The son of the conductor and composer Leopold Damrosch (1832–1885), Walter studied composition and piano in Germany and in New York, where he went with his family in 1871. He was assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1884–1891), and in 1885 succeeded his father as conductor of the Oratorio Society (until 1898), and the New York Symphony Society. He was instrumental in persuading Andrew Carnegie to build Carnegie Hall as a home for both societies, and invited Tchaikovsky to New York for its opening in 1891. Damrosch also gave the American premieres of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 (1 February 1890) and Symphony No. 6 (16 March 1894).
In 1920 Damrosch took the New York Symphony Society Orchestra to Europe (the first time an American ensemble had crossed the Atlantic), and helped to establish an American Conservatory at Fontainebleau, near Paris. Back in the United States, he was a pioneer in the field of radio broadcast concerts, and 1927 was appointed musical adviser to the NBC network, and was at the forefront of producing educational material on classical music for children.
Later in life Damrosch wrote down his memoirs and recalled his meetings with Tchaikovsky:
In the spring of 1891 Carnegie Hall, which had been built by Andrew Carnegie as a home for the higher musical activities of New York, was inaugurated with a music festival in which the New York Symphony and Oratorio Societies took part. In order to give this festival a special significance I invited Peter Iljitsch Tschaikowsky, the great Russian composer, to come to America and to conduct some of his own works. In all my many years of experience I have never met a great composer so gentle, so modest — almost diffident — as he. We all loved him from the first moment — my wife and I, the chorus, the orchestra, the employees of the hotel where he lived, and of course the public. He was not a conductor by profession, and in consequence the technique of it, the rehearsals and concerts, fatigued him excessively; but he knew what he wanted, and the atmosphere which emanated from him was so sympathetic and love-compelling that all executants strove with double eagerness to divine his intentions and to carry them out. The performance which he conducted of his Third Suite [on 25 April/7 May 1891], for instance, was admirable, although it is in parts very difficult; and as he was virtually the first of great living composers to visit America, the public received him with jubilance.
He came often to our house, and, I think, liked to come. He was always gentle in his intercourse with others, but a feeling of sadness seemed never to leave him, although his reception in America was more than enthusiastic and the visit so successful in every way that he made plans to come back the following year. Yet he was often swept by uncontrollable waves of melancholia and despondency .
Damrosch met Tchaikovsky a second time at Cambridge in England in June 1893:
The following year in May I went to England with my wife, and received an invitation from Charles Villiers Stanford, then professor of music at Cambridge, to visit the old university during the interesting commencement exercises at which honorary degrees of Doctor of Music were to be given to five composers of five different countries — Saint-Saëns of France, Boito of Italy, Grieg of Norway, Bruch of Germany, and Tschaikowsky of Russia [...]
In the evening [of 12 June [N.S.]] a great banquet was given in the refectory of the college [King's], and by good luck I was placed next to Tschaikowsky. He told me during the dinner that he had just finished a new symphony which was different in form from any he had ever written. I asked him in what the difference consisted and he answered: 'The last movement is an adagio and the whole work has a programme.'
— 'Do tell me the programme,' I demanded eagerly.
— 'No,' he said, 'that I shall never tell. But I shall send you the first orchestral score and parts as soon as Jurgenson, my publisher, has them ready.'
We parted with the expectation of meeting again in America during the following winter, but, alas, in October [sic] came the cable announcing his death from cholera, and a few days later arrived a package from Moscow containing the score and parts of his Symphony No. 6, the 'Pathétique'. It was like a message from the dead" .
In fact, Walter Damrosch received the full score of the Sixth Symphony early in March 1894 (it had just been published by Jurgenson in February), and a few days later, on 16 March 1894, he conducted its first performance in America at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The symphony's success with the American public was instant.
Correspondence with Tchaikovsky
One letter from Tchaikovsky to Walter Damrosch has survived, dating from 1891:
2 letters from Walter Damrosch to the composer, dating from 1891 and 1893, are preserved in the Klin House-Museum Archive.
Notes and References
- This extract from Walter Damrosch, (1923) is included in: David Brown, (1993), p. 128, 183. Although Tchaikovsky on the whole was very pleased with his stay in America, as the detailed diary which he kept throughout this tour indicates, there were moments when he felt terribly homesick and would cry in his hotel room.
- This extract from Walter Damrosch, Sixth Symphony towards most people — even towards the work's dedicatee, his nephew Vladimir Davydov — but, while seeing his cousin Anna Merkling home after the concert in Saint Petersburg on 16/28 October 1893 at which he had conducted the symphony's première, he had a conversation with her in which he explained what he had sought to express in it (see the entry on Anna Merkling). (1923) is also included in: David Brown, (1993), p. 197–198. Tchaikovsky was reticent about the 'programme' of the