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Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—according to Frederick Stock, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra‘s second music director, in Talks About Beethoven’s Symphonies—is “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.”

First page detail of a choral score, edited by Arthur Mees, the Orchestra’s first assistant conductor

Stock continues: “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.

“In the first movement we find the bitter struggle he waged against life’s adversities, his failing health, his deafness, his loneliness. The Scherzo depicts the quest for worldly joy; the third movement, melancholy reflection, longing—resignation. The last movement, the ‘Ode to Joy,’ is dedicated to all Mankind.”

“There’s something astonishing about a deaf composer choosing to open a symphony with music that reveals, like no other music before it, the very essence of sound emerging from silence,” writes CSOA scholar-in-residence and program annotator Phillip Huscher. “The famous pianissimo opening—sixteen measures with no secure sense of key or rhythm—does not so much depict the journey from darkness to light, or from chaos to order, as the birth of sound itself or the creation of a musical idea. It is as if the challenges of Beethoven’s daily existence—the struggle to compose music, his difficulty in communicating, the frustration of remembering what it was like to hear—have been made real in a single page of music.”

Founder and first music director Theodore Thomas first led the Chicago Orchestra in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on December 16 and 17, 1892, at the Auditorium Theatre. The soloists were Minnie Fish, Minna Brentano, Charles A. Knorr, and George E. Holmes, along with the Apollo Chorus (prepared by William L. Tomlins).

1961 recording (RCA)

Sixth music director Fritz Reiner led the Orchestra’s first recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on May 1 and 2, 1961, in Orchestra Hall. Phyllis Curtin, Florence Kopleff, John McCollum, and Donald Gramm were the soloists, and the Chicago Symphony Chorus was prepared by Margaret Hillis. For RCA, Richard Mohr was the producer and Lewis Layton was the recording engineer.

1972 recording (London)

Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus first recorded Beethoven’s nine symphonies between May 1972 and September 1974 for London Records. The recordings were ultimately released as a set (along with three overtures: Egmont, Coriolan, and Leonore no. 3); that set won the 1975 Grammy Award for Classical Album of the Year from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. The Ninth Symphony was recorded at the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois in Urbana on May 15 and 16, and June 26, 1972. Pilar Lorengar, Yvonne Minton, Stuart Burrows, and Martti Talvela were the soloists, and the Chicago Symphony Chorus was prepared by Margaret Hillis. David Harvey was the recording producer, and Gordon Parry, Kenneth Wilkinson, and Peter van Biene were the balance engineers.

1986 recording (London)

Between September 1986 and January 1990, Solti and the Orchestra and Chorus recorded the complete Beethoven symphonies a second time, again for London Records; and again, the recordings were ultimately released as a set (along with two overtures: Egmont and Leonore no. 3). The Ninth Symphony was recorded in Medinah Temple on September 29 and 30, 1986. Michael Haas was the recording producer, John Pellowe the balance engineer, and Neil Hutchinson the tape editor. Jessye Norman, Reinhild Runkel, Robert Schunk, and Hans Sotin were soloists, and Margaret Hillis prepared the Chorus. The release won the 1987 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

On September 18, 20, 21, and 23, 2014, Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Orchestra Hall. Camilla Nylund, Ekaterina Gubanova, Matthew Polenzani (September 18), William Burden (September 20, 21, and 23), and Eric Owens were the soloists, and the Chorus was prepared by Duain Wolfe. The performance on September 18 was recorded for YouTube and is available in the link below.

Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 on February 24, 25, 26, and 27, 2022.

This article also appears here.

December 16 & 17, 1892, program book cover

December 16 & 17, 1892, program book cover

During the Chicago Orchestra‘s second season, music director Theodore Thomas programmed Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 for the first time with his new ensemble. The performances were given on December 16 and 17, 1892, at the Auditorium Theatre.

According to an account in the Chicago Daily Tribune on December 18: “Like whistling winds broken by the blare of trumpets and the crash of cymbals and again like a sigh breathed upon the strings of a harp, Beethoven’s ninth symphony and his music to Goethe’s Egmont were listened to by nearly 4,000 music-lovers at the Auditorium last night. . . . The highest social circles of the city were in attendance. Chicago’s cultured and fashionable classes enjoyed a musical festival in honor of the 122nd anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. For the first time in the history of the city the great composer’s birth was fittingly celebrated. In 1870 the 100th anniversary was observed with a concert in old Farwell Hall, but as compared with the event of last evening it was insignificant.”

What the reviewer recounted next is nothing short of jaw-dropping: “Mr. Thomas had his men play the last movement of the Symphony a full tone lower than it is written—a proceeding without precedent in the entire history of the great work and which bids fair to call down upon him the wrath of musical purists and classicists. The subject was vigorously discussed by musicians present at the concert last night, and, although many liberal minds defended the director in his action, conservatives who bitterly assailed him were not wanting. The men of the orchestra covered themselves with glory by playing the movement with entire accuracy a tone lower than was indicated by the notes on the music parts before them. . . .

December 16 & 17, 1892, program page

December 16 & 17, 1892, program page

“When the Apollo Club chorus of 200 voices [prepared by William L. Tomlins], together with Miss Minnie Fish and Mrs. Minna Brentano and Charles A. Knorr and George E. Holmes, joined with the orchestra . . . the majesty and grandeur of the music were highly appreciated and greeted with almost boundless applause. The words of the ‘Ode to Joy‘ were sung with such precision and distinctness they they could be heard and appreciated in every part of the house. When the notes of the Choral Finale had died away the vast audience applauded for several minutes.”

The reviewer described Thomas’s “innovation”—surprisingly, not mentioned at all in Adolph W. Dohn’s program note (the complete program book is here)—as follows: “The last movement of the Symphony Mr. Thomas gave in C minor instead of D minor, the key in which Beethoven wrote it. It was an act which demanded no slight courage on the part of the great leader, and there were not lacking last evening musical conservatives who indignantly accused him of ‘taking unwarrantable liberties with music’s masterpieces,’ and ‘marring the works of the great composers.’ Mr. Thomas did not make the change, however, save after long and serious consideration. To make the change meant to break one of the ironclad, time-honored rules governing symphonic form, and possibly to lessen slightly the brilliancy of certain passages. On the other hand, the change freed the sopranos from the necessity of singing numerous high Gs and As, and could but result in marked gain in the volume and quality of the tone produced. He weighed these matters and decided upon the transposition, a decision that liberal thinkers in the musical world will uphold him in and approve of.”

Even with the modification, the reviewer was moved to write: “The rendition accorded the Symphony last evening by Mr. Thomas and his forces was worthy of the work itself, of the master whose greatest power it represents, of the event the concert celebrated, and of the great leader to whom musical Chicago is indebted for so much. The orchestra was in its best condition, and upon it Mr. Thomas played as does a master upon some perfect instrument. The result was a performance technically flawless, interpretatively superb. . . . And last night the choral finale brought with it no disappointment. A larger chorus might have been wished for, perhaps, but in the Allegro energico and the great climax that follows, but in the other portions of the work—and it is in these that the chorus after all finds opportunity for effective singing, the voice parts in the climax being buried under a mountain of orchestral tone—in these portions, the 200 singers from the Apollo Club acquitted themselves most creditably, their work being satisfactory and deserving of sincere praise.”

There is no evidence to indicate that Thomas’s later performances of the Ninth Symphony were performed in a similar manner.

(The complete Chicago Daily Tribune article—courtesy of Proquest via the Chicago Public Library—is 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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