St. Louis Symphony – The First Recordings

Written by Bill Anderson


Like many classical record collectors, for years I assumed that the St. Louis Symphony’s recorded legacy started with the conductor Vladimir Golschmann. As music director of the orchestra from 1931 through 1958, Golschmann made a number of significant recordings for the RCA Victor, Columbia, and Capitol record labels, both in the LP and 78 rpm eras. Indeed, Golschmann’s first recordings as a conductor were with St. Louis, in 1934, featuring the premier recordings of Alexander Tansman’s Triptyque for String Orchestra, and the Haydn Drum Roll symphony.


Milhaud: Suite Provençale Vladimir Golschmann cond. St.Louis Symphony [RCA Victor Set DM-951. Rec: Apr 5th, 1942 /Kiel Auditorium. – See also: Golschmann & St. Louis Sym –Sibelius Symp No.7]


But before those sides are recorded there was a small group of discs made with the orchestra for the Victor Company from 1923 to 1925. The recordings featured an accomplished pianist and composer leading the orchestra, but one not usually associated with conducting, Rudolph Ganz.

St. Louis and It’s Orchestra: A Short History

St. Louis, Missouri, near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, is a central point for transportation and commerce in the Midwest. Initially relying on river traffic, it became, with the end of the American Civil War, a critical rail hub and overland transportation center. The beginning of the great western expansion of the United States had St. Louis as a starting point, with the city earning the title ”Gateway to the West”.

Rapid Industrialization increased the importance of the city and immigration its population. In 1850 the city had 160,000 inhabitants, but by the 1890’s close to a half-million people called St. Louis home. And, like several Midwestern locations, the city became a magnet for many European immigrants, most notably those of German, Italian, and Slavic backgrounds. In addition to bringing needed labor and business skills, these groups also brought over their own cultural history and appreciation of the arts, especially music.

The city had a number of amateur and semiprofessional musical organizations during that time, and several larger touring ensembles provided both popular and classical concerts. By 1880 there was enough interest in serious music that a 28 year old German organist, Joseph Otten, and the city elders created the St. Louis Choral- Symphony Society, the original name of the St. Louis Symphony. It was (and is) the second oldest permanent orchestra in the United States. Over the next several years the organization gave concerts of predominantly choral music, but occasionally performed orchestral works, including several Beethoven, Mozart and Mendelssohn symphonies.

Mr. Otten stayed with the society until 1894, resigning after the Society, struggling with deficits, severely reduced the number of scheduled concerts. Alfred Ernst, a 26 year old pianist from Germany, took over as conductor. During his reign, the orchestra was able to get on firmer financial footing, and performance standards improved, gaining many favorable reviews of concerts during the World’s Fair, hosted by the city in 1904. By the time Mr. Ernst returned to Germany in 1907, the orchestra had a permanent performing venue, The Odeon Theatre, and several musicians of note were performing with the orchestra, such as Fritz Kreisler, and Josef Hoffman.

Max Zach was the third conductor of the Symphony. An accomplished violist in the Boston Symphony, he was also a seasoned conductor, directing the Boston Symphony’s popular concerts for 10 years. He made significant improvements in the orchestra during his tenure, adding a number of new orchestra musicians and increasing the number of concerts the orchestra would perform during the season. Several noted soloists now played with the orchestra – Serge Rachmaninoff, Wilhelm Backhaus, Albert Spaulding, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, among others.

The stature of the Symphony improved steadily under Zach. During the war years he was able to continue conducting the orchestra unmolested (unlike fellow Germans Karl Muck in Boston, and Ernst Kunwald in Cincinnati, both of whom were imprisoned as ‘enemy aliens’ in 1918). The orchestra began touring around the Midwest, including a pair of concerts in Chicago in 1920. Unfortunately, the orchestra, on the verge of shedding its provincial image, unexpectedly lost Dr. Zach, who died from an infection in 1921.

The Search for a New Conductor

The Symphony’s Board of Directors understood that the St. Louis Symphony was on the verge of becoming an important cultural organization, both regionally and nationally. While appreciating the professionalism Zach brought, he was not known as an inspiring artist. So, a search was on for new conductor; a “name” musician would draw larger audiences and increase the stature of the orchestra.

