Luigi von Kunits 1871 - 1931
First Conductor of The Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Plaque located at: 675 Ontario Street, Toronto, ON, Canada
Luigi von Kunits was born and raised in the musically-enriched city of Vienna, Austria. He studied violin, composition and music history with some of the finest teachers.
When Luigi von Kunits was eleven years old, the great Brahms himself asked him to play second violin in one of the composer’s string quartets. When he was twenty-one, he had the opportunity to perform his own violin concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1893, he traveled to the United States to perform with an Austrian orchestra at the Chicago World’s Fair, where he also won the best solo violinist trophy. At this time, he decided to stay in the United States and taught violin in Chicago from 1893 until 1896. Subsequently, he taught at the Pittsburgh Conservatory from 1896 until 1910 and was also concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
In 1912 he came to Canada and the Canadian Academy of Music in Toronto offered him a position as head violin teacher.
In September of 1922, two young men visited Luigi von Kunits in his studio. The proposition Louis Gesensway and Abe Fenboque presented was to found a new symphony orchestra. They had no money or connections and spoke only for themselves and some fine musicians, most of whom were his students. These musicians had a great desire to make better music than they were playing at the vaudeville houses or the “new” movie-houses. They wanted Luigi von Kunits because they knew he could train an orchestra comprised of his students, and that he would be inspired by the challenge of building a new orchestra.
On April 23, 1923, at 5:00 pm, the New Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Luigi von Kunits, made its debut in Massey Hall. There were about 60 musicians and admission was 75, 50 and 25 cents, no seats reserved. The response was very good and the critics were most impressed.
Mrs. von Kunits initiated the Toronto Symphony Orchestra Women’s Committee. This strong group of women found ways to financially support and sustain the orchestra, and by the fifth season the orchestra had found its place and its patrons. The New Symphony became the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. For the next five years Luigi von Kunits (now an honorary Doctor of Music from the University of Toronto) brought a series of Twilight Concerts to Toronto, which gave purpose and pleasure to its musicians and a great deal of pleasure to its citizens.
The 1924 – 25 season included the first orchestra sponsored jointly by the Toronto Board of Education and the Toronto Catholic School Board. This concert was the beginning of the TSO Education Program.
In the Fall of 1929, the first radio broadcast was heard across Canada on CNR Radio Network. This performance was broadcast from the Arcadian Court, a large dining area in Simpson’s Department Store in downtown Toronto. The concerts took place on Sundays, which was convenient for the musicians. The venue for broadcasts eventually moved to the studios of CFRB Radio.
Maestro von Kunits, with his proper conductor’s mane of hair, always accepted admiration and applause with great style. His life was music. He was devoted to establishing a solid foundation for his orchestra. It has been said that he brought German music to this new land and transmitted it through a mind that was essentially Greek. He acknowledged his doctorate in Latin, yet he was known to keep notes about his students in Greek.
When Luigi von Kunits died in 1931, the members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra mourned the loss of their great conductor. For nine years they had played for him, admired him as an artist and loved him as a man.
Hear him talk: