Today we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss, a composer who has been a cornerstone to the performance history of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since our founding. At the invitation of our first music director—and a friend of the composer’s since the early 1880s—Theodore Thomas invited Strauss to guest conduct the Orchestra in 1904.
According to William Lines Hubbard‘s newspaper account in the Chicago Tribune on March 31, 1904, during the Orchestra’s rehearsal at the Auditorium Theatre the previous day, Thomas introduced the composer/conductor with whom he would share the podium that week: “Gentlemen, Dr. Richard Strauss.”
Strauss went straight to work, leading the Orchestra in three of his well-known tone poems: Tod und Verklärung, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, and Also sprach Zarathustra. Halfway through the rehearsal, he paused to say: “Gentlemen, it is my pleasure and my pride to be able to direct today so faultless an orchestra and to hear my music played in a manner so completely in accordance with my every wish. Your organization is a model in all ways, and I feel proud to be associated with an orchestra which has been brought to such perfection by a man whom I have honored and wished to know for full twenty years—Mr. Thomas.”
Following the Friday matinee performance on April 1, Hubbard wrote: “That master musician of modern music, that wonderful combination of poet, painter, and composer, the man to whom pictures are audible and tones visible—Richard Strauss—appeared at the Auditorium yesterday afternoon, and for over two hours some 3,700 persons sat beneath the spell his great gifts weave and listened to the tonal tales they enable him to tell.”
The concert opened with Thomas leading the prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and the Orchestra “gave a performance of the splendid number such as has rarely been heard from them, and their record is a brilliant one.”
Following the Wagner, Thomas escorted Strauss to the stage, accompanied by “a rousing fanfare from the whole orchestra and applause loud and long continued expressed to the celebrated conductor-composer Chicago’s cordial welcome. He bowed repeatedly, and then raised his baton for the first measures of Thus Spake Zarathustra.”
“The orchestra was on its mettle, and a more superb technical presentment of the intensely difficult scores than it gave could not be desired. Every wish of the conductor was instantly responded to, and Dr. Strauss’ pleasure in the work done by the men was unmistakable.”
Of course, Chicago audiences were familiar with all three orchestral works. Thomas first led Tod und Verklärung in February 1895, and he conducted the U.S. premieres of Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche in November 1895 and Also sprach Zarathustra in February 1897. Hubbard continued: “Interpretatively, the treatment of the works was not widely different from that to which we are accustomed when they are given under Mr. Thomas’ baton. There was a deepening of color here and there, the raising into prominence of certain details of the score, and a giving of all with an exaltation and enthusiasm that made the performances inspiriting and uplifting. Certain portions of the works which heretofore have been unclear in meaning took on clarity and beauty, but this may have been due not only to the remarkably finished and brilliant performances but also to the fact that the works were heard again—for each rehearing of a Strauss composition brings increase of understanding and fuller appreciation of its beauties.”
Strauss’s wife Pauline also appeared on the program, as soprano soloist in several of his songs. For her first entrance, escorted both by her husband and Thomas, she wore a gown that was “an elaborate creation of creamy lace and silk, which was distinctly becoming to her.”
Hubbard was kind in his critique of her performance. “Her singing proved interesting and satisfactory from an interpretive viewpoint. The voice has lost its richness in the upper middle register and in the high tones, but it is of no inconsiderable beauty in the lower half, and it is used throughout with so much of discretion and understanding that it seems adequate for all that is undertaken. The seven songs heard yesterday were beautifully interpreted, and the exquisite accompaniments played as they were in finest style by the orchestra, made the performance of them in high measure gratifying.”
The complete program notes for the performance of the Strauss compositions are here.
A postscript . . .
The back page of the April 1904 program book includes an endorsement by Strauss of Steinway pianos (then sold exclusively by Lyon & Healy in Chicago). The composer wrote: “The superb tonal qualities and perfection of mechanism of your instruments have had such a fascinating effect on my musical feelings that for the first time in many years I am drawn irresistibly again and again to my Steinway to indulge in improvising and musical inspirations, although I lay no claim to being a pianist. In accompanying my wife in her song recitals it is a constant source of pleasure to me to note the remarkable sustaining and blending qualities of the tone of your piano, which certainly are a great aid and benefit to the singer.”