University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Making of an Orchestra

Volume XXII · Winter 1966/67 · Number 2
The Making of an Orchestra

A collection of manuscripts and an article relating to the career of Hermann Dossenbach and his role in the development of orchestral music in Rochester were received by the University of Rochester Library within the past year.

The Dossenbach Papers were presented by his daughter, Mrs. Paul James Smith, formerly of Webster, New York, and contain an interesting collection of letters, documents, photographs, clippings, pamphlets, and scrapbooks which will add to library research materials about the history of music in Rochester.

To complement these original materials Miss Ernestine M. Klinzing of Rochester, who was long associated with the Eastman School of Music and its predecessor, the DKG (Hermann Dossenbach, Alf Klingenberg and Oscar Gareissen) Institute of Musical Art, has offered part of her manuscript, entitled Music in Rochester: a Century of Musical Progress, 1825-1925, to be published in this issue of the Library Bulletin. This particular selection is devoted to the beginnings of orchestral music in Rochester and the leadership provided by Mr. Dossenbach in making those early efforts successful.

Miss Klinzing was awarded a Bachelor of Music Degree from the Eastman School of Music and taught piano at the School for many years. She also has been an instructor at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, a frequent soloist with orchestras in Rochester, Buffalo, and Schenectady, and a private instructor and accompanist in New York City. Excerpts from her article are printed below. - The Editors


The first attempt to organize a symphony orchestra in Rochester was made more than a century ago, on October 3, 1865, when a group called the Philharmonic Society was established. First president of the Society, composed of both amateur and professional musicians, was Morris D. Edmonds, who played first violin in the orchestra. Its vice-president was G. Hermann Haass, who played the French horn, and its first conductor was John H. Kalbfleisch.

At a time when musical taste throughout the country was not highly developed, programs presented by this orchestra were thought to compare favorably with those of a later period. For example, a concert given November 20, 1879, included a Schubert symphony, overtures by Mozart and Gade, soprano arias from Handel's Messiah, and a solo on the French horn by Haass.

It is not known just when this early orchestra disbanded, or why, but it became inactive sometime in the early 1880's. There was an unsuccessful attempt to revive it in 1885. An article, which appeared in the RochesterUnion and Advertiser, December 14, 1867, hints at certain difficulties, which may provide a clue as to why the orchestra ceased to function:

"The Philharmonic Society is an institution of which our citizens should be proud…Under the able leadership of Mr. Henri Appy as conductor, it is fast attaining to a high position. Indeed, outside of New York we know of nothing in our State which compares with it…

"Our citizens have a duty to do in this matter. They should by their presence and patronage encourage the exertions of the gentlemen who have been, and are, doing so much to elevate the art of music among our people. They give their time, often at a great sacrifice, to the practice necessary to such an organization, and we understand that they have difficulties at times in meeting the expenses of the organization unless by individual assessment and loss. This is not as it should be, and we feel confident that the Society will not appeal in vain to a generous public for support…"

Years later, this early musical society was the subject of an interesting letter to the editor of the New York Telegram and Mail, signed by Livingston Park, a pseudonym. It was written when a later Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra appeared in Carnegie Hall, New York, under the leadership of Albert Coates, in March, 1924. Livingston Park wrote:

"The announcement that the Rochester Philharmonic Society is to give a concert in Carnegie Hall brings back memories of the Rochester I knew as a boy in the late '60s and '70s.

"There was a Rochester Philharmonic Society in those days and I have no doubt this organization is its historical successor. I am sure the old Rochester Philharmonic never would have dared to face a New York audience, much as they were admired and respected at home.

"The conductor was Henri Appy, a dapper little man who wore a long spade beard and would have been taken for a Frenchman in Paris, though I believe he was Belgian by birth. He was a competent leader and a rare violinist, and he certainly did wonders with the poor material he had-the orchestra being largely amateur and made up of local business and professional men.

