permanent conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, a post he held from 1906 to 1912. Van der Stucken was also appointed dean of the Cincinnati College of Music and the director of Cincinnati’s May Festival. Larry Wolz provides a brief biography of Van der Stucken in the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas (available online).

As Atlantic crossings became less arduous and with shorter railroad trips and more efficient booking agencies to look forward to, more than a few virtuosos ventured across the ocean. In From Paris to Peoria: How European Piano Virtuosos Brought Classical Music to the American Heartland, R. Allen Lott writes about five piano virtuosos who made the journey to the US in the second half of the nineteenth century: Leopold de Meyer, Henri Hertz, Sigismund Thalberg, Anton Rubinstein, and Hans von Bülow—Rubinstein and von Bülow during the earliest years of the Gilded Age. In the early 1850s, P. T. Barnum sponsored a tour of the United States by Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (1820–87). Though this celebrated tour took place before the Gilded Age proper, it is relevant to performers who followed in her footsteps later in the century. W. Porter Ware and Thaddeus Lockard describe Lind’s tour in P. T. Barnum Presents Jenny Lind: The American Tour of the Swedish Nightingale.