Born: 20 July 20, 1870 (Vienna, Austria)
Died: 8 October 1931 (Toronto, Canada)
Luigi von Kunits was an Austrian conductor, composer, violinist, and pedagogue. He was the founding conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 1922.
Dr. Kunits was born Ludwig Paul Mariain 1870 to Serbian parents in Vienna, Austria, where he studied with Jakob Grün, Otakar Ševcík, Anton Bruckner, and Eduard Hanslick. His musical talent showed itself early and spontaneously—at the age of three he first began experiencing musical longings. He listened raptly to the weekend performances of chamber music at his parents' palatial estate. At five he had little difficulty, if any, with classical pieces. Before he was nine years of age he mastered the violin fully.
When the name of Luigi von Kunits came to the ears of the musical world, in 1881, he was a mere teenager. Never before had a young talent received so many laurels in advance as he. Even the great Johannes Brahms became so enthralled by the child prodigy and his musical precocity that he proclaimed him a musician who was destined to achieve the highest expression of his time in the ideal manner. He was invited by Brahms himself to play second violin in one of his quartets at the age of 11, an unprecedented honor for one so young.
Luigi's mother though a kindly woman was rather imposing and when her son began to show an interest in music as a profession she discouraged him, preferring that the he devote himself to more serious pursuits, such as the Church, rather than follow the precarious career of a musician. However, she did at least consent to have him attend university and be taught music properly at a conservatory. He completed his academic training at the University of Vienna and the world-renowned Vienna Conservatory almost simultaneously. Academic training included classical Greek, Latin, law and philosophy. At the conservatory he studied violin under such greats as Johann Kral (1823–1912), Jacob Grun, and Otakar Sevcik; musical history with Eduard Hanslick, composition with Jacksch and harmony with Anton Bruckner. After his graduation with honors, no less, at the age of 21 he, for a time, led the String Quartet for the Wiener Tonkuenstlerverein when Brahms was its president.
Early careerDuring this time, however, he had composed a Violin Concerto and he had been asked to perform it with the Vienna Philarmonic Orchestra. It was so well received that he had no trouble obtaining a position with the Austrian Orchestra as it assistant conductor and concertmaster. It was also at this juncture that he decided to embark on a tour of the United States of America in 1893, abandoning the career chosen for him by his mother. His parents were heart-broken at his sudden departure.
After playing with the Austrian Orchestra at the Chicago World's Fair, and taking the first prize trophy in an open competition, he decided to remain in the U.S. The people of America took him to their heart as few nations did—certainly more quickly and generously than his native Austria, and not less so than Canada where he was to settle down later on in life.
In Chicago he taught violin and composition and led a String Quartet he personally founded. He came to Pittsburgh which had been without a professional symphony orchestra until 1895 when British conductor Frederic Archer took the baton. With Archer at the helm, von Kunits had organized and shaped an ensemble into a respectable orchestra. During the next 14 years, von Kunits was the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's concertmaster, first violin, and assistant conductor to Frederic Archer (from 1896 to 1898), Victor Herbert (from 1898 to 1904), and finally Emil Pauer (from 1904 to 1910) when the orchestra came into financial difficulties and was dissolved.
In 1910, he made a decision to return to Vienna to give concerts throughout Europe, appearing not only in recitals as a guest artist with orchestras, but also in chamber music concerts. Back from his concert tours, he was widely acclaimed by his peers. Moriz Rosenthal, Louis Rée (1861–1939), Vladimir de Pachman, Emil Pauer, Fritz Kreisler and Eugčne Ysa˙e all came to pay homage to a fine musician as was customary in music circles of the day. Between recitals, he remained active by teaching at the world-famous Patony Conservatory in Vienna.
In 1912, Dr. T. Alexander Davies, a Toronto doctor, who arrived for postgraduate studies at Vienna's Medical School, came with a faculty offer (head of the violin department) from Colonel Albert Gooderham, president of the newly established Canadian Academy of Music. A more prestigious offer came at the same time, the Philadelphia Orchestra needed a new conductor. Von Kunits, whose first love was conducting, was recovering from a mild heart attack, and so decided in favor of Toronto instead. (The man who accepted the Philadelphia position declined by von Kunits was Leopold Stokowski.)
Although Toronto had been a major music centre in Canada until 1917, in 1922 it was still without a professional symphony orchestra. Two young musicians, Louis Gesensway and Abe Fenboque, decided to approach von Kunits to tackle the difficult task of establishing the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
The sixty musicians who turned up for the first rehearsal were all from the orchestral pits of the silent-movie houses; the only free time they had for concerts was between matinees and evening shows. Von Kunits was assured that "there were sufficient skilled players, some of whom had played in Frank Welsman's Toronto Orchestra -- an organization founded in 1907 and which had become a casualty of the war in 1918 -- and some of whom, as von Kunits knew, were better musicians than their theatre jobs allowed them to show."
After some reflection, von Kunits accepted. Through the winter, he coached and encouraged some of his more advanced students so that they might be ready. He worked with theatre house musicians. And he spent sleepless nights re-scoring the music for his players and their instruments, keeping in mind their capacities.
By spring, von Kunits had brought the orchestra together, making it coalesce from its disparate elements was not easy. One musician of that time recalled a rehearsal when von Kunits could not get any kind of warmth and color from the cello section, even though the piece was marked appassionata.
"He tapped his music stand, looked solemnly at the whole string section, and said quietly: 'Would all those men under 60 please vibrate.' The difference at the next attempt was more notable."
On April 23, 1923, at five p.m. the New Symphony Orchestra, with von Kunits at the baton, made its debut in Massey Hall. With an initial complement of some sixty players, it soon became the eighty-five member Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 1927, offering full-length concerts. After successful tours in Canada and the United States, audiences got bigger. Von Kunits brought the orchestra recognition and wide appeal. The excellence of his string section became the envy of other orchestras. Stokowski invited two of his pupils, Gesensway and Manny Roth, to join the Philadelphia Orchestra. By drawing into it some of the world's finest instrumentalists, Stokowski succeeded in creating the distinctive "Philadelphia sound" which brought his orchestra international acclaim. Another von Kunits's pupil of note was the U.S. composer Charles Wakefield Cadman, Canadian composers Harry Adaskin and Murray Adaskin. Indeed, von Kunits shaped a generation of string players, some of whom continued to play with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 1980.
After nine years of struggle to win a place for a first-rate orchestra in Canada, von Kunits died on October 8, 1931.