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Chicago Daily News, November 19, 1931

Chicago audiences were first introduced to music from Bedřich Smetana’s Má vlast by the Chicago Orchestra’s founder and first music director Theodore Thomas: Vltava in January 1894, Šárka in October 1895, and Vyšehrad in April 1896. Thomas and his successor Frederick Stock regularly included these three symphonic poems on their concerts, but it wasn’t until the Orchestra’s forty-first season that Stock programmed the complete cycle, for a special concert on November 18, 1931, honoring Chicago’s rich Czech heritage.

On November 15, Edward Moore, writing for the Chicago Tribune, happily reported that he was able to hear the work a few days before the performance. The headline read, “Records give preview of new musical event: Critic hears Smetana’s music, Má vlast, on phonographic disks.” Moore wrote that courtesy of Dr. J.E.S. Vojan, president of the Bohemian Arts Club of Chicago (which would sponsor the concert), “through the medium of disk and needle, I have been enabled to hear it in advance of the concert audience.”

Title page of the score to Šárka used by Thomas and Stock

Title page of the score to Vyšehrad used by Thomas and Stock

(The recording most likely was the one made by the Czech Philharmonic in 1929, under the baton of its chief conductor Václav Talich, who later taught Karel Ančerl and Charles Mackerras. This not only was the ensemble’s first commercial recording but also the first complete recording of Smetana’s cycle of tone poems. It was released on ten, twelve-inch 78 rpm discs—just under eighty minutes of music—by His Master’s Voice.)

“Through a course of years, Mr. Stock [along with Thomas before him] and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have made Vltava or the Moldau popular with Chicago audiences,” Moore continued. “They have played Vyšehrad a number of times, and Šárka less frequently. The other three are to come as a first performance next Wednesday.”

Following the November 18 concert, Eugene Stinson in the Daily News wrote, “Through these six works there sweeps the refreshing fragrance of a national spirit. Smetana was not merely the father of a national Bohemian music and the teacher of Dvořák. He was one of the first composers in any land to see the possibilities of such a music, founded on characteristic themes and breathing out the soul of a race.”

Title page of the score to Blaník used by Stock

Title page of the score to Tábor used by Stock

“History, legend, national songs, tonal description of nature, and a poetic imagination to transfigure them all, are in it,” added Moore in his review for the Tribune. “When one considers that Smetana wrote it under the most tragic infliction that may visit a musician, total deafness, it becomes not only one of the masterpieces of the world but the act of one of the world’s great heroes.”

“There is nothing to write but gratitude to the Chicago Bohemians and to Mr. Stock, whose combined efforts acquainted us with this lovely work,” concluded Herman Devries in the American. “What a lesson to the modern school of would-be musical alchemists with their abracadabra of gibberish and geometry, of dissonance and self-conscious abstruseness. Here is pure inspiration. Here is music that wells, untrammeled, from a source of inexhaustible creative talent. Here is melody, melody so simple, so tender, so touching; melody so poetic, so passionate, so spontaneous that one listens happily, without the need of indulgence, excuse, or partiality. But beneath all this simplicity, one hears and senses the mastermind of the great orchestral technician.”

Otto, Edward, and Henri Hyna

Devries also noted that several musicians in the Orchestra that evening were of Bohemian descent, including John Weicher (a member of the violin section from 1923 until 1969; he became concertmaster in 1937), Vaclav Jiskra (principal bass, 1908–1949), Rudolph Fiala (viola, 1922–1952), Joseph Houdek (bass, 1914–1944), and the Hyna brothers: Otto, Edward, and Henri, pictured at right. Natives of Bohemia, the Hyna brothers all served as members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s string section. Otto (1886–1951) was in the bass section from 1930 until 1950, Edward (1897–1958) served as a violinist from 1929 until 1943, and Henri (1901–1955) also was a violinist from 1928 until 1932.

The Orchestra next performed the complete cycle twenty years later on October 23 and 24, 1952, under the baton of fifth music director—and Czech native—Rafael Kubelík. On December 4 and 5 of that year, the work was recorded in Orchestra Hall by Mercury Records. Returning as a guest conductor, Kubelík led performances of the six symphonic poems on January 23 and 24, 1969, and again on October 27, 28, and 29, 1983.

At the Ravinia Festival, James Levine most recently led the work on June 27, 1987. Jakub Hrůša’s upcoming performances will mark the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s sixth traversal of Smetana’s cycle of symphonic poems.

