Penn Library

Eugene Ormandy
A Centennial Celebration

Curated by Marjorie Hassen
Otto E. Albrecht Music Library
University of Pennsylvania

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From Prodigy to the Podium

Audio-visual excerpt of Ormandy discussing practicing the violin as a child and his prodigious memory, originally broadcast on KMIR TV, Palm Springs, California, 4 March 1980

Born Jenõ Blau in Budapest on 18 November 1899, Eugene Ormandy was a child prodigy who received his early musical training from his father, an amateur musician. Ormandy began playing violin at age three, and at age five was the youngest member ever admitted to the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest. When he was nine, Ormandy began violin studies with the virtuoso Jenõ Hubay (for whom he had been named), music composition with Zoltán Kodály, and harmony and counterpoint with Leó Weiner. He graduated at age fourteen and earned a diploma three years later that carried the title "artist violinist." He toured Germany and Hungary in 1917 as soloist with the Blüthner Orchestra, and in 1919, when Hubay was named director of the Budapest Academy, Ormandy was appointed head of the violin department. During that time he also studied philosophy at Budapest University, receiving his degree in 1920. Later that year he left the Academy for a recital tour of France and Austria, and while in Vienna in 1921, he met two concert promoters. A promised United States tour of 300 concerts for $30,000 enticed Ormandy to New York, where he arrived on 2 December 1921. Unfortunately, the promoters proved to be insolvent; the expected contract did not materialize; and within two weeks the 22-year-old violinist was virtually penniless.

While in New York, Ormandy auditioned for Ernõ Rapée, conductor of the orchestra at New York's Capitol Theater movie palace. He was accepted and assigned a seat at the back of the second violin section but was moved to the concertmaster chair within the week. He made his conducting debut at the Capitol Theater in September 1924 with portions of Tchaikovsky's 4th symphony, when the orchestra's conductor fell ill. In 1926, when Rapée left the Capitol, Ormandy was appointed associate director.

The following year Ormandy met the celebrated and influential manager Arthur Judson while conducting the orchestra for an Anna Duncan dance recital. Judson was impressed with Ormandy--it is said he commented, "I came to see a dancer and instead I heard a conductor"--and offered his managerial services. Ormandy remained at the Capitol until 1929, but from the time he met Judson he began to work in the expanding radio field on such programs as the "Dutch Masters Hour" and "Jack Frost Melody Moments." Judson also engaged Ormandy to conduct summer orchestral concerts and arranged appearances with the Philharmonic Symphony at New York's Lewisohn Stadium and the Philadelphia Orchestra at Fairmount Park's Robin Hood Dell.

The turning point in Ormandy's career came in October 1931, when, owing to illness, Arturo Toscanini withdrew from his guest conducting commitment in Philadelphia. Ormandy was approached after several established conductors, who did not want to risk their careers by substituting for the revered Maestro, refused the engagement. Despite Judson's warning that it might mean "suicide," the young conductor accepted since, as he later recalled, he believed he had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Ormandy's daring paid off and the concerts were a success. Word quickly traveled across the country, catching the attention of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, whose conductor Henri Verbrugghen had suffered a stroke. At the end of his week-long Philadelphia engagement on November 7th, Ormandy headed directly for Minneapolis for what would be a five-year commitment.

While in Minneapolis, Ormandy revitalized the Orchestra by vastly improving the quality of its playing, and expanding its repertory. He was also largely responsible for arranging its 1934 recording contract with RCA Victor, the results of which propelled Minneapolis from a provincial ensemble to international standing and elevated Ormandy to national prominence.

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