Now, that’s a festival.

In May 1904, Chicago Orchestra founder and first music director Theodore Thomas led his final Cincinnati May Festival concerts at Music Hall. Since founding the festival in 1873, Thomas had regularly led concerts, inviting his Chicago Orchestra after its founding in 1891.

Cover of the 1904 Cincinnati May Festival program book

Cover of the 1904 Cincinnati May Festival program book

Programming for the five-concert festival was nothing short of epic and included orchestral works, opera excerpts, and large-scale choral works. The Orchestra had been expanded to over one hundred and ten players and the May Festival Chorus numbered over 500. And to conclude the final concert, Thomas had chosen Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

According to Philo Adams Otis in his book The Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Its Organization, Growth, and Development, 1891–1924: “The program was of the highest order . . . But with due regard to soloists and chorus, the strength of the Festival, to my mind, was Mr. Thomas and the Orchestra. Never have I heard the Beethoven Eighth Symphony played as at the first matinée! What a performance he gave us Friday evening of Death and Transfiguration!”

And in Memoirs of Theodore Thomas (edited by his widow Rose Fay Thomas): “The May Festival of 1904 brought the work of Thomas to a close in Cincinnati, and its programmes were of such a caliber that it was the artistic climax, not only of the long series of festivals in that city, but, perhaps, even of Thomas’ own career. One colossal work was piled on another, regardless of everything but the one object of making this festival surpass, in standard and perfection, all that had preceded it. . . . the chorus, under the able and musicianly training of its director, Mr. Edwin W. Glover, was in splendid condition, and Thomas had nothing to correct about its performance. . . . The performances at the Cincinnati Festival were, therefore, amongst the very finest that he ever gave in his life, and no one in his audience had the slightest idea of the strain under which he worked.”

The complete concert programs are below.

First concert

Wednesday evening, May 11, 1904, 7:30 p.m.
BACH Suite No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067
Alfred Quensel, flute
BACH Mass in B Minor, BWV 232
Agnes Nicholls, soprano
Ernestine Schumann-Heink, contralto
William Green, tenor
Robert Watkin-Mills, bass
Wilhelm Middelschulte, organ
May Festival Chorus
Edwin W. Glover, director
(an intermission followed the conclusion of the Gloria)

Second concert

Thursday afternoon, May 12, 1904, 2:00 p.m.
MOZART Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major, K. 543
MOZART Nie wird mich Hymen (Parto, ma tu ben mio) from La clemenza di Tito, K. 621
Ernestine Schumann-Heink, contralto
Joseph Schreurs, clarinet obbligato
SCHUBERT Entr’acte No. 1 from Rosamunde, D. 797
WEBER Ocean, Thou Mighty Monster from Oberon
Agnes Nicholls, soprano
ELGAR Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 (Enigma)
ELGAR Pomp and Circumstance Marches No. 2 in A Minor and No. 1 in D Major, Op. 39
Intermission
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93
LISZT The Three Gypsies (Die drei Zigeuner)
Ernestine Schumann-Heink, contralto
Leopold Kramer, violin obbligato
WAGNER Bacchanale from Tannhäuser
WAGNER Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
Agnes Nicholls, soprano

Third concert

Friday evening, May 13, 1904, 7:30 p.m.
ELGAR Incidental Music and Funeral March from Grania and Diarmid, Op. 42
ELGAR The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38
Muriel Foster, contralto
William Green, tenor
Robert Watkin-Mills, bass
Wilhelm Middelschulte, organ
May Festival Chorus
Edwin W. Glover, director
Intermission
STRAUSS Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24
BEETHOVEN Abscheulicher! from Fidelio, Op. 72
Agnes Nicholls, soprano
BERLIOZ Imperial Hymn, Op. 26
May Festival Chorus
Edwin W. Glover, director

Fourth concert

Saturday afternoon, May 14, 1904, 1:30 p.m.
GLUCK Overture and Divinités du Styx from Alceste
Ernestine Schumann-Heink, contralto
BRUCKNER Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (Unfinished)
BRAHMS Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53
Ernestine Schumann-Heink, contralto
Men of the May Festival Chorus
Edwin W. Glover, director
Intermission
WAGNER Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
ELGAR In Haven, Where Corals Lie, and The Swimmer from Sea Pictures, Op. 37
Muriel Foster, contralto
STRAUSS Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op. 28
STRAUSS Hymnus, Op. 33 No. 3
Muriel Foster, contralto
TCHAIKOVSKY 1812 Overture, Op. 49

Fifth concert

Saturday evening, May 14, 1904, 7:30 p.m.
BEETHOVEN Missa solemnis in D Major, Op. 123
Intermission
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125
Agnes Nicholls, soprano
Ernestine Schumann-Heink, contralto
William Green, tenor
Robert Watkin-Mills, bass-baritone
May Festival Chorus
Edwin W. Glover, director

A digital, searchable version of Otis’s book is available here and Thomas’s memoir here.

To open the 124th season in September, Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chorus, and soloists in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The concerts currently are sold out, but check the website as last-minute tickets may become available.

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