John S. Duss was a band master, conductor, composer, teacher, cattle rancher, businessman, and trustee of the Harmony Society at Economy Pa. He rose from playing cornet in a brass band to become the conductor of the New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He was a controversial showman who was mocked in the national press as a narcissistic buffoon. Duss grew up in the Harmony Society of Economy Pennsylvania in the 1860s where he played cornet in the Harmony band. Following a stint as a Nebraskan cattle rancher he became a teacher in the Harmony school. After the death of the Harmony Society president in 1892, he took control of the Harmony Society fortunes and its band. Using the society’s funds he expanded the band, renamed it the “Duss Concert Band” and took it to New York for a 128 day engagement, followed by a concert tour. He then used the Harmony Society fortunes to take over the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra to perform a summer long extravaganza at Madison Square Gardens and a national tour. Historians vilify him for his role in dissolving the Harmony Society and squandering its fortunes on a vain musical career.
John S. Duss was born in 1860 in Cincinnati. His parents immigrated to America from Wurttemberg Germany to join the communal society in Zoar, Ohio. While his father served in the Union Army, John and his mother moved to Economy, Pennsylvania in March of 1862. His mother Caroline became a housekeeper for the Harmonist Society. John’s father was wounded in the Battle of Gettysburg and died in 1863. Staying in Economy John attended the Harmonist school and studied music. In 1873 he entered the soldier’s orphan school in Monaca, Pa. During the summer months John played horn and drums in the Economy Band. Graduating from the orphan’s school in 1876, John worked in the industrial shops of Economy and continued playing clarinet and cornet in the Economy band.
Duss became a German teach at the Economy School in 1878. Wanting to study music he enrolled at Mount Union College in 1879. While attending Mount Union, Duss lived with the Lane family who owned a music store. He taught music to the Lane children and practiced his cornet for hours. Leaving Mt. Union College in 1882 he took a teaching job in Topeka Kansas. He married Susanna Cress from Economy and moved back to Mount Union for a job selling instruments at the Lane music store. Moving West Duss eventually settled in Nebraska where he ran a successful cattle farm for five years.
In 1888 after his mother wrote him about an opening at the Harmonist School, he came back to Economy to be a teacher. He rejoined the Economy Band as a cornet player. At that time the population of the Harmonist Society had dwindled down to just a few elderly members. To survive Harmonists admitted 24 new members in 1890 including John Duss and his wife. Jacob Henrici, the leader of the Harmonist Society died in 1892 at age 89. After Henrici’s death, John was elected a senior trustee of the Harmonist Society. With the help of lawyers and accountants John appointed himself President of the Harmonist Society at age 33 and took control of the Harmonists fortunes. He now had control of assets estimated at six million dollars (equivalent to $140 million in today’s money). His was allowed to spend amounts of $20.000 without authorization from the trustees. He used the Harmonist assets to fund his musical ambitions.
Duss took over the Economy band from John Rohr after Jacob Henrici’s death and quickly turned into a regional band. Hiring professional musicians from Pittsburgh and Beaver Falls he expanded the band and adding a more polished sound. He rehearsed the band three times a week. Duss wrote and published several compositions for the band including the “Liberty Chimes March” and “Life’s Voyage Waltz”. The band performed every Sunday afternoon at Economy in a new Pavilion that Duss had constructed. Duss conducted the band and played cornet solos. As the band’s popularity grew, they performed at concerts throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. They branched out to the Midwest with a performance at the G.A.R. National Encampment in Louisville in 1895 and an appearance in St. Paul Minnesota in 1896, and a performance in Buffalo in 1897. In 1900 Duss merged the Economy Band with the Great Western Band of Pittsburgh. He spent a fortune advertising the band’s concert tours and promoted himself as a musical wonder.
Working with the clever publicity agent, R. E. Johnston Duss took his band to New York to launch a national career. In his autobiography Duss states that R.E. Johnson, a New York music impresario, came to Economy in 1901 to hear the band. Duss says that R.E. Johnson was so impressed that he “urged” Duss to give up his responsibilities at Economy and bring his band to New York to perform. Duss resigned his post as president of Economy giving the position to his wife. His wife gave him a $500,000 parting gift from the society. Duss renamed the Economy band the “Duss Concert Band” and scheduled a summer concert series in New York City. R.E. Johnson became his manger and press agent.
R.E. Johnson launched his publicity campaign in the New York Musical Courier with an article in December of 1901. The article quotes Johnson: “I have heard all of the prominent bands of Europe and America, but I never was so thrilled and delighted as I was by this wonderful organization and I never sat under a more magnetic and forceful conductor than Mr. Duss.”
