Eugene Ormandy

Marcus Albert Foster
Louis Kahn

Hungarian-born Eugene Ormandy began playing the violin at the age of three. His father, Benjamin Blau, a dentist and amateur violinist, wanted his son to be a virtuoso violinist, naming him Jeno Blau in honor of the great Hungarian violinist Jeno Hubay. At the age of five he was accepted into Hungary’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music, where he studied violin under his namesake, Jeno Hubay. Ormandy completed a degree in philosophy from the University of Budapest in 1920. As a concertmaster (lead violinist), Ormandy toured Europe with a German orchestra in the early days of, and immediately following, World War One.

I n 1921 Ormandy left Budapest for New York City, expecting to participate in a sponsored tour that never came to fruition. Stranded without money, he learned English, changed his name to Eugene Ormandy, and found a job with the Capitol Theater Symphony, the orchestra of a silent movie palace. Conductor Erno Rapee moved the violinist from last chair to concertmaster within a week. Rapee declared that Ormandy was “much too good to play in a movie house” and “should be playing in Carnegie Hall!”

Ormandy learned conducting under Rapee. When Rapee left the orchestra in 1926, Ormandy took his place as conductor. Ormandy later signed with concert manager Arthur Judson, conducting orchestras on Judson’s radio network. He regularly attended rehearsals by Arturo Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic, improving his skills as a conductor by observing the great maestro perform. When Toscanini cancelled a two-week appearance with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Ormandy jumped at the offer to conduct in his place. Substituting for one of the masters, his exemplary work earned national headlines and a job offer from the Minneapolis Symphony. A delighted Ormandy boarded the train for Minneapolis without stopping to change his concert clothes.

A guest conductor for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Ormandy was named co-director with Leopold Stokowski in 1936 and became sole music director in 1938. Though replacing a popular conductor, Ormandy soon captivated the audience with his “Philadelphia Sound,” a sumptuous string sound created through “broad vibrato and heavy bowing.” Despite a huge repertoire, Ormandy usually conducted from memory, without a music score. Ormandy and the orchestra toured the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Asia. Their tour to China in 1973 was the first by an American orchestra.

Ormandy crafted a family atmosphere within the orchestra, perhaps a result of the absence of children in his own life. (Ormandy’s only two children died in infancy, twelve years apart, from a blood disorder.) Ormandy’s “boys and girls, my children and my family,” as Ormandy once referred to the musicians, benefited in many ways, including interest-free loans to buy rare instruments or the comforting ear of the ‘Queen Mother,’ Ormandy’s second wife, Gretel, when scolded by the maestro. Ormandy’s chosen successor, Ricardo Muti, noted that Ormandy “made the Philadelphia Orchestra into a world-famous orchestra, but he also made it into a family.”

Ormandy’s accomplishments are unrivaled. His 44 years with the Orchestra, from 1936 until 1980, represent the longest tenure of any major-orchestra conductor. His nearly 400 recordings leave a vast and treasured body of work. He premiered new works by many modern composers, including Rachmaninoff, Bartok, and Samuel Barber. Besides honors from foreign governments including Finland, Denmark and France, Ormandy received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Nixon in 1970 and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1976. Former concertmaster Norman Carol noted the preeminence of Philadelphia in foreign cities, “not for our sports teams or our industry, but [for] the Philadelphia Orchestra.” Ormandy won the 1969 Philadelphia Award for that achievement.

Tamara A. Measler

Sources: Daniel Webster, Obituary, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 13, 1985; Maria Gallagher, Obituary, Philadelphia Daily News, March 13, 1985; Peter Dobrin, Gretel Ormandy Obituary, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 2, 1998; Edwin Guthman, Editorial, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 24, 1985; “Ormandy Gets Philadelphia Award,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 19, 1970; Aryeh Oron, “Eugene Ormandy,” The following are collected in the Philadelphia Award Records, Series 1 (Board and Financial), vol. 3, Minutes, Oct. 14, Nov. 10,1969; Series 2 (Recipients and Nominees), Box 8, folder 17: support letters, newspaper clippings, programs, articles. Photo: Image courtesy of the United States Postal Service Community Connection. Comment: Ormandy was sometimes called the “modest little maestro,” for his good nature and diminutive size. He was beloved for his great skill as a conductor and his total dedication to the orchestra. He had no hobbies, although late in life he watched some television.