Walter Johannes Damrosch (January 30, 1862 ‚Äď December 22, 1950) was an German-born American conductor. He is best remembered today for conducting the world premiere performances of George Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F (1925), and An American in Paris (1928).
Walter Damrosch was born in Breslau, Prussia, a son of the conductor Leopold Damrosch. He exhibited an interest in music at an early age and was instructed by his father in harmony and also studied under Wilhelm Albert Rischbieter and Felix Draeseke at the Dresden Conservatory. He emigrated with his parents in 1871 to the United States. In 1884, when his father initiated a run of all-German opera at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Walter was made an assistant conductor. After his father's death in 1885, he held the same post under Anton Seidl and also became conductor of the Oratorio and Symphony Societies in New York.
On May 17, 1890, he married Margaret Blaine (1867-1949), the daughter of American politician and presidential candidate James G. Blaine. They had four daughters.
Damrosch was best known in his day as a conductor of the music of Richard Wagner and was also a pioneer in the performance of music on the radio, and as such became one of the chief popularizers of classical music in the United States. Although now remembered almost exclusively as a conductor, before his radio broadcasts he was equally well-known as a composer.
Damrosch composed operas based on stories such as The Scarlet Letter (1896), Cyrano de Bergerac (1913), and The Man Without a Country (1937). Those operas are very seldom performed now. His Wagner recordings are still widely available. He also composed songs such as the intensely dramatic Danny Deever.
Damrosch was the National Broadcasting Company's music director under David Sarnoff, and from 1928 to 1942, he hosted the network's Music Appreciation Hour, a popular series of radio lectures on classic music aimed at students. (The show was broadcast during school hours, and teachers were provided with textbooks and worksheets by the network.) According to former New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg in his collection Facing the Music, Damrosch was notorious for making up silly lyrics for the music he discussed in order to "help" young people appreciate it, rather than letting the music speak for itself . An example: for the first movement of Franz Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, the lyric went
Although Damrosch took an interest in music technologies, he recorded sporadically. His first recording, the prelude to Bizet's Carmen, appeared in 1903 (on Columbia, with a contingent of the New York Symphony credited as the "Damrosch Orchestra"). He recorded very few extended works; the only symphony he recorded was Brahms's Second with the New York Symphony shortly before the orchestra merged with the New York Philharmonic (again for Columbia, in 1928), and he recorded the complete ballet music from the opera Henry VIII by Camille Saint-Sa√ęns, with the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C., for RCA Victor in the early 1930s.
Walter Damrosch died in New York City in 1950.