Arthur Fiedler made the Boston Pops into a world-famous institution during the 50 years he conducted.
He invented the free outdoor concert and the format that alternated light classics and popular music. His showmanship and sense of fun brought twirling double basses and inflatable sharks to the concert stage.
Audiences all over the world loved the uniquely Boston Boston Pops. And Boston loved Fiedler, the city’s most famous resident. The orchestra – not so much.
When Fiedler died at 84 in 1979, only three of the 90-odd musicians in the Pops agreed to play for his memorial service. And those lighthearted stage jokes started out as musicians’ pranks intended to needle Fiedler.
Arthur Fiedler was “Mr. Boston.” A European-educated sophisticate, he spoke three languages and wore Savile Row suits, but he also loved to chase fire engines. In 1942, he worked all night in the morgue after the Cocoanut Grove fire. Fiedler enjoyed a busy social life — at 74 he was photographed doing the twist. His wide circle of friends included political hacks and Back Bay socialites, world-renowned soloists and local restaurateurs.
The Boston Pops
The Boston Pops was a faltering institution when Fiedler took it over in 1930 and propelled it onto the world stage. Five years after he first took the baton, he found a record of an obscure Danish song in a clearance bin. The Pops’ subsequent release of Jalousie on RCA Victor was the first orchestral recording to sell more than 1 million copies. Under Fiedler, the Pops ultimately sold more than 50 million recordings, more than any orchestra in history. And in 1976 – when Fiedler was 81 — the Pops Bicentennial concert on the Esplanade attracted the largest crowd ever to attend a classical music performance.
Fiedler was so popular that a Boston Pops press book confidently proclaimed:
In Boston, “the land of the bean and the cod, where the Lowells speak only to Cabots and the Cabots speak only to God,” everyone speaks to Arthur Fiedler.
Yeah, Yeah, Yeah?
The musicians didn’t so much speak to him as bicker, according to Fiedler’s daughter Johanna, in her 1994 tell-all Arthur Fiedler, Papa, the Pops and Me.
She described the musicians, members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as openly contemptuous of her father. They despised the light music he loved. They were incensed they had to sing “Yeah, yeah, yeah” when he programmed the Beatles’ I Want To Hold Your Hand. His signature piece, Stars and Stripes Forever, was one of their least favorites.
Sometimes the musicians would toss their music in the air at the end of a piece they didn’t like. Fiedler would respond by tossing his score higher. The musicians would retaliate, littering the stage with sheet music.
Fiedler hated what he viewed as the musicians’ elitism. “This damned snobbism is the thing I’ve been trying to fight all my life, every chance I get,” he once said.
Their differences went beyond musical taste. Johanna Fiedler believed the musicians resented her father’s iron control over them. He timed concerts to last precisely two hours. Every piece lasted exactly as long as it had the last time he conducted it.
Fiedler brooked no nonsense during his disciplined Boston Pops rehearsals. He insisted on perfect intonation, conspicuously raising or lowering his thumb if a musician was flat. His daughter conceded he could be abrupt and belligerent.
“He would regard the musicians with something close to hatred,” wrote his daughter. “They would stare back at him with the same intensity.“
Baiting him became the musicians’ favorite sport.
Pranking Arthur Fiedler
Johanna Fiedler described how an instrumentalist brought a bowling ball to rehearsals at least once a season. He would wait until the right moment and then gently drop the bowling ball from his seat in the middle of the orchestra. “Bowling balls make a lot of noise when they are dropped,” she wrote. “This one would bounce leisurely down from one level to the next as it rolled toward the front of the stage and my father. The orchestra would dissolve in laughter.”
A woodwind player would put on a mask — Josef Stalin, Groucho Marx or Santa Claus — when Fiedler was preoccupied with another part of the orchestra.
Fiedler especially hated the cellists. He was infuriated when a cellist continually interrupted a rehearsal with a mooing sound that emanated from a device in his pocket. Fielder, enraged, shouted “Coward!” at the string section. “Why don’t you own up?”
Fiedler and the orchestra agreed on one thing: They both despised the theme from Jaws. During one concert, a brass player brought in a rubber shark, inflated it and set it loose above the musicians’ heads. It floated toward Fiedler, who poked it back to the brasses with his baton. The trombone player sent it back to him. The joke was so popular that audiences began to request Jaws as an encore every night.
Was the animosity between the maestro and the musicians a well-kept secret – or did Johanna Fiedler exaggerate? Consider the Boston Globe’s obituary of double bass player John Barwicki in 2000.
“I don’t want to be a clown, but I like to see people enjoying themselves,” Barwicki said.
The Globe called Barwicki the prankster who opened an umbrella during Christmas Pops to ward off the fake snow that showered on his head. That joke became a staple of the holiday performance.
Johanna Fiedler tells a different story: Barwicki opened that umbrella because he, like the rest of the orchestra, simply hated Christmas Pops.
If Fiedler didn’t get along with his musicians, his fans revered him. After he died at his desk on July 11, 1979, The New York Times reported.
The Pops, under Harry Ellis Dickson, its assistant conductor for 25 years, noted Mr. Fiedler’s death last night by beginning its concert in Boston’s Symphony Hall with his signature piece, John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” played pianissimo. After the first few bars, Mr. Dickson walked away from the podium, leaving the orchestra to play on leaderless.
In the audience, standing throughout the piece, a few persons were seen wiping tears away. At the point in the song when the American flag is unfurled on stage, numerous persons broke into tears.
You can see the Boston Pops during the summer at Tanglewood, click here for a schedule. This story was updated in 2021.
Image: By Garrett A. Wollman. – From The Archives @ BostonRadio.org, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=232062.