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Theodore Thomas, the Chicago Orchestra‘s first music director, died on January 4, 1905. For many years after, the Orchestra would dedicate the first concerts of the new year to his memory, frequently performing works closely associated with their founder. We continue that tradition on this week’s radio broadcast, as Frank Villella, director of the CSO’s Rosenthal Archives, co-hosts a retrospective of works that Thomas introduced to audiences in the United States, both with the Chicago Orchestra and other ensembles.
In 1879, the University of Breslau in Poland bestowed upon Johannes Brahms an honorary doctorate, and to show his appreciation, he composed the Academic Festival Overture the following summer. The composer himself led the first public performance at the university in January 1881, and later that year on November 29, Thomas led the U.S. premiere in New York.
Daniel Barenboim, early in his tenure as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s ninth music director, recorded Brahms’s complete symphonies, along with the Tragic Overture, Variations on a Theme by Haydn, and the Academic Festival Overture, all for Erato Records.
In the nineteenth century, Thomas was Richard Wagner’s greatest advocate in the United States, both before and after he founded the Chicago Orchestra. During his fourteen seasons as music director, he programmed Wagner’s music on nearly half of his concerts, both in Chicago and with the Orchestra on tour. Thomas gave the U.S. premiere of the Prelude from Tristan and Isolde in New York on February 10, 1866, less than a year after the opera’s first complete performances in Munich; and he also gave the first U.S. performance of the Prelude paired with the Liebestod in Boston on December 6, 1871. Thomas programmed these two works together fifteen times on subscription concerts during his tenure as music director.
Artur Rodzinski was the Orchestra’s fourth music director for only one season (1947–48). One of his great successes was a concert performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in November 1947, featuring soprano Kirsten Flagstad in her first operatic appearance in the United States since the end of World War II. The legendary Chicago Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy called the performance “the dawn of a new operatic day in Chicago.” A month later, Rodzinski and the Orchestra recorded the Prelude and Liebestod for RCA.
Thomas gave the U.S. premiere of Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the Chicago Orchestra on January 3, 1902, and it was such a crowd-pleaser that he programmed it a second time later that season. A few years later in April 1907, second music director Frederick Stock invited the composer himself to lead several of his works, including In the South, the first Pomp and Circumstance March, and the Enigma Variations. The Chicago Tribune reported that, “The men of the Orchestra gave him their closest attention and heartiest sympathy yesterday, and the result was a performance of the three compositions which was technically and tonally of highest worth. Sir Edward himself seemed genuinely pleased and his assertion after the concert that the ‘work of the Orchestra surpassed all his fondest expectations’ evidently was the expression of his true feeling.”
Sir Georg Solti, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s eighth music director, recorded the Enigma Variations on May 15, 1974, at Medinah Temple for London Records.
During the summer of 1883, Thomas visited Europe and according to his Memoirs—edited by his widow, Rose Fay Thomas—the conductor, “had met, in Munich, a young and almost unknown composer, one Richard Strauss, who has recently finished writing a symphony. Thomas secured the first movement of the work, and was so much impressed with it that he requested young Strauss to let him have the other movements, promising to bring out the whole work in a concert of the Philharmonic Society.” Thomas kept that promise and in New York in December 1884, he led the world premiere of the Second Symphony in F minor—the first music of Richard Strauss to be performed in the United States. Strauss would later send new scores, and Thomas introduced several works to the United States with the Orchestra, including Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote, along with Ein Heldenleben, first performed in Chicago on March 9, 1900.
Near the end of his first season as sixth music director, Fritz Reiner made his first recordings with the Orchestra for RCA. In Orchestra Hall on March 6, 1954, they recorded Strauss’s Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome and Ein Heldenleben, with violin solos performed by then-concertmaster John Weicher. Reiner’s CSO recordings of music by Strauss have never been out of print, and in 2013, Sony re-issued Reiner’s complete CSO catalog on RCA, a boxed set of sixty-three CDs.
