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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. 

A first edition piano/vocal score

A first edition piano/vocal score of Verdi’s Requiem from the Theodore Thomas Collection

To the best of our knowledge, Theodore Thomas, our founder and first music director, never conducted Verdi’s Requiem with the Chicago Orchestra (as we were known from 1891 until 1905). Prior to 1891, there is documentation indicating that Thomas first led the Requiem on May 1, 1884, with his Theodore Thomas Orchestra and the Oratorio Society of Baltimore, given at the Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore, Maryland, among other performances.

According to Thomas’s catalog, he had two full scores for the Requiem in his collection. One manuscript score (in an unknown hand) was deposited at the Newberry Library by Thomas’s widow Rose Fay in 1905; the second score is presumed lost. Here in the Rosenthal Archives we have a complete set of parts, some printed with manuscript inserts and some completely in manuscript, along with a first edition piano/vocal score, shown here, that was later recovered from materials left at Thomas’s summer home in New Hampshire.

Cover for a viola part

Cover for a viola part including Maurice Strakosch’s signature

All of the orchestral parts bear the signature of Maurice Strakosch. A pianist and impresario of Bohemian descent, Strakosch purchased “an orchestral score and performance material” from Casa Ricordi in November 1874 (according to the notes in the University of Chicago Press and Casa Ricordi critical edition of the Requiem).

Strakosch studied with Simon Sechter at the Vienna Conservatory, toured Europe as a pianist, and came to New York City in 1848. He played concerts there under the management of Max Maretzek, but by 1856 he was active mainly as an impresario. Strakosch became associated with tenor Salvatore Patti and his daughters (Adelina, Amalia, and Carlotta) in New York and eventually married Amalia. He also coached Adelina from her concert debut at the age of eight in 1851 and also later managed her career. From 1852 until 1854 he toured the United States with Amalia, Adelina, Ole Bull, and a teenaged Theodore Thomas. Strakosch was connected with several other musicians and impresarios and eventually managed his own company from 1856, which merged with that of Bernard Ullman‘s in 1857 to form the Ullman-Strakosch Opera Company (for which Thomas was concertmaster and occasionally an assistant conductor), later merging with the New York Academy of Music.

manuscript insert for the revised Liber scriptus

manuscript insert for the revised Liber scriptus in the first violin part

But back to the set of orchestral parts. According to the University of Chicago/Casa Ricordi documentation, the set of manuscript parts in the Rosenthal Archives: “were clearly prepared before 1875, as they include the original ‘Liber scriptus’ (1874). Most also have as a later insert (of uncertain date) the definitive ‘Liber scriptus’ (1875): these inserted pages are written on paper produced by the New York firm of Carl Fischer. As noted in the introduction to the score, on 9 November 1874 Ricordi informed Verdi that performing materials had been sold to one of the Strakosch brothers. . . . How they found their way into the Chicago Symphony Orchestra collection has not been determined, although it is possible that they belonged to the musical library of Theodore Thomas. . . . From players’ annotations, however, it is apparent that these parts were used for performances even after Ricordi issued printed parts in 1913.”

First trumpet part for the beginning of the Tuba mirum

First trumpet part for the beginning of the Tuba mirum

All four bassoon parts for the  first part of the Libera me

All four bassoon parts for the first part of the Libera me

Cello and bass part for the conclusion of the Sanctus

Cello and bass part for the conclusion of the Sanctus

Detail from the third trombone part

Detail from the third trombone part

Presumably, this set of parts was used for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first documented performance of the Requiem given at Northwestern University Gymnasium on June 4, 1910, as part of the annual North Shore Festival, as well as numerous subsequent performances. There are also several indications that these parts were used for the first performance at the Ravinia Festival in 1951 as well as the first subscription concerts at Orchestra Hall in 1952. One of those indications, shown in this image at right, confirms this: when details for this set of parts was being entered into our database, the cataloguer indicated: “squashed bug removed from 3rd trombone part, noted as killed at Ravinia, 1951.”

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