"There were, however, mingled with the amateurs some able local professionals, the families of Schenck, Schaich, and Meyering particularly. A lawyer named Lansing, who was said to have played on occasion every instrument in the band, I recall, and also the names of Copeland, Hadley, Haas, Rebasz and Edmonds. Copeland was an old beau who played the 'cello and was also looked to to escort the prima donna or soloist of the evening, which he did in a grand Turveydrop manner very much admired.

"The programs were fairly well chosen. Appy kept good musical company, but he knew the limitations of his players and the incredible ignorance of his audiences, and he gave the former the simplest of good pieces only, and the latter such pabulum as they could digest easily.

"Appy was almost always the violin soloist, but he discovered and frequently used a prodigy in one Otto Dossenbach, who was considered to be a marvel of youthful genius…"

Appy was engaged as conductor of the early Rochester Orchestra in 1866. Of Belgian extraction, Appy had come to this country with Jenny Lind, playing violin solos at many of her programs. In 1852 he appeared in Rochester as assisting artist with Madame Emma Bostwick. Apparently he liked the city and later made it his home. Besides conducting the Philharmonic Orchestra, Appy taught violin, and a number of his students achieved recognition as musical artists.

One of his pupils who showed great promise was Otto Dossenbach, a member of the Dossenbach family whose father, Matthias, came to this country from Germany around the middle of the century, and settled in Niagara Falls. The story is told, with variations, that Appy was walking along a street in Niagara Falls when he was attracted by the playing of a violin, the quality of which led him to investigate. Locating the house from which the music came, he knocked and was admitted, to discover that the talented musician was ten-year-old Otto.

After discussions with the Dossenbachs, he promised to train the boy if the family would move to Rochester, which it did. In succeeding years Otto played in many concerts in the Rochester and Buffalo areas, and would no doubt have achieved wider recognition if his career had not been cut short by illness. However, there was other talent for Appy to train: Otto's brothers, Hermann, Theodore, and Adolph, all of whom became prominent in the musical life of Rochester.

Stewart G. Sabin, well-known music critic and writer, says in "A Retrospect of Music in Rochester," published in the Centennial History of Rochester, New York, vol. 2:

"There is much evidence to indicate that Mr. Appy as conductor, teacher and citizen exerted as much influence for musical progress in Rochester as any musician who has made it his home…He found Otto Dossenbach as a lad, and brought him to solo capacity; it was in his studio, and with his Philharmonic, that Hermann and Theodore Dossenbach gained early experience.

"The foundation was here laid upon which, later, there were built the Rochester Orchestra, Hermann Dossenbach conductor, and the Rochester Symphony Orchestra, Ludwig Schenck conductor, both of which by educating the city's public to knowledge of fine orchestral music, prepared the way for support of Rochester's orchestras of today."

After the failure of the early symphony, there was no attempt to establish an orchestra in Rochester for almost two decades. Not until the turn of the century were there real developments in orchestral music, and the person most concerned with them was Hermann Dossenbach. Many say that the story of his life was the story of the development of orchestral music in Rochester.

Dossenbach's early ambition, first awakened when he heard the noted violinist-conductor, Theodore Thomas, in Rochester, was to be the conductor of his own symphony orchestra. From small beginnings with a dance orchestra, his dream of establishing a symphony began to materialize. In 1900 he organized a small orchestra which gave concerts in Rochester, first in the Powers Hotel and Baker Theater, then in the Lyceum Theater, and still later in Convention Hall.

The story of his pioneer work in orchestral development was often one of nagging financial problems, and many times, it is known, he supplied the necessary funds out of his own pocket. As time went on he secured financial help from leading Rochester citizens who were interested in furthering the cause of good music. Their great interest in the orchestra, and their personal regard for Dossenbach, are apparent in the following letters:

Rush Rhees, University of Rochester President, wrote him on January 28, 1904:

"Will you give me the privilege of expressing to you my warm appreciation of the work of your orchestra at your concert on January 18th? I may frankly say that I was surprised at the smoothness and vigor of your renderings; and greatly delighted, though not surprised, by the sensitiveness of your interpretations. Rochester is to be congratulated on your success in giving to her orchestral work of unusually high quality. I personally experienced great delight in listening to you. I sincerely trust that you will find in the city the financial support that your efforts richly deserve."

