Willow Grove Park - Walter Damrosch: The Great War
Walter Damrosch: The Great War  
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The Musical Aftermath of the Great War

An Interview Secured Especially for THE ETUDE (March 1920)with the Distinguished Conductor

Director of the New York Symphony Orchestra

ETUDE EDITOR'S NOTE- When Dr. Leopold Damrosch, the illustrious musician, who came to America in 1871, established the New York Symphony Society in 1878, his son Walter was only in his teens. It may thus he said that the present conductor of the organization literally grew up with the orchestra, whose conductor he became in 1885, at the death of his father. In 1892 he made the New York Symphony Orchestra a permanent organization, and literally all of its work for thirty-five years has been done under his experienced baton. This year the orchestra is undertaking a tour of Europe with its full complement of 100 men by special invitations from the governments of France, Italy and Belgium. A tour upon such a scale is unprecedented and indicates in a remarkable manner the new position of America in the world of music. No better testimony of Dr. Damrosch's efficiency and ability could be desired than this.

"MANY warmly colored statements appeared during the war as to the wonderful stimulative effects of the world upheaval upon art. Just how and why this should be never seemed to be explained. Because the world was turned upside down, the arts were supposed to benefit in any mysterious manner. The truth really is that art has been suffering a sad eclipse. War is the monopoly of monopolies. When a country is engaged in war there is one paramount thought, and that is to win the war. Everything else must he brushed aside. Every art is valuable at such a time only in its relation to the war, and the composers and executive musicians lying in the trenches cannot serve their art. Fortunately music at this time was able to do something. It could assist in stimulating enthusiasm; it could assist in raising funds for war needs; it could relieve anxiety at home, stimulate courage among the men on their way to the front and lessen the ennui of those behind the lines. This much it did, and did wonderfully. It must have proved to all but the most obtuse people that, although music is perhaps the most spiritual of arts, its material value in the great crisis was very great. But after all is said and done, music will not fire bullets, fly aeroplanes, or run battleships; and since war demands. First of all, those things which contribute directly to war, music, considerable as was its part, naturally suffered during the war.

Creative Work Difficult in Wartime

"Composers may have been fired by the great incidents of the war, but it was literally impossible for the creative worker to get his mind down to things. In my own case, I found myself past fifty and rather unhappy because I was too old to get in line with the boys who went to the front; lint nevertheless I felt that I must make myself of service in some way. War monopolized me as it was monopolizing Americans of all classes. Good luck sent me to France in June, 1918, at the very height of the war. Mr. Harry Harkuess Flagler, the generous President of the New York Symphony Orchestra, had supplied me with a liberal check, with which I was to engage a French symphony orchestra and take them through our American rest camps in France for the purpose of giving orchestral concerts for our soldiers. I arrived in Paris at perhaps the darkest moment, when the Germans were so near that we expected to have to evacuate that city. Millions of its citizens had already fled, air raids were almost daily occurrences, and even the Big Berthas recommenced their bombardment on the 19th of July, just after I had given a big symphony concert for the French Croix Rouge, at the historic old Salle du Conservatoire, although I do not believe that the bombardment was the direct result of my concert! At that time every inch of available space on the railroads was needed for the transportation of soldiers and munitions of war, and as there were very few of our soldiers in rest camps-they were all either training feverishly or already at the front-our plan of traveling around with an orchestra would have been extremely foolish. I had again begun to speculate on the uselessness of a middle-aged musician in war time, when, like a ray of sunshine, I suddenly received a visit from Colonel Dawes, a friend of our Commander-in-Chief, General Pershing, with a message from him asking me if I would come to General Headquarters. at Chaumont, and consult with him regarding possible improvements of the army bands of the American Expeditionary Force, which were not in particularly good condition, owing to the haste in which they had been assembled, and, above all, the scarcity of routined and competent bandmasters. "Consider this for a moment. The commanding general of the American Army thought so highly of the value of music as to stop long enough to take steps for its betterment in the American forces."
"General Pershing, with the splendid vision that has characterized him as a remarkable man and leader, realized the importance of keeping up the morale of the soldiers during times of stress, and he knew that music could do at times what nothing else could accomplish. Colonel Dawes brought me this message on the morning of July 14th, and I agreed to go to Chaumont to meet General Pershing on the following Wednesday, July 18th. You can imagine with what feelings of elation and happiness I looked forward to this meeting. But I must digress and tell you of all occurrence on July 4th, which had an important hearing on my experiences with the Commander-in-Chief.
"For months the citizens who had remained in Paris had been continually driven to their cellars for fear of raids from the skies; and for months rumors of possible defeat had been mysteriously afloat, and rumors of overwhelming German war machinery like the huge guns which had been terrorizing the city. Then came the parade of the American boys who bad fought like fiends at Seicheprey.
Do you wonder that Paris went wild when they heard that an American parade was to be held there on July 4th? Can you imagine the scene? Emotionally this was the most remarkable thing I have ever witnessed. Along the Champs Elysee everybody was in tears, some women actually sobbing from very joy.

