Labor Day (observed Sept. 2) is as good an opportunity as any to remember Frederic Fradkin (1892-1963), the protagonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s first (and, to this day, only) strike. Born in Troy, N.Y., Fradkin showed such talent on the violin that he moved to Europe to study while still a teenager. A steady parade of appearances and accomplishments culminated with his appointment, in 1918, as the BSO’s concertmaster. A year later, Pierre Monteux became the BSO’s music director. Fradkin had previously worked with Monteux in Serge Diaghilev’s famous Ballets Russes, but their collaboration in Boston would be fractious.
Throughout the 1919-20 season, younger BSO players had been joining the musicians’ union, and steadily pressuring the nonunion BSO for more money. Henry Lee Higginson, the BSO’s founder, had paid his musicians well, but pay stagnated after Higginson’s departure, and the trustees dragged their feet creating an endowment sufficient to raise salaries. The tension finally snapped in March 1920.
The catalyst was a snub: Monteux refused to let Fradkin share his dressing room at a BSO concert at Sanders Theatre. At the next Symphony Hall concert, when Monteux motioned for the orchestra to stand, Fradkin (a proponent of unionization) remained firmly in his seat; the breach of etiquette elicited hisses from the audience. Following an impromptu meeting of the trustees, Fradkin was fired. The next night, in protest, 36 of his colleagues refused to play.
The strike proved quixotic — the BSO remained nonunion — but the trustees’ victory was Pyrrhic: 32 players, Fradkin included, refused management’s invitation to rejoin the orchestra, and Monteux was forced to spend the rest of his brief tenure rebuilding. (One of the few strikers who did return was Arthur Fiedler, future conductor of the Boston Pops.)
After years of being denied union soloists and guest conductors, the BSO finally unionized in 1942. By then, Fradkin was composing and conducting incidental music for the popular radio series “The Adventures of the Thin Man,” a freewheeling job that, he insisted, was more fun than the BSO ever was. In Boston, Fradkin recalled, “I had to behave myself.”