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Theodore Thomas, founder and first music director of the Chicago Orchestra, insisted that his young ensemble also needed its own chorus in order to perform important works in the repertoire. He enjoyed frequent collaboration with local choruses but desired an ensemble specifically dedicated to the Orchestra.

Arthur Mees

At Thomas’s insistence, the board of trustees of The Orchestral Association voted on July 3, 1896, to proceed with the organization of a chorus with the hope that Arthur Mees* would agree to serve as the Orchestra’s first associate conductor and chorus director, as well as program annotator. Mees previously had worked with Theodore Thomas in training the Cincinnati May Festival Chorus and also was assistant to Thomas at the American Opera Company.

Mees agreed and began to audition singers on September 8, 1896, but interest was much less than expected. According to Philo Adams Otis (a member of the board and the author of The Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Its Organization, Growth, and Development 1891–1924), the timing was off—it was just before the presidential election and Chicago was “aflame with excitement over the rival parties—[William J.] Bryan and ‘Free Silver!’ [William] McKinley and ‘Protection!’—but it was not a favorable time to talk of symphony concerts and chorus rehearsals.”

Roster for the Chorus of the Association’s official debut on December 18 and 19, 1896

Despite the sparse turnout, the Chorus of the Association began rehearsals on October 5, with ninety-five singers. Membership gradually increased, and the Chorus made its informal debut on the second concert of the season on October 31, leading the audience in The Star-Spangled Banner in “recognition of the presidential election, then near at hand.”

According to Thomas’s Memoirs (edited by Rose Fay, Thomas’s second wife), the Banner was performed as an encore, following Massenet’s “quiet and almost ethereal” suite, Les Érinnyes, using a “device [Thomas] had employed at the opening ceremonies of the World’s Fair. His new chorus were seated in the front rows of the parquet, to lead the singing of the audience, and a drum corps was placed on the stage behind the orchestra. As the last strains of the Massenet suite were still vibrating on the strings, the drums began a double roll so softly that it was barely audible. Louder, louder, and still louder it rose, till every heart began to beat wildly with excitement, wondering what was coming next. At last the moment of climax was reached, and then Thomas turned toward the audience, motioned to them to rise and sing, and, with the full power of the orchestra, the great organ, the chorus, and the [four] thousand people of the audience, all joining together in one stupendous maelstrom of sound, The Star-Spangled Banner was given such a performance as is not often heard. Many people were in tears before it was over, and when Thomas held aloft both hands to sustain through the full measure its final glorious chord, the singing was merged in a great shout—cheer on cheer echoing through the hall.”

December 18 and 19, 1896

The ranks soon increased to 125, in time for the Chorus’s formal debut in the Choral Fantasy and the chorus from The Ruins of Athens on an all-Beethoven program on December 18 and 19, 1896.

The Chorus would appear three more times during the Orchestra’s sixth season (1896–97)—in Grieg’s Olaf Trygvason, Nicolai’s Festival Overture on Ein’ feste burg, and selections from Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Parsifal—and then on five occasions during the following season—the chorale and chorus from Bach’s Reformation Cantata (no. 80), Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Brahms’s A German Requiem, and Mendelssohn’s 114th Psalm and selections from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

After William L. Tomlins, who had led the Apollo Chorus since 1875, announced his resignation in 1898, there was some discussion (according to newspaper accounts) regarding merging the Chorus of the Association with the Apollo. The accounts also mention the possibility of Mees serving as the director of the new ensemble.

A merger did not occur, and the Chorus of the Association was disbanded in the fall of 1898, most probably as a result of the Orchestra’s deficit following its seventh season and the departure of Arthur Mees, who returned to New York. The next year, Thomas appointed the Orchestra’s twenty-seven-year-old assistant principal viola—Frederick Stock—to also serve as his next assistant conductor.

*Arthur Mees (1850–1923) and Theodore Thomas likely first worked together during the inaugural Cincinnati May Festival in 1873, and Mees would serve the festival in a variety of capacities—including organist, chorus master, and assistant director—until 1898. He also was the program annotator for the New York Philharmonic Society from 1887 until 1896. After Mees returned to New York in 1898, he conducted the Mendelssohn Glee Club (1898–1904) and, in 1913, the Bridgeport Oratorio Society. His New York Times obituary concluded with, “He was a thorough musician and a constant friend to students. As a writer he had a gift of clear analysis and expression. His loss is a grievous one, not only to his friends, but to American music.”

Portions of this article previously appeared in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s program book in November 1997.

Theodore Thomas and the Chicago Orchestra onstage at Music Hall during the 1894 Cincinnati May Festival (John Closs photo)

Wishing a very happy birthday to our founder and first music director Theodore Thomas on the occasion of his 182nd birthday!

“It will be seen, therefore, that we have in this country the possibilities of a great musical future. We have the natural taste of the people for music, their strong desire to have only the best, and their readiness to recognize what is the best when it is presented to them. We have exceptional natural resources for the making of musical instruments. Nature has done her part of the work generously; it remains for us to do ours.”

—From the article “Musical Possibilities in America,” written by Theodore Thomas for Scribner’s Monthly in March 1881

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Cincinnati May Festival, May 26, 1892

Cincinnati May Festival, May 26, 1892

Music director of the Cincinnati May Festival since its inception in 1873, Theodore Thomas was eager to show off his new orchestra at the 1892 festival. The seven concerts were packed with symphonies, orchestral arrangements of chamber works and songs, extended sections and complete acts from operas (including Beethoven’s Fidelio; Gluck’s Alceste; Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Parsifal, and Tannhäuser; and Weber’s Euryanthe) along with large-scale choral works such as Becker’s Cantata, Dvořák’s Requiem, and Mendelssohn’s Saint Paul.

The fourth concert, on May 26, opened with the first two parts of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio followed by Schumann’s First Symphony after intermission. The concert closed with the U.S. premiere of Anton Bruckner’s Te Deum, with Corinne Moore-Lawson, Marie Ritter-Goetze, Edward Lloyd, and George Ellsworth Holmes as soloists. The Cincinnati May Festival Chorus was prepared by W.L. Blumenschein.

Cincinnati May Festival, May 14, 1904

Cincinnati May Festival, May 14, 1904

The Orchestra returned regularly to Cincinnati throughout Thomas’s tenure. His final appearance at the May Festival was on May 14, 1904, leading the Orchestra and Festival Chorus in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and Ninth Symphony, with soloists Agnes Nicholls, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, William Green, and Watkin Mills.

This article also appears here.

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)

Thursday afternoon, May 12, 1904, 2:00 p.m.
MOZART Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major, K. 543

Second concert

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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