TCHAIKOVSKY Final Waltz and Apotheosis from The Nutcracker, Op. 71
Morton Gould, conductor
Recorded by RCA in Orchestra Hall, January 1966
Thomas gave the U.S. premiere of a suite from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker on October 22, 1892, on the first concert of the Orchestra’s second season. The program note described Tchaikovsky as the “composer, who, in his fifth symphony, has led us into the highest realms of art and stirred our very soul,” and the note described the selections from the ballet as “miniature pictures painted with infinite grace and care,” showing the composer, “in one of his playful and trifling moods.”
Morton Gould, a frequent guest conductor on Popular concerts in the 1960s, recorded selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker at Orchestra Hall on January 31, 1966, for RCA. A six-disc set of Gould’s complete recordings with the Orchestra was released by Sony in February 2016.
Happy 246th birthday, Ludwig van Beethoven!
Theodore Thomas, our founder and first music director, favored the music of Beethoven above all others. Of the five composers’ names inscribed on the façade of Orchestra Hall, Beethoven’s is the one featured prominently in the center.
Shortly after the turn of the last century, Thomas began writing a series of essays—complete with accompanying diagrams—analyzing Beethoven’s symphonies. These were intended “simply to serve as an aid to students and concertgoers in understanding and listening intelligently to these masterworks,” according to his wife, Rose Fay Thomas. Thomas only was able to complete articles on the first five symphonies before his unexpected death in January 1905, and Rose later invited his successor, Frederick Stock, to complete the series. Talks About Beethoven’s Symphonies was published in Chicago by Oliver Ditson Company in 1930.
Rose edited the volume, and in the preface she wrote that, “these little essays, simple and unpretentious though they seem, will be at once recognized as the product of a musician who combined profound learning with wide practical experience, and in no other work of similar character which has come to my notice can there be found such clear and authoritative analyses of the themes and structure of these symphonies, so lucid an exposition of their relation to each other, or so logical an account of Beethoven’s own artistic development as revealed in them.”
Thomas’s favorite work was the Fifth Symphony, and he programmed it for the Chicago Orchestra‘s first concert as well as the dedication of Orchestra Hall. Composed in the “zenith of his career,” according to Thomas in the book’s fifth chapter, during this time Beethoven “produces works which are as nearly perfect as anything human can be, breathing the spirit of the nineteenth century, and endowing music with a meaning deeper and more fruitful than it ever had before. . . . Beethoven was able, through his art, to represent the psychological side of human nature in a manner so strong and full of meaning that he has only been equaled in this respect by one other creative mind—Shakespeare.”
The final chapter, penned by Stock, describes the Ninth Symphony as, “dedicated to all Mankind. . . . Embracing all phases of human emotion, monumental in scope and outline, colossal in its intellectual grasp and emotional eloquence, the Ninth stands today as the greatest of all symphonies.” Stock continued, “Beethoven must have felt that he had exhausted the possibilities of instrumental expression and that nothing save the human voice could convey with sufficient eloquence the great thoughts he desired to set forth. . . . The Ninth is unquestionably the greatest of all symphonies not only because it is the final résumé of all of Beethoven’s achievements, colossal as they are even without the Ninth, but also because it voices the message of one who had risen beyond himself, beyond the world and the time in which he lived. The Ninth is Beethoven, the psychic and spiritual significance of his life.”
A postscript. The dedication is to the “patrons of the old Theodore Thomas Orchestra.” Before he founded the Chicago Orchestra in 1891, Thomas established his own eponymous ensemble in 1864 and led them on tour across the United States until the orchestra disbanded in 1889.
Portions of this article previously appeared here.
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.”
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.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s commercial recording legacy began under Frederick Stock on May 1, 1916. At that first session for the Columbia Graphophone Company (at an undocumented location in Chicago), they recorded Mendelssohn’s Wedding March from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre; and Grieg’s Two Elegiac Melodies, Heart Wounds and The Last Spring.