An Old Army Custom

"As I stood among the crowd on that great day an American bandmaster stood beside me, hollow-eyed and trembling with excitement. It was quite evident from his appearance and from his nervous state that he had gone through some terrific strain. He happened to recognize me, and immediately asked me to use any influence to do something with General Pershing for the bandsmen with the American Expeditionary Force. It is an old American army custom to send bandsmen to the front in time of battle as stretcher bearers, with no weapons and with only Red Cross bands around their arms, which, alas, in only too many instances proved no protection whatever from the unscrupulous enemy. This bandmaster told me that he had trained a band of twenty-eight men in America and had taken them overseas, where they had done a great work in inspiring the regiment and keeping up the morale. They had a distinct and valuable service to perform which none of the other men in the regiment could do. They were the spirit of the men - the pep, the mental relief, in fact so many things that only the soldier can tell you what they are. These bandsmen had gone through months of special training to do one specific thing. Yet at the battle of Scicheprey they were sent to the front as stretcher bearers. Of the twenty-eight, nine were killed outright, two were wounded, two were shell-shocked. and the band was thus put out of commission and months of valuable training were wasted. That these men died a noble thing in the service of their country, that they made the supreme sacrifice, entitles them to an immortal place lint at the same time there were thousands of other men who were deprived entirely of music because of this. The camp became a cheerless, silent camp, and the men, deprived of music to which they had been accustomed every day, felt the need woefully. The bandmaster was sent to Paris to be a purchasing agent of musical instruments. I was deeply moved by this story, but it seemed at that time well-nigh hopeless that I, a civilian, could do anything to change such a useless and wasteful tradition.
"But to go back to my story. On July 18th I traveled to Chaumont, was there most politely received by Colonel Collins, Secretary of the Staff, and invited to dine with General Pershing at his chateau, a few miles outside of the town. The other guest was General Omar Bundy, and together we motored through the lovely country surrounding Chaumont in the exquisite twilight of a French July evening, amid scenes so peaceful and beautiful that it seemed hard to imagine that grim war was stalking only a few miles away. A solitary sentinel guarded the chateau. General Pershing had been at the front all day and had not yet returned. And so General Bundy and I wandered among the lovely gardens awaiting his return. As he drove up in his motor, he welcomed me with great simplicity and courtesy, and altogether made an impression of such dignity and strength that my heart glowed with patriotic pride that such a man should have been found to represent us in the great war. We sat down to dinner almost immediately, the party consisting, besides ourselves, of all the officers of the General Staff (charming men, all of them).
"Although this was the evening of the famous day when Foch made his first great advance, driving the Germans back six miles, the talk at table was not of battles, but of music, its influence on the soldier and how it could best serve its purpose. General Pershing, at whose left I sat, plunged immediately into the needs of the Army for better training and general improvement of the Army bands. Congress had authorized that a lieutenant's commission he given to the band-masters, but General Pershing felt that many of them needed further training before they were deserving of a commission, and after some discussion I agreed to examine all the bandmasters in France-some 200 of them-and the General said he would send them all to Paris for this purpose.

A Significant Opportunity

"Suddenly, as I sat there, the picture of the hollow-cheeked bandmaster of the Fourth of July parade and his tragic story came into my mind, and I thought to myself that here was an opportunity to do something practical towards improving the position of the musicians in the Army. I watched my opportunity and told General Pershing the story of the little band at Seicheprey, and how it had virtually been destroyed and its usefulness ended because of these men being used as stretcher-bearers. I assured the General that I did not claim for a minute that a life of a musician was more sacred than that of any other soldier in the service, but that their duty in the Army was not to fight, but to cheer the fighters, and that for such purposes as stretcher-hearers other men could perhaps be found who were not so necessary for special work. General Bundy heartily agreed with my standpoint, but General Pershing did not say anything, and I felt that perhaps I had talked too passionately, although I comforted myself with the reflection that, as I had talked only as a civilian, the General would not punish me by ordering to have me put up against a wall at sunrise and shot!
"Next morning, while I was at headquarters discussing the details of my duties with Colonel Collins, an orderly brought in an envelope and, as Colonel Collins read its contents, he smiled and handed it to me, saying, "This will interest you, Dr. Damrosch." It was a general order from General Pershing to the effect that "From now on bandsmen shall not be used as stretcher-bearers, except in cases of extreme military urgency".
"I returned to Paris and immediately organized the examination of all the band masters of the American Expeditionary Force who were sent to me, to Paris, from all the different parts of France where their regiments were quartered, at the rate of about fifty a week. I examined these men thoroughly, as regarded their general musical knowledge and capability in conducting, and was ably assisted by Monsieur Francis Casadesus, a distinguished musician and a charming man. General Pershing had sent me the band of the 329th Infantry, on which these young applicants could try their teeth. The results were rather mixed. Many of them had absolutely no knowledge of the technic of beating time properly, and after one week's examination I saw that what was needed more than anything else was a school in which the most glaring lacks could be supplied quickly and properly.

