Henry J. Volz
Musician, Composer, Conductor - co-founder of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Henry J. Volz was born in Pittsburgh in 1887. Volz’s father was a lyric tenor who supported his son’s interest in music, engaging him for lessons with Prof. Edward Keller, music director of the Bijou Theatre. Volz recalled writing his first song, a lullaby, when he was 9 years old. As a young man he took a job at Bessemer Lake Erie Railroad specifically so he could obtain passes to New York to sell his songs. His tenacity paid off when his first published work, “Goodbye My Dearest Girlie,” was one of the hits of 1910. Two years later his “Symphonic Dirge Titanic,” debuted in Carnegie Hall, played by Carnegie Music Hall Organist, Dr. Carl Heinroth. The dirge would be the first in a life-long string of memorial and celebratory compositions.
Composition was only one facet of Volz’s musical career. At age 12 he sought out Dr. Carl Bernthaler who was working to establish a symphony orchestra in Pittsburgh. Bernthaler later introduced Volz to Victor Herbert who took Volz as his understudy in piano in 1906. At the time, Herbert was director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, which Bernthaler had succeeded in starting but the company foundered in 1910 due to financial troubles. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra would not regroup until 1926. In the interim, Volz organized The Volz Symphony, the YMCA Concert and Festival Orchestra and the orchestra of the Pittsburgh Opera. He founded the Mount Lebanon Orchestra in 1930, becoming its director. In a 1969 letter to The Pittsburgh Press, Volz explained that while many people should be credited with founding the Pittsburgh Symphony, it was during the lean years of 1910 to 1932 that Volz’s ensembles, “kept the musicians in Pittsburgh, and in MONEY through…musical activities” [Letter from Henry J. Volz to The Pittsburgh Press, May 13, 1969, Pittsburgh Musician Clipping Files, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh]. Volz did not limit himself to the solely symphonic and he found popular success as music director of the Pittsburgh Winter Garden, cited as one of the first great ice shows. During these busy years, Volz acted as a Leipzig Course teacher. He counted seven concert pianists among his students, the most famous of which was Earl Wild.
Concurrent with the majority of his musical career, Volz worked as the Chief Clerk for Bessemer Lake Erie Railroad, a position he held for 42 years before retiring in 1952. At his retirement party, his secretaries gave him a briefcase designed for carrying music, a gift the retired Volz would put to good use. Freed from his 9-5 job, he continued teaching, composing and performing. An intensely religious man, Volz wrote a book entitled, World Miracle—One World for World Peace. A 1965 list of compositions includes pieces written in honor of Pope Paul VI and President Richard Nixon, whom he considered “a world peace crusader.” Volz was also a family man who, at the time of his death in 1974, was a great grandfather.