Hungarian-born American conductor Eugene Ormandy (1899-1985) was among the most widely acclaimed symphonic conductors of the twentieth century, molding the Philadelphia Orchestra into a unit that functioned as his personal musical instrument.
Ormandy, as much as any other major conductor, was defined by a relationship with a single institution. As conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra from the late 1930s until his retirement in 1980 (and for several years after that as a frequent guest), he set a record that still stands for length of tenure with a major orchestra in the United States. “The Philadelphia Orchestra sound—it's me!,” he proclaimed confidently, as quoted by Allen Hughes in the New York Times. And indeed he could claim credit for the lush string textures that emanated from the orchestra under his baton; a violinist by training, he schooled his players in the techniques that would allow them to produce the sound he wanted.
Entered Prestigious Academy at Age Five
Ormandy was born Jenö Blau on November 18, 1899, in Budapest, Hungary,. His family was Jewish. Ormandy's father, Benjamin Blau, was a dentist but had a passion for music that he passed along to all three of his sons; one of Ormandy's brothers became a New York Philharmonic Orchestra cellist and the other was a fine amateur harpist. Ormandy himself began playing the violin at age three, and he advanced so quickly that he was admitted to Budapest's Royal Academy of Music at the altogether unprecedented age of five. His teachers at the academy were the best that Hungary had to offer at the time: the Gypsy-influenced virtuoso and composer Jenö Hubay (after whom Ormandy was named) on violin, Zoltán Kodály in composition, and Leo Weiner in theory and music literature.
Ormandy graduated at the age of 14, and after three years of further study he was ready to begin a career as a violinist, joining Germany's Blüthner Orchestra on tour during the last stages of World War I. Back in Budapest at age 20, Ormandy was named head of the violin department at the Royal Academy. He rounded out his education with studies in philosophy at the University of Budapest and then played a series of concerts in Austria and France in 1921. During this tour he began to use the name Jenö B. Ormándy. The source of this name is unclear, and Ormandy mysteriously refused to discuss it. The name Ormándy in Hungarian would mean “person from Ormánd,”; when Ormandy came to the United States he changed his first name, Jenö, to its English form, Eugene.
That move to the United States came about at the end of 1921 as Ormandy, following in the footsteps of many other young European musicians, sought to cash in on an American appetite for Old World classical talent. He was offered $30,000 to play 300 concerts, but when he arrived in New York he found the promoter bankrupt and the tour nonexistent. For two weeks he wandered the streets, looking for work, as his assets dwindled to a single nickel. Finally a fellow Hungarian suggested he audition for the pit orchestra at the Capitol Theatre, a silent movie palace. He was accepted, and the orchestra's conductor, upon discovering his skills, moved him to the position of concertmaster (the lead violinist, who takes short solos and supervises the tuning of the orchestra) within a week. In 1922 Ormandy married his first wife, Stephanie Goldner, a harpist and fellow orchestra member (and fellow Hungarian). The marriage lasted until 1947, producing two daughters who both died as infants from a blood disease.
The transition from concerts in Europe's musical capitals to the pit orchestra in a movie house might seem to have been a step down for Ormandy, but he later looked back gratefully on this stage of his career. The orchestra had to learn large amounts of new music quickly, and Ormandy developed a prodigious musical memory. In most of his conducting appearances henceforth, he would conduct from memory, without a score. In 1924 he filled in for the orchestra's ailing conductor, and by 1926 he had become its associate director. In the 1920s he recorded several popular and light classical selections with a variety of small orchestral ensembles.
Conducted Outdoor Concerts
Ormandy became a U.S. Citizen in 1927, on his first day of eligibility. That year he met concert manager Arthur Judson after conducting a small orchestra that accompanied a dance recital by the daughter of modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan. Judson booked Ormandy onto radio programs such as the Dutch Masters Hour and the Jack Frost Melody Moments, and he lined up conducting slots at the popular outdoor summer concert series of the day; Ormandy conducted the New York Philharmonic (then the New York Philharmonic-Symphony) at Lewisohn Stadium in 1929 and the Philadelphia Orchestra in the city's Fairmount Park in 1930 and 1931. In October of 1931, the legendary Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini was slated to lead the Philadelphia Orchestra as guest conductor but had to cancel due to illness. The orchestra's managers asked Ormandy to take the podium instead.
Judson, as well as Ormandy's friends, pointed out that the position of substitute to the famed Toscanini and the orchestra's flamboyant regular conductor, Leopold Stokowski, was a thankless one. But Ormandy ignored their advice, pointing out that he was already familiar with one of the works slated for the program, Richard Strauss's Till Eugenspiegel's Merry Pranks, which he had played while in the Capitol Theatre Orchestra. Ormandy's performance as conductor was hailed as a triumph, and it instantly elevated him in the ranks of rising young conductors. By the time the series of concerts in Philadelphia had ended, Ormandy had already been hired as conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, where he led the orchestra's first recordings for RCA Victor in 1934.
In that year, Stokowski announced that he was cutting his conducting back to a half-time schedule. Ormandy became one of a group of conductors lined up for guest conducting appearances that were really auditions, and in 1936 he was elevated to the position of co-conductor with Stokowski. In 1938 he was elevated to the position of music director, consolidating his position as Stokowski's heir apparent, and in 1941, upon Stokowski's departure, he became the orchestra's principal conductor.