The Duss Concert Band opened their New York engagement with a concert at the Metropolitan Opera House on the evening of Sunday May 25, 1902. They opened the program of classical music and marches with Wagner’s “Rienzi Overture”. The band also performed the Duss march composition “Battle of Manilla in a Nutshell” with a grand chorus. The New York Times music critic wrote that it “took the house by storm”. But other papers said that the band was mediocre. The New York Herald wrote: “Millionaire make his debut with band. Duss, owner of the town of Economy, is original, and his musicians make lots of noise.”
The next night on June 26, 1902 the Duss Band began their extended engagement at the St. Nicholas Rink. They performed 128 straight nights of concerts throughout the summer. The show was a mix of classical, popular, and march music. In his autobiography Duss says that the New York press called it a “phenomenal success”. To close their season in New York Duss rented Madison Square Garden. According to Duss the concert drew 5,000 people. In his autobiography Duss quotes the Mail and Express newspaper. “Duss has created a furore in New York….The popular expression of opinion is that he is the best band leader since the days of Gilmore.” Duss then took the band on a tour of several Eastern cities including Boston. After his New York appearances and Eastern tour Duss’s ambitions for musical greatness were fueled even further by his ego and the Harmonist fortunes. He set out to vaunt himself as a great composer and conductor of his own orchestra.
In 1902 with only 8 members of the original Harmony society were left Duss sold off most of the land of the Harmonist Society. He sold 130 acres of land along the river to locate the factory J.P. Morgan’s newly formed American Bridge Company. Duss sold on additional 2,500 acres for $2,000,000 to the American’s Bridge’s real estate subsidiary -The Liberty Land Company to build the company town Ambridge. His fortunes increased dramatically.
In 1903 the New York Metropolitan Opera ran into serious financial problems. According to a New York Times story in February of 1903, John Duss used the opportunity to take it over. Using the Harmonists fortunes John Duss put all of the members of the Metropolitan Orchestra under contract and hired the opera’s four principle singers. He also took over the lease of the Metropolitan Opera House building through his manager R.E. Johnson. With control of the orchestra, performers, and building, the opera directors were forced to name Duss the manager of the Metropolitan Opera.
In his autobiography Duss wrote that the management of the Madison Square Garden, so impressed with his performance in 1902, invited him to perform a summer concert series in 1903. He wrote: “The offer was so flattering that I could not turn it down. However one stipulation was that I conduct the Metropolitan Opera House Orchestra and that is what came to pass.” Duss did not mention that he already controlled the orchestra.
John Duss conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is an elaborate spectacle during the summer of 1903. Spending $100,000 Duss built a pasteboard replica of Venice inside Madison Square Garden. A water filled canal with gondolas surrounded an island. Boatman manned the gondolas taking concert goers around the island, A copy of the Rialto bridge took patrons to the island. The orchestra played in front of a large curtain painted with an image of St Mark’s Square. In the promotions for the summer concert series Duss compared himself to John Philip Sousa. Opera singer Madame Nordica and Edouard de Reske performed with the orchestra conducted by Duss.
The New York Times wrote the following description of the event: “Conductor Duss continues swinging his wand in Madison Square Garden, and the Metropolitan Opera-House Orchestra, headed by Nahan Franko, accompanies him valiantly. Large crowds meanwhile assemble in the pasteboard Venice and look at the pretty sight—a veritable toy land—and venturesome visitors glide along the toy canal in toy gondolas. Over on the so called island, a wooden platform encircled by the canal, Wuerzburger beer flows freely for the less imaginative, and there is a buzz of many voices, the gliding about of many fleet-footed waiters and on warm nights a whirring of many electric fans. But Duss's wand still waves on magnificently.”
After the first show the New York World reviewer wrote: “Ego was the chief characteristic of the Duss concert.” Duss was known for turning his back to the orchestra to conduct facing the audience. The critics thought he was an egotistical buffoon. After the conclusion of the Madison Square Garden summer season Duss took the Metropolitan Orchestra on a North American tour performing in Indianapolis, Chicago, Denver, Omaha, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, Montreal, and many other cities. Duss paid all of the expenses from Harmonist society funds. Despite the many negative reviews on his Venice concert series Duss performed another summer season with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York in 1904.
In December of 1905, the last two living members Susie Duss and Franz Gillman dissolved the Harmony society and split the remaining assets. Gillman gave his share to Susie Duss.
Duss formed brass bands again in 1906 and 1907 and performed at parks and resorts in in the East, Midwest and Canada. After 1907 he retired to Economy to write an autobiography and history of the Harmony Society entitled “The Harmonists: A Personal History”. His lived in retirement for 44 years before he passed away at age 91 in 1951.