The next day, Stock and the Orchestra recorded Mendelssohn’s Nocturne from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Saint-Saëns’s Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah, Tchaikovsky’s Waltz from The Sleeping Beauty, Järnefelt’s Praeludium, and Stock’s arrangement of Dresden composer and violinist François Schubert’s The Bee. They returned to the studio the following week on Monday, May 8, for one more day of recording in 1916: Dvořák’s Largo from the New World Symphony, Bizet’s Entr’acte to act 4 of Carmen and the Farandole from L’arlésienne, and Wagner’s Procession of the Knights of the Holy Grail from act 1 of Parsifal and the Prelude to act 1 of Lohengrin.
Mendelssohn’s Wedding March and Grieg’s The Last Spring were on the first disc issued in October 1916, and a Columbia Records sales brochure raved, “The first offerings are two masterfully played compositions. The deepest glories vibrant in such a familiar composition as Mendelssohn’s Wedding March are unguessed until interpreted by such an orchestra as this. From the first trumpet fanfare to the great central crescendo is very joy and glory articulate! The resistless rhythm is filled with pulsing emotion and each instrument of the mighty orchestra throbs with life. . . . There can be no pleasure beyond enjoying such music as the Chicago Symphony here brings to every music-loving home.”
Mendelssohn’s Wedding March was subsequently rereleased on From Stock to Solti in 1976 and again on Chicago Symphony Orchestra: The First 100 Years, issued during the centennial season in 1991.
According to Philo Adams Otis in his book The Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Its Organization, Growth, and Development, 1891–1924: “The first meeting for the incorporation of The Orchestral Association was held at the Chicago Club, December 17, 1890, and a board of five trustees elected. The first season (1891–92) of the Chicago Orchestra will consist of twenty concerts, each concert preceded by a public rehearsal, to be given at the Auditorium under the direction of Theodore Thomas. The talent engaged to make up the Chicago Orchestra is of the very finest order.”
Following Thomas’s unexpected death on January 4, 1905, Frederick Stock temporarily assumed the duties of music director as the Association began a search for a permanent replacement. But after a few months, it was evident that the more-than-capable successor to Thomas already had been in place. On April 11, the trustees met and unanimously elected Stock as the second music director, and the ensemble’s name was changed to the Theodore Thomas Orchestra. The program books for that season’s last concerts on April 14 and 15 were perhaps already printed, and the new name first appeared in October 1905.
Otis’s account of the twenty-second season completed the saga: “During the winter of 1912–13 [Association] President [Bryan] Lathrop interviewed or wrote to every member of the Board of Trustees, suggesting important reasons for changing the name ‘The Theodore Thomas Orchestra’ to ‘The Chicago Symphony Orchestra.’ Mr. Lathrop had always held to the belief that an institution depending largely on the public for its support suffers in bearing the name of its founder or benefactor, however honored or distinguished that name may be.”
The Board’s executive committee met on Friday, February 21, 1913, and adopted the following: “Resolved, that hereafter the official name of the Orchestra shall be The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, founded by Theodore Thomas . . . indissolubly connecting the name of our first great conductor with that of the Orchestra, and indicating to the world what the present name fails to do, that he was the founder of our Orchestra, and it will commemorate the great work which he did in America for the cause of good music. The new name will also associate the Orchestra with the city and people of Chicago, and insure for it their continued aid and support.” The following week, the cover of the program book made it official.
Born in Peru, Illinois, Maud Powell first played for Theodore Thomas in 1885 at the age of seventeen in New York’s Steinway Hall, auditioning with Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. Thomas immediately booked her with his orchestra, and she performed the concerto on July 30 that year in a Summer Night Concert in Chicago. According to Karen A. Shaffer and Neva Garner Greenwood’s book Maud Powell: Pioneer American Violinist, Thomas “glowed over her success: ‘At the close of that concert—my debut in America—Mr. Thomas came to me with his two hands full of greenbacks. He handed them to me, saying, “I want the honor of paying you the first fee you have earned as an artist.” ’ Theodore Thomas christened the young American his ‘musical grandchild’ and engaged her as soloist for the New York Philharmonic’s first concert of the 1885–86 season in November.”
