Chronicle of a family that shaped the musical history of America

The Damrosch Dynasty, by George Martin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 526 pp. $30. In company with a great many first-class biographies, George Martin's ``The Damrosch Dynasty'' is a piece of cultural history, as well as being the chronicle of the most influential single family in American musical history.

The book is a splendid portrait of German-born conductor Leopold Damrosch, founder in New York City of the orchestra which later merged with the New York Philharmonic; of his illustrious son Frank, a guiding force in American music education and founder of the Juilliard School's predecessor; of his even more famous son Walter, Philharmonic conductor and music's early radio champion; of his daughter Clara, whose husband, violinist David Mannes, founded the music school named for him, and whose son, Leopold Mannes, was one of the century's most brilliant minds, balancing a respectable career as pianist and administrative successor to his father, with pioneering work in the development of the Kodachrome color photography process.

The roster of fascinating family members and branches goes on, from the 1880s to the mid-1960s, and the whole is researched and presented by George Martin with the sure hand of a craftsman. But his is not just the book of a biographer with an interesting subject to ``coast'' on. He happens to be a fine historian, with a good feel both for the broad lines and the niceties of detail that carry the significance of the shifts between eras and society's stages of growth.

Besides giving us personally and musically satisfying accounts of the people and goings-on in New York City, the locus of the Damrosch family's activities from 1871 on, Martin sits back occasionally and offers bits of candid hindsight-omniscience about various pains and problems encountered by the Damrosches and their friends. We get some genuinely wise commentary on music education and the role of the amateur (a British/German tradition never successfully transplanted to the United States); music education and the medias' roles in it; the erosion of the turn-of-the-century hopes (of men like Carnegie) for the betterment that universal literacy seemed to promise; World War I and Northern America's ugly capacity for studied (anti-German) racism, as opposed to the untutored Southern variety.

Mr. Martin is no newcomer to history writing, having seven or eight other such books to his credit, the majority about opera, including ``Verdi, His Music, Life and Times'' and ``The Opera Companion to Twentieth-Century Opera.'' In spite of his sagacious commentaries, some readers of history may find his judgmental tone toward certain of the characters in the Damrosch book to be more pronounced than they would prefer. Critical personal analyses get rather heavily lathered on.

Nevertheless, if New York City has been one of the world's musical capitals for almost 100 years, the Damrosches were certainly for a chunk of that time the equivalent of a royal family. None may have achieved top rank either as performers or creators (inventor Leopold Mannes perhaps excepted), but many of them left behind influences which in various ways endure. And it is to that uniqueness of theirs that Mr. Martin has directed this most recommendable volume.

David Owens is a composer and free-lance writer in the Boston area.

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