Walter S. Hubbell, prominent attorney, wrote on October 8, 1909:

"I enclose herewith my check to your order for $100, being our contribution towards the expenses of the orchestra for the coming season. We have greatly appreciated your work and that of the orchestra. While you are probably not making anything out of it, so far as money goes, you are doing a great work for the people of this city, the effect of which will be felt more and more as the years go by…"

There was gradual development of the orchestra and of the interest of Rochesterians. There were criticisms that some of the numbers played were too heavy. It was believed at first that only one movement of a symphony should be played, because audiences could not enjoy more than one in an evening. Also, in the first years the orchestra consisted of only twenty-seven members. Ten years later it increased to sixty, with extra players brought from Buffalo, Syracuse, Utica, and New York. In his letter of June 28, 1910, Dr. Rhees once more paid tribute to Dossenbach's contribution to the cultural life of Rochester:

"I can not adequately express to you how highly I appreciate the work which you and your orchestra have done during the years since the orchestra was organized to advance the interests of music and give pleasure to the lovers of music in Rochester.

"When I came to Rochester ten years ago I was surprised by the apparent apathy of our citizens with reference to music. During the past decade that apathy has disappeared and a lively and increasingly intelligent interest has taken its place…

"The work of your orchestra has been noteworthy for its steady development  in confidence and accuracy of rendering, and for the intelligence and sensitiveness of your interpretation, and for the range as well as the high character of your programmes. As a citizen I have had increasing pride in the fact that Rochester is able to present as its own so creditable an orchestra in concerts of the high character which you have maintained…"

The climax to the steady developments in orchestral performance came in 1911, when George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Company, and a group of Rochester friends of Hermann Dossenbach made it possible for the conductor, with his family, to spend a year studying in Germany. It was proof of the warmth of their feeling for him, as well as their desire to promote the cause for which he was striving. Before his departure, Dr. Rhees wrote in July, 1911:

"I hand to you herewith a memorandum of the deposit to your credit at the Merchants Bank of $4500., to be applied on the expenses of your contemplated trip to Germany.

"I have noticed an inclination on your part to regard me as unduly responsible for this consummation in which I most heartily rejoice, but the responsibility is not mine. I have simply acted as an agent for warm friends of yours who have expressed to me great pleasure in being able to contribute towards a cause which they believe promises much alike for you and for the interests of music in the city.

"The contributors who have so generously cooperated and whose gifts I have deposited to your credit at the Merchants Bank are the following: Mr. George Eastman, Mr. Hiram W. Sibley, Mrs. James S. Watson, Mrs. W. S. Kimball, Mr. F. B. Mitchell, Mrs. E. R. Willard, Miss Grace Curtice, Mrs. Ralph R. Fitch, Mr. and Mrs. Granger A. Hollister, Mr. J. Sherlock Andrews, Mrs. W. S. Ely, & Mrs. Edward Mulligan."

A number of letters, relative to future plans for musical development in Rochester, were written to Dossenbach during his year abroad. Dr. Rhees wrote in 1911 and 1912:

December 26, 1911
"The time has now come, when I shall also seek a conference with Mr. Hubbell on the plans for next year. Mr. Harry Thomas called me on the telephone, soon after my return in September, and said he had a talk with you on the subject of drilling a chorus for work in connection with the Orchestra, and asked me whether you had said anything to me on the subject. I replied that you had not. If there is anything to be said, I would be very glad to hear from you on the matter."

