Theodore Thomas in the 1860s

There are conflicting accounts as to when Theodore Thomas—the Chicago Orchestra’s founder and first music director—made his debut as a conductor. Mostly self-taught on the violin, as a young teenager he toured the U.S. on his own, concertizing as a soloist. Returning to New York in the early 1850s, he performed as a member and leader of several theater, opera, and concert orchestras, working with Karl Eckert and Louis Jullien.

The name of nineteen-year-old Thomas first appeared on the roster of the New York Philharmonic Society at the beginning of its twelfth season on November 26, 1853, and early the following year, he was formally invited to be a first violin in the ensemble.

Based on a variety of sources, his conducting debut might have been in 1858 for Bernard Ullmann’s opera company. In April 1859, he was a last-minute replacement for conductor Karl Anschütz at the Academy of Music in New York for a performance of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, and three weeks later, he was reengaged for the composer’s La favorite; both operas featured Marietta Gazzaniga (who had created the title role in Verdi’s Luisa Miller in 1849 and Lina in Stiffelio in 1850). On December 7, 1860, Thomas again replaced Anschütz at the Academy, leading Halévy’s La Juive, having never before seen the score.

First-chair horn part to Wagner’s Overture to The Flying Dutchman (Theodore Thomas collection)

However, Thomas’s debut on an orchestral podium is well documented. On May 13, 1862, the twenty-six-year-old conductor programmed and led his first symphony orchestra concert (with a few more than forty musicians) at Irving Hall in New York. The program featured no less than four U.S. premieres(*), including the overture to Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman:

  • *Wagner’s Overture to The Flying Dutchman
  • Apell’s Lord, Be Thou with Us with the Teutonia Choral Society
  • *Liszt’s orchestration of Schubert’s Fantasy in C major, D. 760 (Wanderer) with pianist William Mason
  • Rossini’s “Bel raggio lusinghier” from Semiramide with soprano Eugénie de Lussan
  • The first movement of Molique’s Violin Concerto no. 5 in A minor, op. 21 with violinist Bruno Wollenhaupt
  • *Moscheles’s Les contrastes, for two pianos (eight hands) with pianists Mills, Goldbeck, Hartmann, and Mason
  • Verdi’s “Ernani, Ernani involami” from Ernani with de Lussan
  • *Meyerbeer’s Overture and Incidental Music from Struensee with the Teutonia Choral Society and harp obbligato (not credited)

The reception of Wagner’s overture was mixed. The reviewer in the New York World wrote, “Most of the audience expected dreary wastes of dissonant harmony and were agreeably surprised to find not merely defined ideas but actual bits of melody.” However, the New York Daily Tribune disagreed: “Ghastly rumpus was its main feature.”

Cello part to Wagner’s Overture to The Flying Dutchman (Theodore Thomas collection)

According to Thomas’s biographer Ezra Schabas, Irving Hall was “only three-quarters full . . . there was speculation that the one-dollar admission price was too high.” Despite the attendance, the New York Daily Transcript hailed the concert as, “undoubtedly the most intellectual and artistic musical offering of the season.”

Two years later in 1864, Thomas founded his eponymous ensemble—the Theodore Thomas Orchestra—and toured throughout the country for the next twenty-five years. He also served as music director of both the Brooklyn Philharmonic (1866–1891) and the New York Philharmonic (1877–1891) before leading the Chicago Orchestra as its founder and first music director from 1891 until 1905.

Theodore Thomas’s autobiography is available here, and his Memoirs (edited by his widow, Rose Fay Thomas) here.

Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Wagner’s Overture to The Flying Dutchman on November 7, 9, and 12, 2019.