Arthur Fiedler’s family background was firmly rooted in the Central European musical tradition. His father, Emanuel Fiedler, was an Austrian-born violinist who played in the Boston Symphony Orchestra for twenty-five years and was a member of the Kneisal String Quartet; his mother was a gifted pianist and musician, who gave Arthur his first piano lessons. He was educated in Boston until his father took the family back to Austria in 1910; in Vienna and Berlin Arthur worked in publishing houses and then entered the Berlin High School for Music, where he studied violin, piano and conducting, directing an orchestra for the first time when he was seventeen years old. At the outbreak of World War I Fiedler returned to Boston and joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra as a member of the second violins in 1915, later changing to the viola section; he also played in the orchestra as a pianist, organist, and percussionist and was a member of the orchestra when it made its first sound recordings in 1917 under Karl Muck. Fiedler served in the United States army in 1918, later returning to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and working also as an accompanist and a coach.
In 1924 he formed the Boston Sinfonietta, a chamber orchestra, made up of Boston Symphony Orchestra members, of which he was the conductor; its aim was to bring greater variety to the music heard both in Boston and throughout the surrounding areas. This group was also known on records as the Arthur Fiedler Sinfonietta. In an effort to bring as much music to the public as possible, Fiedler initiated a campaign for a series of free outdoor concerts in Boston and his efforts were rewarded in 1929 with the first Esplanade Concerts on the Charles River. These concerts programmed American and European light music and featured musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra: they were so successful that Fiedler was appointed the eighteenth conductor of the Boston Pops in 1930, in succession to Casella.
The Boston Pops Orchestra was formed in 1887 to give concerts of light music in Boston, its membership drawn from the Boston Symphony Orchestra but without its principals. The orchestra gives concerts from May to the middle of July, when it moves to the Esplanade for a series of free open-air concerts. Fiedler remained conductor of the Boston Pops until his death. His programmes with the orchestra were an extremely successful blend of popular classics, arrangements of music from stage musicals and of current pop tunes, as well as popular overtures, ballet music, marches and Viennese waltzes, among much else. So great was his skill at constructing successful programmes that the Boston Pops soon became the model for many similar series of concerts throughout America. Fiedler was engaged to conduct the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra when it created an annual summer pops season in 1951, remaining at the helm here until 1978. In addition he had a busy guest-conducting schedule, appearing in the United States with the Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and New York Philharmonic Orchestras among many others, and with major orchestras in Europe, South America, Africa, Australia, and Canada. It was while he was conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra that he met the young Simon Rattle, whom he shortly afterwards described to a distinguished group of civic leaders in Boston as ‘…a remarkable boy, whom you will be hearing of again’.
Fiedler’s musicality, lively style as a conductor and deep professionalism as well as the enjoyably informal atmosphere in which he presented his concerts made him the great populariser of light classical music during his lifetime and in recognition of this he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977. A highlight of his career was the Esplanade concert of 4 July 1976, which was heard by over 400,000 people, declared by the Guinness Book of World Records to be the largest single audience for a classical music concert. Among his many interests (which included coast guarding), Arthur was a keen observer of fires, and on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday his son Peter presented him with a surprise gift on behalf of his whole family: a full-size fire engine!
Arthur Fiedler was one of the most successful recording artists of the twentieth century, with his recordings for RCA selling in excess of fifty million copies. He made his first recordings with the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1935, and together they continued to turn out best-selling records until his death: their account of Gade’s Jealousy was the first recording by a symphony orchestra to sell over one million copies. Many albums were made for RCA as part of the company’s Living Stereo series, and their excellent technical qualities, combined with Fiedler’s unique style in this repertoire, have ensured that many of these recordings have remained in the catalogue. Fiedler’s discography with the Boston Pops is so vast and so stylish that it is invidious to highlight specific recordings above others. Nonetheless among the best are the coupling of Offenbach’s Gaîté Parisienne with Rossini’s La Boutique fantasque; Classics for Children, which includes Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, and Saint-Saëns’s Le Carnaval des Animaux; Fiedler on the Roof, a compilation of hits from several of the most successful major Broadway musicals; and Boston Tea Party which includes shorter pieces by composers as varied as Balfe, Nicolai and Vaughan Williams. A good example of Fiedler’s way with popular tunes may be heard in the album Peace, Love and Pops, a collection of some of the most popular songs of the 1960s and 1970s, but in truth any of Arthur Fiedler’s many recordings will give satisfaction, so high were his musical standards and so strict his professionalism.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).