February 14, 1912
"I am glad to read what you write concerning Mr. Thomas. My own feeling is that it is better to handle one enterprise at a time; consequently that it would be wiser to get the orchestra well started before going after the choral situation with too much aggressiveness. That will mean of course that you must postpone for a while your ambition for the Ninth Symphony, but sometimes the longest way around is the shortest way home.

"I shall now very soon take up the question of arrangements for next year. Mr. Eastman has been away for over two months and I hope to be able to talk the situation over with him now in the near future.

"I should advise you to write either to Mr. Hubbell or to me quite frequently from now until May, telling as much as you will about the concerts you have heard and the work that you are doing, how much you are practising, etc., in order that we may keep something going in the papers rather constantly."

April 22, 1912
"The Lyceum Theater has been engaged for your concerts for the following dates: November 18th, December 16th, January 13th, February 10th, March 10th, April 7th. Each of these days is Monday and as you will see they are four weeks apart. I think that the weeks which you indicated as undesirable have also been avoided.

"A movement has been begun to secure subscriptions to guarantee the concerts for next year and the plan under consideration is that outlined by you to me, in accordance with which you would be in a position to pay each of your musicians $20.00 for each concert with the rehearsals incident thereto.

"We have retained the dates at the theater at this time in order to secure them and also to enable you to communicate with your New York men. We have had to agree to pay $225. a night for the theater. If the plans at present in mind are carried through, as we hope they will be, your undertaking will have a backing that it has not heretofore received, and we hope that it will be crowned with a success which will justify the labor which you yourself put into the work, and the interest with which your friends support it."

Mr. Hubbell wrote Dossenbach, August 8, 1912:

"I have just learned that you and your family are safe at home again after your long and interesting experience abroad.

"I suppose you have learned that Dr. Rhees and I had employed Guernsey Curtiss to procure the underwriting of the $15,000 for the orchestra this year. He is to be paid a commission on all subscriptions.

"I have just received a letter from Mr. Eastman saying that he will underwrite $2000. for this year. Isn't that splendid? I have not told Guernsey Curtiss as Mr. Eastman's letter was not received until today. My first idea was that he should have Mr. Eastman's & Mr. Sibley's subscriptions first as they were likely to be the largest. But I was delayed in getting word from Eastman as he had gone up the river for a two weeks trip-and Mr. Sibley is in Europe (or was when I left). Dr. Rhees had undertaken either to write to Mr. Sibley or to ask Mrs. Watson to do so.-I hope Curtiss has not been sitting still waiting for these two subscriptions.

"I will authorize you to tell Curtiss to put Eastman down for $2000. underwriting. It may be good policy for you not to tell him this at once. If he has started his work let him go on with it. If however it will help to do so—tell him at once. Mr. Eastman will be home about the 10th or 11th, as he leaves camp on the 8th & he says nothing about stopping on the way.

"I have told Curtiss that I will underwrite $300.

"So much for business. How are you, anyway? Full of music and great ideas & ambitions for the musical interests & education of Rochester? Of course you are! And I envy you…"

J. Redfern Mason, former music and dramatic critic of the Rochester Post Express, wrote Dossenbach from California, October 30, 1912:

"That announcement of the Rochester Orchestra is the most wholesome symptom of musical vitality the Flower City has yet put forth. You have got the best people in Rochester formally committed to your interest. I congratulate you and I congratulate them. The rest will follow; for nothing succeeds like success. To have Dr. Rhees as your chairman is splendid; for he is not only a man of culture; but a practical business man.

"That ten dollar season ticket will put people of means to the proof, and the $2.50 subscription will open the door to music-lovers who have nothing to spare. I feel really that my hopes and beliefs are being realized. And you start with Mozart! I would give anything to be at that first concert. By the way, if you have not engaged anybody to do your programme notes and you think it advisable, I shall be glad, nay very glad, to do them. That is an excellent list of soloists. I am glad you have Clement; to me he seems an artist of really exceptional merit…"

When Dossenbach returned from Germany in August, 1912, the Rochester Orchestra was reorganized. He was appointed conductor, with the following officers: President, Dr. Rhees; vice-president, Mrs.  E. R. Willard ; treasurer, Mrs. Edward Mulligan, and secretary, Mr. Hubbell.