Ormandy's boast that the so-called Philadelphia Sound (otherwise known as the Ormandy Sound) was his own creation was not entirely true. The orchestra's string section was already renowned for its silky tone under Stokowski, who directed the players to use “free bowing” in which each player would draw the bow across the strings independently of the other players. Ormandy inherited a superbly talented string section. But he charted a new course in several key respects, restoring the normal coordinated or “uniform” bowing and favoring a more conservative repertoire than Stokowski had; in place of Stokowski's even balance between new and well-established works, Ormandy instituted a ratio of about 75 percent standards and 25 percent contemporary pieces. And when Ormandy did conduct new music, it was often by a composer such as Dmitri Shostakovich or Samuel Barber, who followed traditional forms, rather than by a radical such as Charles Ives.
Recordings Formed Cornerstones of Catalogue
The Philadelphia Orchestra signed a contract with the Columbia label in 1944, and from then until 1968, when it returned to RCA, Ormandy's recordings formed the backbone of one of the largest catalogues of symphonic music in the world. The classical market began to grow dramatically around 1950, when the new LP medium made recordings of full-length orchestral works much easier to access, and Ormandy's recordings were often the ones the new buyers heard. He specialized in the mainstream repertory of the time—German and Austrian symphonies and concertos from Beethoven up through Brahms, and French impressionist orchestral works. Some of the orchestra's best-selling recordings were made in collaboration with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
As a conductor, Ormandy was not an athlete on the podium like Leonard Bernstein and some of his other contemporaries. He marked the beat only lightly, preferring to use his left hand to elicit expressive features. Often the fingers of his left hand would shake lightly, suggesting the vibrato produced by a string player, and Ormandy himself believed that his training as a violinist influenced his conducting. He often pointed out that the Philadelphia Orchestra had its characteristic sound only when he conducted it, creating quite a different impression under guest conductors. Ormandy was not renowned for the originality of his interpretations, but according to Ormandy's obituary in the New York Times, written by Allen Hughes, “The more elaborate the orchestral apparatus, the more Ormandy's special gifts became apparent. He was … a superb orchestra technician, achieving a finesse and homogeneity of tone matched by few conductors.” Beloved by his players, he often lightened the mood with humorous remarks (“I can see none of you are smugglers, that's why it's so loud” appears on one collection of Ormandy quotations maintained by the Arizona State University music department), often unintentional due to his enthusiastic but fractured way of speaking English. In 1950 he married Margaret Hitsch; friends said they hoped she would teach him to have fun, but she reported that he had taught her to work instead.
The Philadelphia Orchestra matched its high level of recording activity with frequent tours, nine of them across the United States, plus trips to Europe, Latin American, and Japan. In 1973 the orchestra went to China, a major political as well as musical event of the period when that country began to open itself culturally to the West after the isolation of the Cultural Revolution. Ormandy participated in a performance in which a local conductor led the Central Philharmonic Orchestra of Beijing in the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, and then Ormandy took over for the second movement. “It was a performance very much in the Ormandy manner,” according to the New York Times obituary, “full, resonant, singing. The Central Philharmonic sounded like a different orchestra, suddenly playing with confidence and rhythmic assurance.” Ormandy himself regarded the China tour as one of his greatest accomplishments.
By that time, the advent of jet travel had made Bernstein, Germany's Herbert von Karajan, and other Ormandy contemporaries into international superstars, jumping from orchestra to orchestra and traveling around the world to conduct ensembles on several continents within a single year. Ormandy sometimes took on guest conducting engagements, but it was always clear that Philadelphia was his first priority, and part of his strength was that he maintained the traditional tie between musicians and conductor (although the orchestra experienced episodes of labor strife under his directorship). “This new crop of conductors is marvelously talented, and so eager to make a success in two minutes,” Ormandy was quoted as saying by Michael Walsh in Time. “There is a very famous one who wants one leg in Berlin, one in London, one hand in Florence, the other in Paris. It can be done, of course, but you must, in the end, belong to one orchestra.”
In 1976, as part of the U.S. bicentennial celebrations, Ormandy was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of England. He retired as the Philadelphia Orchestra's music director at the end of the 1979-80 season, after an unprecedented 42 years at the helm, but remained active as a frequent guest conductor in Philadelphia and elsewhere. At Carnegie Hall in New York on January 10, 1984, he conducted Bartók's lengthy Concerto for Orchestra, as usual without a printed score. It was to be his last appearance. Two weeks later he suffered a massive heart attack, and died in Philadelphia on March 12, 1985. Walsh memorialized him with his own words: “ “I'm one of the boys, no better than the last second violinist. I'm just the lucky one to be standing in the center, telling them how to play.”
Kupferberg, Herbert, Those Fabulous Philadelphians: The Life and Times of a Great Orchestra, Scribners, 1969.
The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Volume 1: 1981-1985, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1998.
New York Times (obituary), March 13, 1985.
Time, March 25, 1985.
“Eugene Ormandy: A Centennial Celebration,” Otto E. Albrecht Music Library, University of Pennsylvania, http://www.library.upenn.edu/exhibits/rbm/ormandy/toc.html (December 11, 2007).
“Eugene Ormandy,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 11, 2007).
“Eugene Ormandy Quotations,” Arizona State University Department of Music, http://www.public.asu.edu/∼schuring/Misc./Ormandy.html (December 11, 2007).
ORMANDY, EUGENE (1899–1985), conductor. Born in Budapest and a child prodigy, Ormandy studied the violin with Hubay and became a teacher at the Budapest Academy, later playing as first violinist with the Bluethner Orchestra in Berlin. After touring in the United States in 1921, he settled there and in 1924 began a career as conductor in New York. After conducting the New York Philharmonic and Minneapolis orchestras, among others, he became first the associate conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra (with Leopold Stokowski; 1936–1938) and then its permanent conductor, raising it to the status of one of the major orchestras of the world. He retired in August 1980 after 44 years as its musical director, but was appointed conductor laureate. He specialized in 19th-century and modern music, and always conducted from memory.