The American conductor and violinist Arthur Fiedler made a lasting mark on music as the conductor of the Boston Pops, a position he held for 50 years. His joyful approach to music included performing a varied ‘light’ classical repertoire along with showtunes, pop songs and film scores. He established the successful outdoor concert series, Esplanade Concerts, in Boston and inspired other prestigious American orchestras to create summer ‘pops’ programmes.
A native of Boston, Arthur Fiedler was born to the Austrian violinist Emanuel Fiedler and pianist Johanna Fiedler (Bernfeld). His father was a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Kneisel Quartet, and also served as Arthur’s first music teacher. Up until his father’s retirement, Arthur attended the Boston Latin School. They then moved to Austria, where Arthur continued to study. In 1909, his father took him to Berlin to study violin, piano and conducting at the Hochschule für Musik. His violin teacher in Berlin was Willy Hess. In addition to his studies, Fiedler worked as an apprentice at a publishing firm around 1910.
At the age of 17, Arthur Fiedler made his debut as a violinist with various orchestras and at cafes in Berlin, though he returned to the US a short time later at the outbreak of World War I. He was appointed to the second violin section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Karl Muck in 1915. He also played under Pierre Monteux and Serge Koussevitzky. Beginning in 1918, Fiedler also played viola, piano, organ, celesta and percussion.
Fiedler served as conductor of the Cecilia Society Chorus and the MacDowell Club Orchestra during the 1920s and formed the Boston Sinfonietta in 1924 with 25 of his colleagues from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The mission of the Boston Sinfonietta was to add variety to the city’s concert agenda and to bring music to remote areas of Massachusetts and surrounding states.
In 1929, Fiedler established the highly successfully Esplanade concerts, which were free and took place outdoors. The popularity of his concerts led him to be appointed the 18th conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1930, succeeding Casella. Fiedler was quite the exception among his Boston Pops predecessors: while conductors tended to view the position as a stage in their career, Fiedler viewed it as his life’s mission, holding and cherishing the position for the rest of his life.
Fiedler was able to turn the Boston Pops Orchestra into one of the most popular orchestras in the country through his fine musicianship, leadership and showmanship. He was, however, not immune to criticism as some found that he simplified music too much, especially in his adaptions of popular songs or popular works from the classical repertoire. Fiedler ignored the critique and continued to plan informal and light concerts that were sometimes considered self-mocking, in order to retain his large audiences.
Together with the Boston Pops, Fiedler made a vast number of recordings—reportedly more than any other orchestra in the world. The majority of their recordings were made with RCA Victor, with which they had an exclusive contract until the late 1960s, when they began recording on the Deutsche Grammophon label and label Polydor Records (co-owned by Deutsche Grammophon) for pop music. Later they went on to record with London Records. Notable recordings include the premiere recording of Jacques’ Offenbach’sGaîté Parisiennein 1947, which became RCA’s first release of a long-playing classical album in 1950. A new recording of this work was made in 1954 in stereo, followed by many more stereo recordings beginning in 1956. Among their output were many extended-play 45-rpm discs, including of Tchaikovsky’sMarche Slave and Ketèlbey'sIn a Persian Market. The Boston Pops also made the world premiere recording of Jacob Gade’sJalousie, which sold more than a million copies, and the first complete recording of George Gershwin’s famousRhapsody in Blue (with soloist Jesús Maria Sanromá).
Other recordings include arrangements of Broadway and Hollywood film scores and arrangements of popular music, including by the Beatles. They also performed some standard classical works that were not especially light, but well-loved favourites. The orchestra recorded one of the earliest American albums dedicated to a film score in 1946 with Dmitri Tiomkin's music fromDuel in the Sun(director David O. Selznick).
Reportedly, the Boston Pops Orchestra not only made more recordings than any other orchestra under Fiedler’s direction, but they also sold more than $50 million in recordings.
In addition to his recordings with the Boston Pops Orchestra, Fiedler made recordings of chamber music by the Boston Sinfonietta and one recording with the Boston Symphony Orchestra—of Dvorak’s ‘New World’ Symphony No. 9. He also appeared as a guest conductor on many recordings and with the San Francisco Pops Orchestra, which he conducted for 26 summers beginning in 1949. His final recording was devoted to disco music and titledSaturday Night Fiedler. Fiedler was featured on national television when he conducted the opening ceremonies of Walt Disney World in 1971. He also appeared on theEvening at Pops telecast on PBS.
In addition to his successful career as a violinist and conductor, Fiedler was occupied by firefighting. He would often travel to fires in Boston to watch the firefighters and work and was named ‘Honorary Captain’ of the Boston Fire Department and given honorary fire helmets and badges from other fire departments. Allegedly, Fiedler took part in the rescue efforts during the devastating Cocoanut Grove fire that took place in Boston in 1942. He was also an enthusiastic sailor and even volunteered for the Temporary Reserve of the U.S. Coast Guard at the beginning of World War II. He also served on the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
Fiedler was awarded the University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit in 1976 for his influence on American music. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 from President Gerald Ford.
Fiedler died of a heart attack in Brookline, Massachusetts on 10 July 1979 at the age of 84. He had been married since 1942 to Ellen M. Bottomley, with whom he had three children. The Boston Pops Orchestra celebrated Fiedler, who was in his 50th year with the orchestra, with a sculpture near the Charles River Esplanade, where his free concerts still take place today. He was succeeded as conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra by John Williams.