The School for Bandmasters

"I returned to Chaumont and explained to General Pershing the necessity of immediately founding such a school, not only for the bandmasters, but also to supply the three very important instruments and players for the bands, which were almost totally lacking-oboes, bassoons and French horns. The General fell in very sympathetically with my suggestions, and after further consultations with Colonel Collins of the staff, I was ordered to go ahead and given full power to organize a school that should meet the needs of the situation. The great difficulty of finding proper instructors I overcame by applying to the French Ministry of War for. various celebrated French musicians who were at that time in the Army, and whom I asked to have detailed as instructors at this school. I could have accomplished nothing, if I had not had the assistance of a French officer, Lieutenant Michel Weill, who was attached to our General Headquarters at Chaumont, as Officier de Liason. This gentleman, an enthusiastic music lover and amateur musician, was appointed to assist me in my work, and he proved himself so able and so willing a worker that in spite of the fiercest raging of the war at that time, and the inevitable hampering red tape which surrounds all army organizations, all difficulties melted like snow before a summer sun. In five weeks' time I examined over 200 bandmasters; graded them according to their capability; arranged for the refitting of an old mill near Chaumont as a home and school for about 250 of our soldier-musician students ; obtained about eight famous musicians from the French Ministry of war (all of them first prizes of the famous Paris Conservatoire) as instructors in conducting, composition, instrumentation, oboe, bassoon and French horn. And while I had to sail for home at the end of August, by November first the school was in full operation, with over 200 students working enthusiastically over twelve hours a day at their various tasks.
"I may truthfully say that these six weeks were among the happiest of my entire thirty-five years of professional life, but it is true that I had to work day and night, like a galley slave, in order to get the thing accomplished and to work out the entire curriculum of the school in such a way that it could be properly started and carried through after my leaving for home. General Pershing was kind enough to want me to stay with him, and Colonel Collins, Secretary of the General Staff, asked me what inducements they could offer to have me stay. But while the temptation of wearing the uniform of the U. S. A. under the illustrious Commander-in-chief, Pershing, was very strong, I was not quite vain enough to believe that my remaining in France would "win the war," and so, after six hectic, but ecstatically happy weeks, during which I vibrated continually between Paris and Chatimont, I sailed for home to fulfill my duties at the head of the New York Symphony Orchestra, which meant ninety symphony concerts from November to April.
"The music school at Chaumont was a huge success. It began November 1st, with over 200 students, replaced every two months by a new batch, comprising bandmasters, oboes, French horns and bassoons. The French professors included such distinguished musicians as Messieurs Henri Caplet, Francis Casadesus, Jacques Pillois, and various "first prizes" in oboe, bassoon and French horn from the Paris Conservatoire. These masters, together with our American soldier students, lived together as One happy family in an old mill, about ten minutes' walk from General Headquarters, which the Army Engineers had quickly transformer into a musical conservatory, consisting of lesson rooms, practice rooms, bedrooms and mess rooms. Our boys were so enthusiastic at the opportunity offered them that they worked twelve to fourteen hours a day, and the results were truly remarkable. At General Pershing's invitation, I returned to France last April 10 inspect the workings of the school, and I was amazed at the results obtained. One of the points which I had worked out in the school curriculum was that the students should attend once a week a chamber music concert, so that their hearing and appreciation of music might become refined by listening to the quartettes, trios and sonatas of Mozart, Beethoven, Cesar Franck and so on. During my two days' inspection of the school last May I heard one of these concerts, which was a very moving spectacle - over 200 men in khaki listening breathlessly to an exquisite chamber music concert, played by the professors and some of the talented soldier-students, of works by classic and modern masters. At this time Moiisieur Caplet's place as teacher of conducting had been taken by a young American bandmaster, Lieutenant Albert Stoessel, a very gifted musician, a splendid violinist and altogether a man of greatest promise. "The relations between the students and their masters were peculiarly intimate, Monsieur Casadesus, especially, having won their affection, not only because of his musical ability, but his evident desire to give them the best that he had to offer.

A Great Need In America

"On June 1st the school was closed and our musician-soldiers began to return to America, to be demobilized and to go back to their respective homes. I am sure that the experience which they gained at the Chaumont school will help them in their musical work in the Western and Southern cities, to which many of them have returned. I hope that our Army will continue to interest itself in the improvement of its bands, and that the inspiration which General Pershing's authority and encouragement gave in France will be continued over here. What we need in this country (March 1920) is the encouragement of the study of orchestral instruments, especially the wood-winds and the French horns. We have not nearly enough to properly equip the symphony orchestras already in existence, and most of those we have are of foreign birth and training. There is no reason why these places should not be filled eventually by American-born musicians, and instead of the twelve symphony orchestras which we have at present, there should be at least 100. Every town of 100,000 inhabitants or over should have an adequate symphony orchestra of its own, and with the right kind of intelligent financial support, and the proper training, this seeming miracle could be easily accomplished."

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