The first concerts were held in the Lyceum Theater. A note of humor is interjected in the accounts of these events in a letter from J. Sherlock Andrews, Rochester's Mr. Pickwick. He wrote to Dossenbach, December 16, 1912:

"I was driven away from the very excellent concert of the Rochester Orchestra tonight by the bad air characteristic of the Lyceum Theater, & it is not the first nor the second nor the third time I have been compelled to leave on that account.

"I have repeatedly complained to Mr. Wolff about the ventilation of his theater & tonight informed him that I should never go there again as long as he was manager.

"I shall give the rest of my tickets for the concerts to some people (if I can find them) who are fond enough of the excellent musick your orchestra produces to stand being suffocated. & if your future concerts are given somewhere else you may rely upon my continued support but if they are to take place in any hall or theatre under the present management of the Lyceum I shall decline to subscribe to them."

The soloists engaged for the orchestra during this period included some of the outstanding artists of the day: Frances Aida, Eddy Brown, Edmund Burke, Anna Case, Edmund Clement, Julia Culp, Mabel Garrison, Alma Gluck, Leopold Godowsky, Johanna Gadski, Emilio de Gogorza, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Karl Flesch, Arthur Hartmann, David Hochstein, Josef Hofmann, Margaret Keyes, Fritz Kreisler, Toscha Seidel, Efrem Zimbalist, Margarete Matzenauer, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Clarence Whitehill, and Reinald Werrenrath. With a number of these artists Dossenbach established a rapport and enjoyed their friendship and esteem, as shown by letters found in his papers from Aida, Godowsky, Hofmann, Gabrilowitsch, Hochstein, and Schumann-Heink.

Finally a more stable financial basis was provided for the orchestra as shown in a letter written May 23, 1913, to Dossenbach from Dr. Rhees:

"You will be glad to know that the friends of the Orchestra approved to-day an undertaking to underwrite the concerts for next year for a sum of $16,000., this being estimated to be enough to provide for the increase in the form of compensations. On the present scale of two concerts out of town, if you and Furlong can arrange for such concerts, this sum of $16,000.00 will also provide for the expense involved in the employment of Furlong as Business Manager.

"The proposed list of Soloists for the concerts was approved and very satisfactory remarks of approval of your work was manifest. Discussion was also had of the wisdom of undertaking next year to make a provision which should cover some one to five years of work of the Orchestra.

"Please close the contracts for the singers, therefore the soloists, immediately. I, myself, will get in touch with Furlong with reference to the contract for the accompanists."

Many tributes were paid Hermann Dossenbach for his contributions to the development of orchestral music in Rochester. Typifying the many letters was one from Mrs. Edward (Mary D.) Mulligan:

"I enclose the check from Mrs. Watson, which completes the payments for last season. May I take this opportunity of saying that I think, as do all your friends old and new, that you have accomplished a great mission in Rochester in the education of taste for orchestral music, and this accomplishment will not be forgotten.

"I want to say also that I admired more than I can express the splendid generous, big spirit you showed toward the new musical enterprise in the last interview I had with you. Mrs. Klingenberg, Mr. Eastman, Mr. Todd, and Mr. Alexander all have spoken of the same spirit in you which commands the admiration of all.

"You will believe, I know, that whatever the future brings, the past will be remembered as its starting point…

One of the final tributes appeared in the Civic Music News, dated February 12, 1946:

"The recent death of Hermann Dossenbach brought to a close one of the most memorable musical careers in Rochester's history. During his long and useful lifetime he was associated with virtually every worthwhile project for better music in this community. Perhaps more than any other single person, he was responsible for the continued aspiration of Rochester towards the best in music…"

Additional resources:

  • The register of the Herman Dossenbach Papers