Arthur Claassen, choral and orchestral conductor, was born in Stargard, Prussia, on February 19, 1859. He studied at the Music School in Weimar, and as early as 1878 his youthful compositions aroused the attention of Franz Liszt, who gave him encouragement. From 1880 to 1884, Claassen was opera conductor in Göttingen and Magdeburg. Upon the recommendation of Leopold Damrosch, a disciple of Wagner, Claassen was chosen conductor of the New York Eichenkranz and, in 1890, of the Brooklyn Arion—both male singing societies.
In nearly a quarter century under Claassen's baton, the Arion became one of the most celebrated choruses in the United States, earning him an audience with Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1900. Claassen conducted important American performances of Richard Wagner's Liebesmahl der Apostel, Felix Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream and Max Bruch's Frithjof, as well as a number of German operas. With the New York Liederkranz, he made recordings for Columbia Records after about 1910, and these were marketed in Texas.
In May 1913 Claassen was guest festival conductor for the Texas State Saengerfest, held in Houston. The Beethoven Männerchor of San Antonio was so impressed by his musicianship that in the spring of 1914 they invited him to become their permanent conductor. Thus Claassen became the first conductor of international reputation to assume full responsibility for a Texas musical organization. He took over the forty-three-voice male chorus and organized a sixty-voice women's chorus (the Mozart Society) to complement it. He also assumed charge of the sixty-member San Antonio Philharmonic (later the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra). In a newly refurbished Beethoven Hall he gave concerts of unprecedented sophistication in the Alamo City.
An orchestral concert of March 15, 1917, is typical of Claassen's programming: Carl Maria von Weber's Euryanthe Overture, Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto, and Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, as well as light numbers by Liszt and himself. For the 1916 State Saengerfest, Claassen had combined all his forces for extensive excerpts from Wagner's Die Meistersinger. World War I signaled the decline of German ethnic prestige, however, and the influenza epidemic during the winter of 1918–19 brought concert life in San Antonio to a standstill.
Claassen's own compositions include the cantatas The Battle and Festival Hymn, the symphonic poem Hohenfriedberg, the Waltz-Idyll for string orchestra, and many songs and choruses. Claassen moved to San Francisco in July 1919 and died there on March 16, 1920.