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How One Man Built the Great American Orchestra

Theodore Thomas pic_745
Theodore Thomas pic_745

Theodore Thomas, who founded what would be known as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and America’s great orchestral tradition.


The names inscribed on the façade of Chicago’s Orchestra Hall – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Wagner – are familiar to every concertgoer. But another name that is proudly displayed not once, but twice alongside this pantheon of musical masters may be less familiar to you: Theodore Thomas.

Theodore Thomas founded what would later be known as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and was its first music director. But he was much more than that. Called “the father of the American orchestra,” Thomas was a champion of American musical excellence and left an indelible mark on the formation of our country’s orchestral tradition.

“Talentless and Sluggish” Beginnings

Less than 200 years ago, the phrase “American musical excellence” would have been something of an oxymoron. After all, the United States was considered unlikely soil for the planting of a great orchestral tradition. Our nascent nation sought to establish its own cultural institutions, though was ideologically opposed to the aristocratic patronage of the arts that was so central to European music. The United States also needed trained musicians, and plenty immigrated from Europe to the U.S. for work.

Back in Europe, many were not just doubtful that America was capable of establishing its own orchestral tradition: they were contemptuous of it. Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick jabbed at the opportunism of musical émigrés when he characterized America as “the promised land, if not of music, at least of the musician.” Negative stereotypes of American orchestras persisted as late as 1909, when Gustav Mahler wrote about the New York Philharmonic to a friend: “My orchestra here is the true American orchestra: talentless and sluggish.”

The title of longest-running American orchestra goes to the New York Philharmonic – or, as it was known upon its founding in 1842, the New York Philharmonic Society. (As a point of reference, the Vienna Philharmonic began its first season the same year.) However, the Philharmonic did not fit the criteria of a “permanent” orchestra. It gave only a handful of performances each year and lacked a secure financial base. Nor were its musicians singularly dedicated to the orchestra. There are even reports of Philharmonic musicians missing performances, apparently because of more pressing commitments.

A Disgruntled Violinist Goes Rogue

One Philharmonic violinist was frustrated by this state of affairs. His name was Theodore Thomas, a German-born virtuoso dedicated to upholding excellent musicianship and artistic integrity. Like others in the Philharmonic, he wore other musical hats in order to earn income and formed his own touring Theodore Thomas Orchestra, which he conducted.

Thomas conducting at Steinway Hall, New York.

Thomas conducting at Steinway Hall, New York.

The Theodore Thomas Orchestra was truly a world-class ensemble, unanimously considered the finest orchestra in America. Anton Rubinstein once gushed about the ensemble in a letter to William Steinway:

I little thought to find in this new country the finest Orchestra in the world! Man for man, the orchestra of the Conservatoire of Paris is perhaps equal to them, but unfortunately they have not Theodore Thomas to direct.Anton Rubenstein

Such was the regard in which Thomas was held not only in America, but abroad. With every concert, the Theodore Thomas Orchestra generated demand anew for the establishment of permanent symphony orchestras in the United States.

Despite his eventual ascension to the directorship of the Philharmonic, Thomas wasn’t satisfied in New York. He’d built up the Philharmonic so it was stronger than ever before, but he couldn’t help but cast an envious eye to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a permanent orchestra that even had its very own permanent hall in which to perform.


The Chicago experiment

In 1889, Thomas was visited by Charles Norman Fay, a friend from Chicago. Because the Theodore Thomas Orchestra was especially well-received in Chicago, Fay asked Thomas if he woukd consider selecting Chicago as the location for establishing a permanent orchestra, since sponsorship was lacking in New York.

Thomas’s response was unforgettable: “I would go to hell if they gave me a permanent orchestra.” The men proceeded to make plans, and what would later become the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was conceived that very night.

The 1890-91 season was Thomas’s last in New York. He left with 13 musicians to establish the Chicago Orchestra, eventually composed of 86 men, 24 of whom were from Chicago. Thomas secured the Auditorium Theatre as a performance space and programmed a then-ambitious season of twenty concerts, all preceded by rehearsals that were to be open to the public.

Theodore Thomas conducting what would be later known as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Theodore Thomas conducting what would be later known as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra


Regardless of the expertise of the ensemble, both Fay and Thomas knew that the secret to the Chicago Orchestra’s longevity was proper financial support — something other orchestras in America lacked. Even before the orchestra began rehearsing, the Chicago Orchestra Association was established as a “corporation not for pecuniary benefit” that provided financial underwriting for the orchestra.

Though there was plenty of hype surrounding the Chicago Orchestra, Thomas and his colleagues were disappointed by an underwhelming first season. Some naysayers in the press even made calls to reduce the scope of the orchestra, essentially returning to the very same smaller, temporary models from which Thomas was so intent to distance himself. Luckily, the orchestra had the financial base to continue operations at the same level, and with time, the crowds began coming. Thomas’s esteem both at home and abroad brought in big-name soloists, and he established a series of “Popular Concerts” featuring accessible repertoire to draw new audiences into the concert hall.

Thomas did what he could to bring music to the masses, but he was also unerringly dogmatic. He refused to program operatic crowd-pleasers, insisting that “a symphony orchestra shows the culture of a community, not opera.” No longer was symphonic literature to be second to opera. Thomas’s conviction that symphony orchestras deserved to stand alongside opera as institutions of their own was singular in both the U.S. and Europe.

Under Thomas’s disciplined baton, the Chicago Orchestra achieved the accolades his Theodore Thomas Orchestra had years before, with the added assurance of a permanent home in Chicago. By the estimation of many, there was “no better orchestra in America or Europe.” When Richard Strauss conducted the orchestra in 1904, the conductor-composer is reported to have said,

I came here in the pleasant expectation of finding a superior orchestra, but you have far surpassed my expectations. I can say to you that I am delighted to know you as an orchestra of artists in whom beauty of tone, technical perfection, and discipline are found in the highest degree.Richard Strauss

At Thomas’s urging, construction on the Chicago Orchestra’s new home, Orchestra Hall, was completed later the same year. Sadly, the maestro only lived to lead two weeks of subscription concerts in the hall he’d always wanted, succumbing to pneumonia on January 4, 1905.

Thomas’s Legacy

The effects of Thomas’s efforts were almost immediate. Other orchestras followed the model established by the Chicago Orchestra Association, shifting from cooperative ownership amongst orchestra musicians to a system of financial underwriting by a board of directors. More than that, Thomas helped put American orchestras on the map. No longer were they the laughingstock of Europe, but a paradigm of musical excellence that proved the worth of the symphony orchestra as a cultural institution. Though he was not the first to lead a permanent American orchestra, few can deny that he was the first to perfect it.

The next time a concert brings you to Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, take a moment to marvel at the facade. The hall for which Thomas so tirelessly advocated stands as a testament to a true musical pioneer, one who did more to establish America’s orchestral tradition than any man before or since.

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