Fiedler Returns to Symphony Hall
Symphony Hall was designed by leading American architects McKim, Mead, and White. Harvard physics professor Wallace Clement Sabine helped apply scientific, acoustical principles to the plans. The seating was designed to switch easily between row seating for Symphony concerts and table seating for Pops concerts. Symphony Hall opened on October 15, 1900 and it has been home to the Boston Pops ever since.
Arthur Fiedler (1894-1979)
Conductor Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra taught Americans to love classical music. The Boston Pops began as an out-of-season alternative to the traditional Boston Symphony Orchestra. Audiences enjoyed cafe seating and cheerful music. From 1930 to 1979, Fiedler chose a mix of light-classical music, show tunes, and popular songs that turned the Pops into America’s favorite orchestra.
Fiedler said in a 1977 New York Times interview, “I may have helped spread a love of classical music in this country, but I did it unconsciously. I never tried to ‘lead the masses.’ … I like to play the music that I like, and I like a lot of music.”
The Dreamlands Wax Museum loves its figure of Fiedler. We hope it shows a little of Fiedler’s originality, his warm and sometimes mysterious stage presence, and his inimitable style.
A Boston Boy with a Love of Music
Fiedler was born in South Boston on Dec. 17, 1894, into a family of musicians. His mother Johanna was a skilled pianist and taught Fiedler piano. He disliked practicing, but loved music and dreamed of conducting. Fiedler’s father Emanuel played violin in the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 25 years. His two uncles and a first cousin also played in the orchestra.
Fiedler attended the Prince School and Boston Latin School as a kid. At home, he learned French and German from his Austrian-born parents and practiced his music. In 1910, his father retired from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and moved the family back to Vienna and then to Berlin. Fiedler worked in music publishing houses in both cities. Later, he studied violin, piano, and conducting at the Royal Academy of Musical Performing Art in Berlin.
Fiedler attended the Royal Academy from 1911 to 1915, but never lost his ties to Boston’s musical heritage. His violin teacher at the Academy, Willy Hess, had been a concertmaster of the Boston Symphony. When Fiedler was 17-years-old, he had his first official performance as conductor— his podium debut—conducting three of Mozart’s German Dances and Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in G minor.
When World War I broke out in Europe, Fiedler returned to Boston. He joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Karl Muck in 1915.
The Boston Pops and the 4th of July
Fiedler began at the Boston Symphony Orchestra as violist, occasionally playing celesta, piano or organ, but his dream was to conduct. In 1924, he formed the Boston Sinfonietta, a small chamber music orchestra, to prove he had conducting skills. He also began a series of free outdoor concerts on the Boston Esplanade.
Fiedler was named Pops conductor in 1930. He attracted a wider audience by adding show tunes and popular songs to the Pops program, such as the hit Sleigh Ride by Leroy Anderson. Fiedler and the Pops also spread the music beyond Boston through recordings, radio broadcasts, and the PBS series Evening at the Pops, which aired nationwide.
Fiedler’s signature mix of light-classical music, show tunes, and popular music made him and the Pops famous. A Boston Pops press book declared, “In Boston, ‘the land of the bean and the cod, where the Lowells speak only to Cabots and the Cabots speak only to God,’ everyone speaks to Arthur Fiedler.”
As Pops conductor, Fiedler also began the beloved Boston tradition of July 4th concerts on the Boston Esplanade—free for all and bursting with excitement. The concerts began in 1929 but by the 1973 attendance was declining until David Mugar, Fiedler’s friend whose family supported the Pops, suggested a new element: fireworks. Mugar suggested playing Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture accompanied by real cannons and fireworks. He would even pay for the spectacle himself. Fiedler agreed and the tradition was born.
Three years later, the concert broke the world record for most people at a musical event. Over 400,000 people watched Fiedler and the Boston Pops perform on July 4th, 1976 in celebration of the nation’s bicentennial. The performance was broadcast to millions of viewers a week later as part of the CBS highlight reel, In Celebration of US: Our Happiest Birthday.
A Fascination with Firefighters
In addition to a love of music, Fiedler had a lifelong fascination with firefighters. He first discovered it at a local Boston firehouse. “I got to know the firemen,” he said in an interview, “They let me feed the horses and play with the dalmatians. I spent every spare minute there.”
The fascination grew and Fiedler became a well-known “spark,” or firefighting spectator.
He shared this hobby with his friend, Boston philanthropist David Mugar— the same one who helped Fiedler transform 4th of July in Boston. Fiedler and Mugar would spend their evenings listening to the police scanner and then racing around to watch firefighters combat infernos throughout Boston.
Fiedler once said, “I’ve never left a concert to go to a fire, but I have left fires to go to a concert.”
He also collected firefighting memorabilia. On his 75th birthday, his family gave him a 1938 fire engine from the Marlboro, N.H., Fire Department. The Boston Fire Museum proudly displays firefighting artifacts from Fiedler’s collection.
“Snobbish” Criticism & National Fame
Fiedler included a wide range of music in the Pops performances, angering some classical music critics. Some of his most intense critics were his musicians, according to Fiedler’s daughter Johanna, in her 1994 tell-all Arthur Fiedler, Papa, the Pops and Me. Fiedler selected popular songs and show tunes and mixed them in with marches, symphonies, rhapsodies, and suites that the traditional Symphony overlooked. He kept performances informal and created what one percussionist described as “a musical smorgasbord.’’
Fiedler explained in a 1977 New York Times interview, “I enjoyed doing what I was doing, and I felt that my field of music was sadly neglected. I don’t think that there are any definite boundaries in music. There is good light music and mediocre classical music.” His philosophy paid off for both the Pops and Fiedler himself.
Fiedler received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Freedoms Foundation American Exemplar Award in 1977. He received honorary degrees from Harvard, Dartmouth, and many other institutions. He also received the Morality in Media Award, the Sword of Loyola, the Stereo Review Award, and the National Arts Club Award. For 26 summers, Fiedler led the San Francisco Pops Orchestra and he conducted major orchestras across the United States and around the world.
“I haven’t had a vacation for six or seven years,” he complained in 1977. “I think I’m ready for one. My schedule is always like this, and it gets worse as I get older. If you’re before the public that many years, you pick up a lot of friends and people who want to do things with you. 1 do enjoy it, but sometimes it gets out of hand, and you can’t do it properly.”
After Fiedler’s 1979 death, the Pops paid tribute to Fiedler with his signature piece: John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” played pianissimo or, very softly. After the first few bars, the conductor stepped away, The New York Times reported, “leaving the orchestra to play on leaderless” and “At the point in the song when the American flag is unfurled on stage, numerous persons broke into tears.”
Fiedler will forever be associated with Boston, the Pops, and patriotic fanfare. The Arthur Fiedler figure has been at the Dreamland Wax Museum since it opened in Boston in 2017.