At first, they tried to hire the violinist Fritz Kreisler. While he was not a conductor, he was arguably one of the most well-known and popular musicians of the time. Negotiations over salary eventually broke down, and other musicians were considered for the position. During the end of the 1921 season, three guest conductors performed with the symphony and were candidates for the position; St. Louis native son Theodore Spiering, concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic under Mahler, Dirk Fock, a rising young conductor from The Netherlands, and Rudolph Ganz, a well known concert pianist, educator, and composer.

Of the three, Ganz had a particularly impressive debut with the orchestra; so impressive that, in a straw poll taken by the musicians, he was nearly unanimously recommended for the conductor post. The Orchestra’s managing board agreed, and Ganz became the orchestra’s permanent conductor in March, 1921.

Rudolph Ganz – Before St. Louis.

Ganz was born in Zürich Switzerland in 1877. As a boy he learned to play both the cello and piano, making his debut as a concert pianist with the Berlin Philharmonic at age 22. Less than a year later, again with the Berlin Philharmonic, he made his conducting debut, performing his own First Symphony. At that time he also studied composition under Ferrucio Busoni.

Ganz had an active professional life as a concert pianist throughout Europe, and successful tours in both the United States and Canada. He became head of the piano department of the Chicago Musical College in 1901, a post he held for five years. Returning to Europe to continue his concert career, he also made several piano recordings for Pathe, and piano roll recordings for the Duo Art and Welte-Mignon companies.

A charming an erudite man, he was an active champion of modern music of his time, but performed that role with humility and no small sense of humor. Later in life, when asked what he desired for Christmas, he said

“I’d like to have an hour or two added to the day. I’d like to have more good hours on the radio and I wish Schoenberg would write something melodious.”

Ganz and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra – 1921 to 1927

Ganz’s innovative programming and interest in modern music were on full display for his first season in St. Louis. Of the fifteen programs offered during that season, twelve presented works that were heard in St. Louis for the first time, and of those works, 2/3rds were by composers living in the 20th century. But there was no skimping in rehearsing or performing more mainstream works; local critics were appreciative of his insightful readings of the Brahms’ Third and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth symphonies.

In that first season, as with the others throughout his tenure, the concerts where Ganz was featured as soloist were especially welcome. He performed the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto to both popular and critical acclaim that first season (He performed this Concerto again in 1926, and returned after the intermission to conduct an impassioned reading of the Pathétique Symphony).

What is especially impressive in the first St. Louis years is that he was a relative novice is a conductor. He was in effect learning his craft in full view of the public, the critics, and most important of all, the musicians. He wore the mantle of conductor lightly, freely admitting to the orchestra that he knew very little about what to do with the baton. “Gentlemen, the orchestra is not my instrument, so please, do your best and we will learn together”

Ganz was especially interested in getting audience feedback. One unusual approach was to request that audience members return pamphlets, included in the concert programs of a new work, indicating whether or not they wished to hear it again. Using that information, Ganz programmed additional performances of, among others pieces, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, and Vaughn- Williams London Symphony.

Other outreach projects included special children’s concerts beginning in 1922, the first of its kind for American orchestras. Those concerts included at least one especially programmed for African -American children (unusual, considering the segregationist era) that featured works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Ganz considered actively recruiting women to play in the orchestra’s violin section, unheard of at that time (although he never acted upon this idea).

The Victor Recordings

A different kind of outreach was envisioned when the orchestra began to make commercial recordings. Ganz, according to one interview, saw the records as a way to achieve national status for the orchestra. This was especially important as Victor, although the largest recording company in America, had only recently started to record American orchestras. The first Boston Symphony records (under Karl Muck) and those with the Philadelphia Orchestra (under Stokowski) were made in 1917. The New York Philharmonic sides (with Mengelberg) followed in 1922. The popularity and reputation of these orchestras were substantial, so it appears significant that the Victor management believed Ganz and the St. Louis Symphony should join that prestigious group. It was, to be sure, not quite the same arrangement as the other orchestras. The St. Louis discs were mostly issued on the lower status ‘Blue Label’ records as compared to the ‘Red Seal’ for the other organizations. But still it was a vote of confidence from Victor as to the commercial potential of the project.

The recording sessions spanned three short periods, all in late autumn-early winter, over three years.

The sessions resulted in the following commercial records, listed here.

1 Comment

  1. One of the musicians who voted for Ganz once told me why he got the vote. According to that musician — a violinist — “Zack worked us very hard and we were all tired, and we thought that Ganz would make life easier.”

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