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Boston Symphony Orchestra program from April 24 and 25, 1896

A footnote: Theodore Thomas and the Chicago Orchestra almost were able to claim the U.S. premiere performance of Vyšehrad, the first symphonic poem of Smetana’s Má vlast. However, Emil Paur and the Boston Symphony Orchestra literally were minutes ahead. Both orchestras had 2:30 p.m. matinees on Friday, April 24, 1896, but Boston’s concert was one hour earlier (railway time zones had been standardized in 1883). Also, Vyšehrad was the first work on Paur’s program, while Thomas had programmed the work to follow Tchaikovsky’s Marche slave and Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture and selections from The Damnation of Faust.

Boston also claimed the U.S. premiere of Šárka, performing it on January 25, 1895. Thomas led the first Chicago performance exactly nine months later on October 25.

Portions of this article accompany the program notes for the May 18, 19, and 20, 2017, performances. Special thanks to Bridget Carr, archivist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Program page image courtesy of HENRY, the Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives’s online performance history search engine.

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February 8 and 9, 1934

February 8 and 9, 1934

Arnold Schoenberg composed his Five Pieces for Orchestra in 1909, and they were first performed at a Proms concert in London on September 3, 1912, with Sir Henry Wood conducting. Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra introduced the work to the U.S. on October 31, 1913.

Schoenberg, in a letter to Richard Strauss in July 1909, admitted that the Five Pieces are “absolutely not symphonic, completely the opposite, no architecture, no structure. Only a kaleidoscopic, uninterrupted changing of colors, rhythms, and moods.”

Frederick Stock and Arnold Schoenberg in Orchestra Hall, February 1934

Frederick Stock and Arnold Schoenberg in Orchestra Hall, February 1934

On February 8 and 9, 1934, a few months after moving to the United States, Arnold Schoenberg appeared as guest conductor, leading the Orchestra in his Transfigured Night, Five Pieces for Orchestra, and his orchestration of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major (Saint Anne). In the Chicago Daily News, Eugene Stinson described the composer as “the most eminent, the most obscure, the most debated, and the most explained of any figure in twentieth-century art” and the Five Pieces as an “extraordinarily intellectual [yet] essentially subjective and emotional expression of himself in music.”

Needless to say, Schoenberg’s Five Pieces were difficult for Chicago audiences not only at the U.S. premiere but also under the composer’s baton. In the Chicago American, Herman Devries described them as “grim and repellent studies in dissonance, which, despite their amazing orchestration, do not invite repeated hearing.” Edward Moore in the Chicago Tribune admitted that “they did not always make sense to me. There was no particular logic about their beginning or ending. They just ran along for a time and then stopped. But almost continuously they were saying something pleasant. And there is no question but that Mr. Schoenberg has an unfailing sense of what makes attractive orchestral color. It may be winsome, it may be grotesque, but he never misses his effect.”

This article also appears here.

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March 3 and 4, 1938

March 3 and 4, 1938

On March 3 and 4, 1938, Paul Hindemith made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, appearing as composer, conductor, and viola soloist. The concert opened with associate conductor Hans Lange leading Mozart’s Symphony no. 39 followed by Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher (subtitled Concerto on Old Folk Melodies) with the composer as soloist. After intermission, Lange returned to the podium for Hindemith’s Chamber Music no. 1 followed by the composer leading the U.S. premiere of his Symphonic Dances.

March 3 and 4, 1938

March 3 and 4, 1938

In the Journal of Commerce, Claudia Cassidy described Hindemith’s Chamber Music no. 1 as “brilliant, witty, and spectacularly scored. Mr. Lange conducted and the Orchestra turned in a glittering job, particularly in the introduction to the finale, which has that kinetic energy at a boil.” She described Der Schwanendreher as having “no compassion for the poor viola player, taking for granted that he can handle the instrument as Mr. Hindemith does, which is nothing short of amazing.”

Hindemith had conducted the first performance of the Symphonic Dances only three months earlier, on December 3, 1937, in London. Eugene Stinson in the Chicago Daily News described the work as having “more unity, and it seems to me there is more thoughtfulness, in the Symphonic Dances than in almost all the other music Hindemith’s Chicago knows. At a first hearing it struck me as one of the most impressive and most affecting contemporary scores I can recall.”

Hindemith returned to lead the Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival for three concerts in July 1961, and again in March and April 1963, leading two weeks of subscription concerts in Orchestra Hall, a television concert, and a run-out concert to the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. Each of those programs included at least one of his compositions, including the Concert Music for Strings and Brass, Pittsburgh Symphony, Concerto for Orchestra, Sinfonietta in E, and Nobilissima visione.

This article also appears here and portions previously appeared here.