For her Chicago Orchestra debut, Powell again performed Bruch’s First Violin Concerto on July 18, 1893, with Thomas at the World’s Columbian Exposition. According to Shaffer and Greenwood, “Maud Powell took her place among some of the world’s greatest musicians at the exposition. She was the only woman violinist to appear in these concerts and served as the representative American violinist.” In the Musical Courier, the reviewer raved, “It is hard to know where to begin to praise Miss Powell, for nearly every tone she played was full of meaning. She has improved beyond what was supposed to be the limit of her powers; her tone is pure and noble, her bowing grace itself, and her conception of the concerto was equal to that of any of the great violinists whom I have heard.”
Powell appeared with the Orchestra on several more occasions with both Thomas and Frederick Stock. Her final appearances were in March 1916, performing Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto and Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo capriccioso with Stock conducting. In 2014, she was posthumously awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Inaugurating its new thousand-watt transmitter, WMAQ used seven microphones in picking up the first Chicago Symphony Orchestra radio broadcast on December 10, 1925. Frederick Stock conducted at Orchestra Hall, and, seated in the organ loft with a clear view of the Orchestra, assistant conductor Eric DeLamarter operated the radio-control unit used to regulate the microphones (switching in and out, but not controlling volume) in order to produce the best possible balance.
The concert, a potpourri of popular favorites, included Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theodore Thomas’s arrangement of “Träume” from Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, Massenet’s Meditation from Thaïs with concertmaster Jacques Gordon, Saint-Saëns’s The Swan from The Carnival of the Animals with principal cello Alfred Wallenstein, and Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio italien. Interspersed throughout the program, contralto Sophie Braslau, accompanied by pianist Louise Linder, performed several songs (including Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig”) from WMAQ’s studio on the eighteenth floor of the LaSalle Hotel.*
Elmer Douglass in the Chicago Tribune called the broadcast “a marvelous success. When the Orchestra broke in with the soft opening tones of Halvorsen’s March of the Boyards, it was realized that all was well. It was phenomenally clear and pure, and, best of all, the true, pure, characteristic tones as though they were heard from a choice seat in Orchestra Hall itself. We could all but see the separate instruments.”
“An artistic and mechanical triumph,” reported the Chicago Daily News (which then also owned WMAQ). “The applause of the radio audience in the form of telephone calls, telegrams, letters, and postal cards is sweeping like an avalanche.”
Subsequent radio broadcasts were carried over a variety of stations, the longest syndication on WFMT from 1976 through 2001. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra returned to the airwaves in April 2007, syndicated throughout the U.S. by WFMT, featuring performances recorded live as well as recordings from its extensive discography. The first program included Miguel Harth-Bedoya leading Rossini’s Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers, Yanov-Yanovsky’s Night Music: Voice in the Leaves, Chen and He’s The Butterfly Lovers with erhu soloist Betty Xiang, and Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma.
* The LaSalle Hotel, located on the northwest corner of LaSalle Street and Madison Street, was completed in 1909 and demolished in 1976. The lot currently is the home of Two North LaSalle Street, completed in 1979.
This article also appears here.
In March 1898, Theodore Thomas and the Chicago Orchestra embarked on a monthlong tour through Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C. In New York, the tour included six concerts at the Metropolitan Opera House, one at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Orchestra’s debut in Carnegie Hall on March 7.
The program for Carnegie was entirely comprised of music by French composers, featuring the U.S. premiere of Franck’s Variations symphoniques and Saint-Saëns’s Fifth Piano Concerto, both with Raoul Pugno as soloist. Composer Alexandre Guilmant also appeared, as organ soloist in his Adoration, Allegro, and Final à la Schumann, as well as Lefebvre’s Méditation. Berlioz’s Overture to King Lear, Franck’s Le chasseur maudit, Saint-Saëns’s Le rouet d’Omphale, and Massenet’s Suite from Les Erinnyes rounded out the program.
