People & Events: Theodore Thomas (1835-1904) and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Theodore Thomas, born in Germany in 1835, came to the New World when he was ten. By 1854 he was playing his violin with the New York Philharmonic Society, and by 1862 was conducting the Brooklyn Philharmonic. He formed his own group to tour the country and share the beauty of classical music. The tours were so popular that circus impresario P. T. Barnum offered to manage the act. Thomas conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra beginning in 1877, but by the late 80s, he was tired of the road and frustrated by the sporadic schedule.
"I would go to hell if they gave me a permanent orchestra," he said, and family friend and proud Chicago businessman C. Norman Fay was there to hear him. In 1891, Thomas was appointed conductor of the Chicago Orchestra (later Chicago Symphony Orchestra) as well as manager of the Orchestra Association. The Association even raised a fund to allow for annual deficits of up to $50,000 per annum. "All my life, I have been told that my standard was too high, and urged to make it more popular," he wrote to his wife. "But now, I am not only to be given every facility to create the highest standard, but am even told that I will be held responsible for keeping it so! I have to shake myself to realize it."
The Chicago Orchestra played in Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan's famous Auditorium building, but Thomas complained that the space was too large -- his musicians could not hear themselves play, and crowds did not throng to fill the seats. Although Thomas did offer some popular concerts, he always tried to keep to a high standard, programming works that his audiences were not all prepared to appreciate. Norman Fay remembered, "We had to take our symphonies whether we liked them or not... [T]he 'old man' ...was a sort of stern deity, who had to be appeased with sacrifice and burnt offerings." A few supported Thomas in his high-mindedness: "If you do not like it now," a high-brow magazine wrote of Thomas's musical selection, "pray that you may learn to like it, for the defect is yours."
Thomas was the musical director for the World's Columbian Exposition, but he quit halfway through the fair, despairing of an audience that failed to appreciate classical music yet flocked to the pleasures of the Midway.
In 1904, a new hall for the orchestra was built and Thomas conducted the first performance there. Just a month later, he died of pneumonia. His wife wrote of him: "He not only disciplined his musicians, but he disciplined the public, educating it sometimes perhaps against its will."
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