Hindemith with viola

During the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2012-13 season, anonymous donors endowed in perpetuity the principal viola chair but requested some time to decide on how they wanted the chair to be named. After quite a bit of thought, the donors have decided upon “The Paul Hindemith Principal Viola Chair, endowed by an anonymous benefactor.”

On March 3 and 4, 1938, Paul Hindemith debuted with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, appearing as composer, conductor, and viola soloist. The concert opened with associate conductor Hans Lange leading Mozart’s Symphony no. 39 followed by Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher (subtitled Concerto on Old Folk Melodies) with the composer as soloist. After intermission, Lange returned to the podium for Hindemith’s Chamber Music no. 1, followed by the composer leading the U.S. premiere of his Symphonic Dances.

Hindemith's March 1938 program biography

Hindemith’s March 1938 program biography

In the Journal of Commerce, Claudia Cassidy described Hindemith’s Chamber Music no. 1 as “brilliant, witty, and spectacularly scored. Mr. Lange conducted and the orchestra turned in a glittering job, particularly in the introduction to the finale which has that kinetic energy at a boil.” She described Der Schwandendreher as having “no compassion for the poor viola player, taking for granted that he can handle the instrument as Mr. Hindemith does, which is nothing short of amazing.”

Hindemith had conducted the first performance of the Symphonic Dances only three months earlier, on December 3, 1937, in London. Eugene Stinson in the Chicago Daily News described the work as having “more unity, and it seems to me there is more thoughtfulness, in the Symphonic Dances than in almost all the other music Hindemith’s Chicago knows. At a first hearing it struck me as one of the most impressive and most affecting contemporary scores I can recall.”

Hindemith’s complete performance history with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is as follows:

March 3 and 4, 1938

March 3 and 4, 1938

March 3 and 5, 1938, Orchestra Hall
HINDEMITH Der Schwanendreher
Paul Hindemith, viola
Hans Lange, conductor
HINDEMITH Symphonic Dances
Paul Hindemith, conductor

July 25, 1961, Ravinia Festival
BRUCKNER Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major
CHERUBINI Overture to Les Abencerages
HINDEMITH Concert Music for Strings and Brass, Op. 50
Paul Hindemith, conductor

July 27, 1961, Ravinia Festival
HINDEMITH Pittsburgh Symphony
MENDELSSOHN Fingal’s Cave Overture, Op. 26
SCHUBERT Symphony in C Major, D. 944
Paul Hindemith, conductor

July 29, 1961, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37
Gary Graffman, piano
HINDEMITH Concerto for Orchestra, Op. 38
SCHUMANN Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 120
Paul Hindemith, conductor

March 28 and 29, 1963, Orchestra Hall
April 1, 1963, Pabst Theater, Milwaukee
BRAHMS Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80
HINDEMITH Concert Music for Strings and Brass, Op. 50
BRUCKNER Symphony No. 7 in E Major
Paul Hindemith, conductor

April 4 and 5, 1963, Orchestra Hall
SCHUMANN Manfred Overture, Op. 115
REGER Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Beethoven, Op. 86
WAGNER Siegfried Idyll
HINDEMITH Sinfonietta in E
Paul Hindemith, conductor

April 6, 1963, Orchestra Hall
SCHUMANN Manfred Overture, Op. 115
REGER Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Beethoven, Op. 86
BEETHOVEN Grosse Fuge in B flat Major, Op. 133
HINDEMITH Nobilissima visione
Paul Hindemith, conductor

April 7, 1963, Orchestra Hall (television concert)
HINDEMITH Concert Music for Strings and Brass, Op. 50
BRUCKNER Allegro moderato (first movement) from Symphony No. 7 in E Major
BRAHMS Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80
Originally broadcast on WGN and currently available on a VAI DVD release.

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Charles Pikler, principal viola (Todd Rosenberg photo)

Charles Pikler, principal viola (Todd Rosenberg photo)

The principal viola chair currently is held by Charles Pikler, who joined the Orchestra as a violinist in 1978; and in 1986, Sir Georg Solti named Pikler principal viola.

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Riccardo Muti leads the CSO in a collection of Italian opera’s greatest masterpieces for a festive season finale. With works by Giuseppe Verdi including “Va, Pensiero” from Nabucco and the famous Anvil Chorus from Il trovatore, along with the Prologue from Boito’s Mefistofele, this performance is not be missed. There will be a post-concert CD signing with Maestro Muti on Sunday, June 25 and tickets for performances on June 23, 24 and 25 are still available - the link is in our bio. Photo by @toddrphoto.

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