Arthur Fiedler

Raymond Tuttle profiles the American conductor a selection of whose orchestral encores are released on Decca Eloquence this month.

Arthur Fiedler conducted the Boston Pops Orchestra for 50 years. One of the highlights of his career was conducting that ensemble during the USA’s bicentennial celebrations in 1976. On the Fourth of July, an audience of almost a half-million enthusiastic revellers crowded onto Boston’s Charles River Esplanade to hear a program of patriotic music, which somehow included Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. For another conductor, that might have seemed absurd, but Fiedler knew his audience, and he knew what they liked. Through concerts, recordings, and television – it was during Fiedler’s tenure that the Public Broadcasting Service began airing ‘Evening at Pops’ nationally – Arthur Fiedler became a household name in the USA, and beyond. Even today, decades after his death, say the name ‘Arthur Fiedler’ to music-lovers and the words ‘and the Boston Pops’ will follow it almost automatically.

Fiedler was born in 1894 – fittingly, in Boston. Sixteen years later, his father, an Austrian-born violinist who played in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, moved the family to Vienna and then to Berlin, and so Fiedler was able to enjoy the benefits of a European education, studying violin, and also piano and conducting, at the conservatory in Berlin. He returned to the United States at the start of World War I, and joined the second violin section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Nine years later, he formed the Boston Sinfonietta, a chamber orchestra comprised of many BSO musicians. Then, in 1930, he was appointed conductor of the Boston Pops. Again, its members came from the BSO.

Most people assume that Fiedler formed that orchestra as well. Actually, seventeen conductors preceded him. The Boston Pops was founded in 1885, before Fiedler had even been born, by a Civil War veteran named Henry Lee Higginson, and the orchestra’s first conductor was a German named Adolf Neuendorff. The first performances were known as ‘Promenade Concerts’, and it wasn’t until 1900 that the ‘Pops’ (short for ‘popular’) sobriquet was adopted. Before Fiedler, concert programs were devoted to light classical fare – nothing too serious and nothing too heavy. It wasn’t until the Fiedler era that Pops programs regularly incorporated music and performers from outside of the classical realm – symphonic arrangements of popular music of the era, jazz, Broadway, folk, country, and even, at the end of Fiedler’s career, disco. His last record, in 1979, was called ‘Saturday Night Fiedler’ – a nod to the immensely popular movie ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and its monotonously thudding, dance-oriented soundtrack. The front cover was a photograph of Fiedler duded up and strutting his stuff in a white John Travolta suit. For the back cover, Fiedler wrote the following:

One thing I have always believed in is music as a universal language, and my years with the Boston Pops reflect the range and scope of this interest as we work our way through a vast repertoire from Country to Classics. […] From the moment I conducted the ‘Saturday Night Fiedler’ suite on Television this May, I knew that the youngsters had done it again: disco – a marvelous, insistently rhythmic dance form to which all manner of music can be adapted from Bach to the Bee-Gees [sic]. And this span of musical poles truly accents the universality of music.

One can’t help wondering, though, what Fiedler would have made of some of the popular music genres that followed disco, including rap, hip-hop and dubstep. As music critic John Rockwell wryly stated in Fiedler’s New York Times obituary on 11 July 1979, ‘In his late years, Mr. Fiedler’s programming began to look dated. The late-19th-century warhorses at the center of his repertory fell out of fashion, and popular music moved into genres that seemed increasingly resistant to orchestral arrangement.’ A phrase about silk purses and sow’s ears comes to mind…

Whether or not he liked to play dress-up, record covers from the 1960s and 70s depicted Fiedler not just as Travolta’s Tony Manero, but also as Santa Claus (Christmas music), Uncle Sam (‘All-American Favourites’), William Tell (‘The World’s Favourite Overtures’), a motorcyclist (hits of the 1960s), in the middle of a can-can line (Gaîté Parisienne), and on a very tall white horse (‘The Pops Goes West’). When Fiedler wasn’t conducting, he was, in a manner of speaking, an amateur firefighter. He was deeply interested in their work and in their fire engines. He was made honorary Captain of Boston’s Fire Department, and of hundreds of others as well. Fiedler once commented, ‘I’ve never left a concert to go to a fire, but I have left fires to go to a concert.’ One of his prize possessions was a 1937 vintage Ford fire truck, which his family gave him for his 75th birthday. Fully restored, it bears the proud designation ‘FIEDLER No. 1’ on its body.

On record covers, Fiedler often was portrayed as smiling and avuncular. Almost anyone would have had difficulty living up to that image. Although he might have been persuaded to dress like a hippie for a photo shoot, one probably would not have found Fiedler in Boston Common, the city’s most famous park, smoking a joint and flashing a peace sign later that same day. After Fiedler’s death, his daughter Johanna wrote an eyebrow-raising memoir. The less said about that, the better. However, in a review of that memoir, Publisher’s Weekly concluded by stating that Fiedler, ‘will be remembered as a solid musician ever capable of sprightly, effective performances, but one worshipped out of all proportion to his accomplishments.’ That reviewer must have been deaf!

If Fiedler seemed grumpy on occasion, perhaps he had reason to be. When he was appointed as conductor of the Pops in 1930, his annual salary was $12,000 – pretty good money at the time – but, unbelievably, it remained unchanged into the 1970s. And despite his comments about the ‘universality of music’, his feelings about the popular repertoire that he performed might be described as ‘take it or leave it’ – it seems that the enthusiasm he expressed in public did not reflect his actual taste in music, which was more classical than popular. At the same time, he was at odds with colleagues (Serge Koussevitzky, for example) who did not respect the populist programs he led – he referred to those individuals as snobs.