German-American violinist and conductor; born at Posen, Prussia, Oct. 22, 1832; died in New York Feb. 15, 1885. He commenced to learn the violin at the age of nine, but owing to his parents' opposition, who wished him to study medicine, he was compelled to study in the house of friends. In 1851 he entered Berlin University, where he studied medicine, and was graduated with high honors three years later. He then returned to Posen, and soon forsook medicine in order to devote himself entirely to music. In 1856 he appeared at Magdeburg as a violin virtuoso, and afterward made a tour of the chief cities of Europe. He was one of the famous band who sat under Liszt at Weimar. Liszt made him solo violinist in the ducal orchestra, and dedicated "Tasso" to him, a distinction conferred only upon two other musicians, Wagner and Berlioz.
In 1858 Damrosch married Helene von Heimburg, a singer of talent. He now became director of music at the Stadttheater in Posen, where he remained until 1866, when he accepted the position of director of the Philharmonic Concerts at Breslau. Here he organized a symphony society with an orchestra of eighty members. The society gave twelve annual concerts, and many eminent artists appeared among the performers. Damrosch also established a choral society, and gave recitals as a soloist.
In 1871 Damrosch was invited by the New York Arion Society to become its conductor. He went to America and soon became very successful both as a violinist and as conductor of his own compositions. In 1873 he organized a musical choir. Morris Reno and some twelve other lovers of music met at Damrosch's house and formally pledged themselves to become musical missionaries. Trinity Chapel was secured for a study-room, and on Dec. 3, 1873, was given the first concert of the Oratorio Society, with choir numbering 50 to 60. By the following May the society was able to produce Handel's oratorio "Samson" at Steinway Hall.
For five years Damrosch worked gratuitously for the Oratorio Society (at the time of his death it had a membership of 500, and ranked among the leading choruses of the world). In 1876 Damrosch became conductor of the Philharmonic Society, and in the following year, yielding that place to Theodore Thomas, founded the Symphony Society of New York. In 1880 he received the degree of doctor of music from Columbia College. The next year he planned the great musical festival which was held at the Seventh Regiment Armory, with a chorus of 1,200 voices and an orchestra of 250 instruments. But his crowning success was in 1884, when he successfully established German opera at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. On the failure of that theater to secure an Italian troupe, he went to Germany, and in five weeks brought back a number of artists, who constituted the famous company which first established German opera in America. Damrosch not only personally directed each opera, but at the same time continued his work as director of the Oratorio and Symphony societies. His health broke down underthe strain, and he died of pneumonia in the following year.
Damrosch was one of the great conductors of modern times, and no man, except possibly Theodore Thomas, contributed so largely to the cultivation of good music in America. He was a devotee of Wagner. His works include: seven cantatas; symphony in A; the music to Schiller's "Joan of Arc"; an opera, "Sulamith"; and many other pieces.
- Ritter, Music in America, pp. 352, 356;
- Riemann, Musik-Lexikon, s.v.;
- Baker, Biographical Dict. of Musicians, New York, 1900, s.v.