The reviewer in Harper’s Bazaar praised the performances of both Pugno and Guilmant, “and the enjoyment of the afternoon was increased by the good work done by the Chicago Orchestra.” The New York Times added, “The Orchestra was heard to great advantage in Saint-Saëns’s symphonic poem, which was played with consummate finish, and Mr. Thomas’s accompaniments to the soloists were a source of joy.” And the New York Tribune heralded the concert as “an exhibition of virtuosity.”
The Orchestra has returned to Carnegie Hall on numerous occasions, under music directors Frederick Stock, Rafael Kubelík, Fritz Reiner, Jean Martinon, Sir Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim, and Riccardo Muti; principal guest conductors Carlo Maria Giulini, Claudio Abbado, and Pierre Boulez; principal conductor Bernard Haitink; chorus director and conductor Margaret Hillis; and associate conductor Henry Mazer.
This article also appears here.
There are conflicting accounts regarding the details of Liberace’s initial contact with Frederick Stock and the CSO (most of them conflicted by Liberace himself), but the most detailed—and colorful—version appeared in a December 1977 interview in the Jackson (Mississippi) Clarion-Ledger: “It was 1939 and I was passing by Orchestra Hall, the home of the Chicago Symphony. Out front was a sign that said, ‘Orchestra in rehearsal—auditions.’ I thought that meant they were giving auditions, so I walked in.
“[Frederick] Stock was in the middle of a rehearsal. I was discovered by the manager of the Orchestra and immediately invited to leave. A commotion started when I tried to explain why I was there. Dr. Stock turned around and asked the manager what was going on. The manager said, ‘It’s just some kid who plays the piano and thought you were holding auditions. He only wants to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.’
“Dr. Stock was amused and asked me what I could play. I told him I could play Liszt’s Piano Concerto in A major, and he said, ‘Let’s hear it.’ Pretty soon, he started singing the orchestra parts, and then, halfway through the concerto, he stopped me. He asked the librarian for the score for the entire orchestra, and while it was being passed out, he asked me about my teacher, my family, and my interest in music. Then I sat down and played the concerto with the whole orchestra. I couldn’t believe it was happening!”
Regardless of the details of the account, the young pianist’s audition was indeed successful, and twenty-year-old Walter Liberace was soloist with the Orchestra in Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto on January 15, 1940. Under the baton of CSO associate conductor Hans Lange, the concert was given at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, in Liberace’s native Wisconsin.
Frederick Stock and the Orchestra first introduced the music of Gustav Mahler to Chicago audiences on March 22 and 23, 1907, performing the composer’s Fifth Symphony. Reviews were, shall we say, mixed.
“Ugly symphony is well played: Thomas Orchestra shows director Mahler of Vienna writes bad music,” proclaimed the headline of Millar Ular’s review in the Chicago Examiner. He continued that rather than title the symphony “The Giant,” it might be better titled “The Octopus” due to its ugliness, “The Dachshund” due to its length, or “Chaos” due to its purported lack of form. A writer in the Chicago Journal agreed, calling the symphony a “long and tedious work,” and most of the public agreed, as “before it was done, fully half the audience had fled.”
Undaunted, Stock programmed Mahler’s First in November 1914, the Fourth in March 1916, and three performances of the massive Eighth—with just under a thousand performers onstage at the Auditorium Theatre—in April 1917.
According to Phillip Huscher, “Stock heard Mahler’s Seventh Symphony for the first time in Amsterdam in 1920. He got a copy of the score in Paris and programmed the work for the penultimate concert of the 1920–21 season in Chicago. Perhaps fearing that the Chicago public would not share his enthusiasm for the Seventh Symphony, Stock announced that he had cut out eleven minutes of music, paring the playing time down to one hour and four minutes.”
Regarding the performance on April 15, 1921—the first performance of the symphony in the U.S.—the Chicago Evening Post reported that “the Orchestra played with astonishing virtuosity. There was nothing Mahler could write which they could not play, as they demonstrated to full satisfaction. At the close of the symphony there was a great demonstration for Mr. Stock, in which he had all the players rise and join.”