Sunday, December 18, 2011

Theodore Thomas

Theodore Thomas (Theodore Christian Friedrich Thomas) was an American violinist, conductor, and arranger born (in Esens, Germany – not to be confused with Essen, Germany) on October 11, 1835 (Brahms was 2 years old.)  Today, he is hardly remembered as a violinist though he made his living as one for the first 20 years of his musical life, which began at age 6.  However, what is well-known is that he founded the Chicago Symphony and conducted it from 1891 to 1905, although he also conducted other orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic.  Thomas exemplifies the quintessential entrepreneur.  His father (Johan), a professional provincial musician, seems to have been his only teacher in violin.  By age 7 he had played for the King of Hanover. Thomas was by age ten performing (in his home town) at social events and in taverns as well.  Thomas never attended a conservatory or a university.  The family came to the U.S. (New York City) in 1845.  Thomas played in the Navy Band and pit orchestras in the surrounding areas of New York City until about 1849.  He then toured briefly as a recitalist, giving concerts as far South as Mississippi.  He was fourteen years old and traveled alone.  In 1850, back in New York, he took conducting lessons from Karl Eckert while playing in various orchestras which toured the U.S. widely, accompanying major artists of the day, including Jenny Lind, Henrietta Sontag, and Sigismond Thalberg.  It has been said that his approach to violin sound changed upon hearing these two singers (Lind and Sontag.)  He joined the first violin section of the New York Philharmonic in 1854.  In 1855, he organized a musical series of piano quintet concerts called the Mason-Thomas concerts, featuring himself as first violinist and William Mason as pianist.  The series lasted for 14 years.  After a concert in 1859, he was called "America's most accomplished violinist" by a Chicago newspaper.  Thomas unexpectedly made his conducting debut in New York in 1859, filling in for an ill opera conductor - as Toscanini also did later.  He then founded the Theodore Thomas Orchestra in 1862 with which he toured the Northeast (New York to Chicago) and initially made his great reputation as a conductor.  He was 27 years old.  The orchestra actually made its debut on December 14, 1864.  I don’t know if Thomas ever regularly played the violin in public again after that.  However, as late as October of 1870, he played Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata at a concert in Boston.  His accompanist was a Miss Anna Mehlig, a noted concert pianist of the day.  From 1877, Thomas also simultaneously conducted the New York Philharmonic (founded in 1842) until about 1891, in addition to other regional orchestras.  He became the highest paid conductor of the time.  It must be noted, lest present-day readers imagine an impossible amount of work, that seasons in those days consisted of about six or eight pairs of concerts.  Nevertheless, his own orchestra played - during tours -  as many as 62 concerts in the span of four months.  In 1888, due to financial difficulties, the orchestra (the one bearing his name) was disbanded.  Thomas was by then 53 years old.  In 1889, a Chicago businessman, meeting Thomas by chance in New York, invited him to come to Chicago to form a permanent orchestra there.  Thomas is supposed to have uttered a memorable response.  Whether any of that is true is anyone's guess.  However, in the summer of 1890. Thomas married that businessman's sister.  By December of 1890, Thomas had signed a contract to direct a permanent orchestra in Chicago.  In October of 1891, the Chicago Symphony presented its first concert under Thomas.  The orchestra consisted mainly of former members of his old orchestra, several former members of the New York Philharmonic, and some musicians brought in from Europe.  Sources vary widely as to how many came from each group.  The season consisted of twenty pairs of concerts presented over twenty weeks.  During his tenure (of thirteen and one half years), he conducted 112 U.S. premieres with the orchestra - more than any conductor since then (of any U.S. orchestra) could ever come close to.  Not bad for a guy who never attended a conservatory.  Theodore Thomas died (in Chicago) on January 4, 1905, at age 69. 


  1. His name is new to me. Nice photo :-).

    1. Thank you for your comment. I believe I have the internet to thank for that photo. :-)