The Midwest Experience: Ormandy in Minnesota
Henri Verbrugghen
Henri Verbrugghen (1873-1934), a Belgian violinist and conductor, established his career in Scotland, where he was a member of the Scottish Orchestra beginning in 1893 and taught violin at the Athenaeum in Glasgow. In 1915, he was appointed director of a music conservatory in Sydney, Australia, and spent six years building its music program and establishing an orchestra. He moved to the United States in 1921 for health reasons. He made a successful guest appearance with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and was appointed conductor in 1923.

In fall 1931, Verbrugghen had a stroke while conducting, and when it became clear he was facing a long recuperation, Verna Golden Scott, manager of the Minneapolis Symphony, called Arthur Judson for help in finding someone to take over temporarily for Verbrugghen. Scott had already learned of Ormandy through the reviews of his concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra when he was substituting for Toscanini. Judson and Scott quickly arranged a trial period for him with the orchestra.

Henri Verbrugghen
Reproduced from John K. Sherman, Music and Maestros (1952)

Trip West

On Friday and Saturday, 6-7 November 1931, Ormandy concluded his two weeks substituting for Toscanini by conducting the orchestra in Beethoven's Symphony no. 7, Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, and Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Immediately following the Saturday concert, Ormandy took a train west. According to a 1969 interview with Ormandy, "On the Saturday train I went to Chicago, from there the following day to Minneapolis, and Monday morning arrived at seven o'clock, and at ten o'clock I was on the stage conducting the Minneapolis Symphony." Four days later, on Friday, 13 November 1931, he conducted the orchestra in a program including the Egmont Overture, Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 4, songs by Mozart and Richard Strauss with guest artist Elizabeth Schumann, and the piece that would become Ormandy's signature work in Minneapolis, the "Polka and Fugue" from Schwanda the Bagpiper, which he had introduced to his Philadelphia audience two weeks earlier.


Between the first and second concerts, Ormandy was offered a one-year contract as conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony with an annual salary of $20,000. (Because Verbrugghen was still on contract with the orchestra, the board had to mount a quick fundraising campaign to cover Ormandy's salary.) He was 32 years old. Once it was clear Verbrugghen would be unable to return, Ormandy's contract was extended, and he remained with the orchestra five years, through the 1935-36 season.

In a 1969 interview, Ormandy said that Verbrugghen "was one of those elderly conductors who enjoyed going to parties perhaps a little more than learning new scores. So Beethoven programs almost followed each other. For them, they didn't have to do much rehearsing, so the orchestra became a little careless. . . . [T]here was a first bassoon player, a Welshman named Cunningham. . . . [D]uring intermission [of the first rehearsal] he walked around. He had quite an influence with the orchestra, because he was very outspoken. He said, 'Well, boys, you can send your armchairs home. You won't need them anymore.'"

"Eugene Ormandy Engaged as Symphony Conductor"
Minneapolis Journal, 4 December 1931
Eugene Ormandy Papers, University of Pennsylvania Rare Book and Manuscript Collection

"Ormandy Congratulated after Signing Contract"
Minneapolis Journal, 4 December 1931
Eugene Ormandy Papers, University of Pennsylvania Rare Book and Manuscript Collection

Ormandy's interesting back story - young virtuoso violinist rises through the ranks of New York movie-house orchestra to conduct major symphony orchestra in Midwest - was picked up by the local papers, which published human-interest stories with headlines such as: "Ormandy happy 'beyond words' over new post: but he has his troubles - he didn't bring shirts enough with him." and "Ormandy now 'at home' - his violin's here." His ability to rely on his memory when conducting also made the news: a review in the 12 November 1931 Minneapolis Star bore the headline "Eugene Ormandy Discards Score in Concert Here."

Louis Reid
"The Rise of Ormandy"

New York American, 4 December 1931
Eugene Ormandy Papers, University of Pennsylvania Rare Book and Manuscript Collection

Eugene Ormandy conducting the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra
Eugene Ormandy Collection of Photographs, University of Pennsylvania Rare Book and Manuscript Collection

After the signing of a three-year contract following his first year, Ormandy began making major changes. Robert K. Sherman writes, "A new platform was installed on Northrop's cement-bottomed stage, raising the orchestra a few inches from the floor and giving better resonance to its tone. Ormandy retained the new orchestra pattern he had established the year before, the so-called Stokowski arrangement, which put the cellos to the right of the conductor and massed the second violins with the firsts at the left front." Rather than placing the winds on risers, he seated the entire orchestra flat on the platform, which helped improve the balance between the strings and brass.

"5 Directors to Share Philadelphia Season
New York Times, 25 May 1932

During Ormandy's five years in Minneapolis, he was careful to maintain a presence on the East Coast, setting his sights on larger and more prestigious appointments. Each year, he made several trips to New York and Philadelphia for guest conducting appearances, and he spent his summers conducting in Europe.

Beginnings Minneapolis Appointment On Tour In Concert Guest Artists 1934 Recording Sessions 1935 Recording Sessions Move to Philadelphia Home Page