Theodore Thomas

The opening of the first season of the Chicago Orchestra in October 1891 was a momentous occasion not only for the city whose name the Orchestra bore, but also, as the collections in the Rosenthal Archives show, for towns all over the Midwest. Founder and first music director Theodore Thomas was passionately devoted to bringing music to people of all means, not just those who lived in the metropolitan centers and could afford tickets. This isn’t to say, of course, that Thomas wasn’t interested in the opinions of those same well-off people. Part of the reason for the expansive tour schedule the Orchestra observed that first season was to spread the word that Chicago was no longer a backwards slaughterhouse town, a stereotype the city was actively fighting in the lead up to, and even after having won the privilege of, hosting the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Thomas eagerly, and ambitiously, sought to show off the talents and achievements of his new hometown, while also sharing those accomplishments with smaller cities around the Midwest and the South.

Grand Opera House in Rockford, Illinois, October 19, 1891

Following the inaugural concerts at the Auditorium Theatre on October 16 and 17, Thomas and the Chicago Orchestra traveled to Rockford, Illinois for a concert at the Grand Opera House on October 19, and through end of May 1892, they journeyed to eighteen different cities. While there was significant overlap in the repertoire performed, the Orchestra rarely played the same exact program twice, requiring them to have a large amount of music prepared for performance at all times.

Academy of Music in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, December 22, 1891

Many of these concerts were a mix of “high” and “low” repertoire, with the Orchestra performing standards, like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, along with lighter fare, including Arthur Goring Thomas’s A Summer Night. Neither were these light affairs; one concert in Milwaukee on March 22 featured an extended Wagner-only second half with many of the most difficult pieces in the orchestral repertoire, including overtures to The Flying Dutchman and Lohengrin and the infamous Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre. Other common works in the repertoire included Thomas’s orchestral arrangement of the third movement—the slow Marche funèbre or Funeral March—from Chopin’s Piano Sonata no. 2, Mendelssohn’s Overture to The Fair Melusina, and the intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (fresh from its September 1891 U.S. premiere in Philadelphia).

The first known image of the Chicago Orchestra on the steps of the Saint Louis Exposition Hall on March 14, 1892

The Orchestra’s ability to perform such demanding music becomes even more astonishing upon looking at the tour schedule, where players were frequently given only one day off between concert sets, and likely that time was spent traveling by train from city to city. Many of the same musicians regularly were featured as soloists—concertmaster Max Bendix, along with several principals: cello Bruno Steindel, clarinet Joseph Schreurs, and flute Vigo Andersen—sidestepping the issue of finding local talent or soloists willing to travel, while also giving Thomas the chance to showcase the tremendous talents at his disposal.

Chicago Orchestra tour schedule, 1891-92 season

Many of the theaters that welcomed the Orchestra were themselves quite new, many calling themselves “opera houses,” since opera was considered more “respectable” than mere theater. While opera was sometimes performed in these venues, more often than not they welcomed touring music groups like the Chicago Orchestra, as well as vaudeville and minstrel shows. Many of these theaters have since been demolished, but in their day, they were architectural jewels, as many of the surviving photos and drawings can attest. In the first season, it seems that the Orchestra relied on local event organizers to print up programs, leading to occasionally humorous mis-hearings of titles. For example, Delibes’s suite from the ballet Sylvia frequently concluded a program, and its last movement is Les chasseuses or The Huntresses; the name of this movement was subjected to many different spellings, including Les chesseresses, Les chausseures, and even The Shoes.

Temple Theater in Alton, Illinois, March 16, 1892

By the second season (1892-93), many of these rough edges had been smoothed out. Having noticed the inconsistencies in the titles, Chicago Orchestra management began printing the program books, each bearing Thomas’s face on the front cover and with standardized titles. The concerts themselves also became more consistent, with much less variety in programmed music from city to city. However, the Orchestra’s out-of-town trips would soon become far less frequent: from a grand total of fifty-five concerts in the first season, to forty-five in the second, and a mere fifteen in the third season. Deficits that hounded the Orchestra’s early seasons are most likely to blame, as the expense of such frequent tours could no longer be justified; though the exhaustion of the musicians surely had an effect as well.

DuBois Opera House, Elgin, Illinois, November 1, 1892

Thomas’s personal drive to bring music to the masses soon found other outlets. Having been named the the director of the Bureau of Music for the World’s Columbian Exposition, he was ready to become the city’s chief musical ambassador to the millions of people who would visit. Thomas also implemented a series of “workingmen’s concerts,” where ticket prices were significantly reduced in order to allow those who could not otherwise afford to attend the Orchestra’s subscription concerts.

But wait, there’s more . . . stay tuned for part 2 of this dive into the Orchestra’s early touring days, which will focus on female guest soloists!

Jenna Harmon is a doctoral candidate in musicology at Northwestern University and an intern in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association’s Rosenthal Archives.

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