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Theodore Thomas in the early 1870s (J. Gurney & Son photo)

More than twenty years before founding the Chicago Orchestra in 1891, Theodore Thomas and his eponymous ensemble—the Theodore Thomas Orchestra—were enjoying a wave of success. Thomas founded the orchestra in 1864 and after performing to great acclaim primarily in New York, he soon decided that traveling the country was next step in their continued success. The first tour began in the fall of 1869 and included a November residency in Chicago for three concerts in Farwell Hall.

“The first concert by Theodore Thomas’s unrivalled orchestra on Saturday evening was, without exception, the finest musical event Chicago has ever known,” reported the Chicago Tribune on November 29. “The light and shade of this orchestra are something marvelous [and] it plays with delicious expression . . . magical.”

Thomas and his orchestra returned to Chicago twice over the next year and a half, in November 1870 and April 1871. The anticipation for their returns grew and reception continued to be enthusiastic. “I think we cannot, any of us, be too grateful for such music as this,” wrote Peregrine Pickle (perhaps a nom de plume) in a letter to the editor of the Tribune on April 22, 1871. “It makes better men and women of us all [and] lifts us to a higher plane of enjoyment.”

Chicago Tribune, October 1, 1871

The Theodore Thomas Orchestra’s fantastic receptions during those first three residencies encouraged Uranus H. Crosby to invite Thomas to be the centerpiece for the grand re-opening of his opera house in October 1871.

Originally inaugurated on April 20, 1865 (delayed by three days due to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln), Crosby’s Opera House was located on the north side of Washington Street between State and Dearborn. The Italianate five-story palace featured allegorical statues overlooking patrons as they passed through a grand entry arch, and residents included music publishers, William Wallace Kimball‘s piano store, business offices, and art studios and galleries. The 3,000-seat auditorium featured a dome encircled by likenesses of composers surrounded by frescoes painted by the firm of Jevne & Almini, and above the orchestra was a forty-foot painting based on Guido Reni’s Aurora. The reported cost to build was well over $600,000.

Soon after the house’s initial success, Crosby ran into severe financial difficulties, and the theater sat mostly dark until undergoing a major renovation during the summer of 1871. On September 14, the Chicago Tribune announced: “The opening of Crosby’s Opera House, after the splendid refitment which it has been undergoing for several weeks, will be fitly celebrated by a season of Theodore Thomas’s symphony and popular concerts, ten of which will be given, beginning Monday evening, October 9, and ending on Wednesday evening, the 18th.”

On October 8, the “brilliantly decorated and renovated” theater was “lit up for the first time . . . for the pleasure of friends of the managers,” according to George P. Upton. A few short hours later, tragedy struck and the city was in flames, as the Great Chicago Fire rapidly spread from the southwest side to the center of downtown. Early in the morning on October 9, Thomas and the members of his orchestra “reached the Twenty-second Street station of the Lake Shore Railroad while the fire was at its height and left the burning city at once . . .”

According to Memoirs of Theodore Thomas, completed in 1911 by his widow Rose Fay: “Thomas was paralyzed by the announcement that Chicago was burning, and [Crosby’s] Opera House already in ashes! In short, they had arrived just in time to witness the terrible conflagration which so nearly wiped Chicago off the map altogether, and, of course, the concerts which Thomas had expected to give there for two years to come, were canceled. . . . he and the orchestra stayed [in Joliet] until it was time for the next engagement in Saint Louis.”

Advertisement in the October 1871 program book for concerts in Saint Louis

Over 2,000 acres of land were destroyed, including nearly 18,000 buildings and well over $200 million in property. More than 100,000 Chicagoans—roughly one-third of the city’s population—were rendered homeless, and it is estimated that more than 300 lost their lives.

“We got away from the burning city as best we could, and spent the time intervening before our next engagement . . . in rehearsals,” wrote Thomas in his autobiography. “We began by studying the finale of [Wagner’s] Tristan and Isolde, and I played it in connection with the Vorspiel (which I had brought out in 1865), for the first time in America [in] Boston, the following December.”

In Saint Louis, Thomas was invited to add concerts at Benedict DeBar’s Opera House, including a “grand extra concert” on Monday, October 23, “for the benefit of the Chicago sufferers, for which occasion all the members of Mr. Thomas’ troupe have volunteered their services.”

Despite initial financial setbacks due to the lost concerts in Chicago, the Theodore Thomas Orchestra would continue to mostly thrive until it was disbanded in 1888. Of course, this led the way for Thomas to establish the Chicago Orchestra in 1891 and serve as music director for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, proving to the world that Chicago had indeed risen from the ashes.

This article also appears here and portions previously appeared here.

Theodore Thomas in the early 1870s (J. Gurney & Son photo)

Wishing a very happy birthday to our founder and first music director Theodore Thomas on the occasion of his 184th birthday!

“During his musical career, Theodore Thomas conducted more than ten thousand concerts, and on a majority of his programs, he placed a work by Beethoven. Nevertheless, it was his invariable rule to study each work anew whenever he gave it, and he was so particular in regard to everything that concerned the music of Beethoven that I have known him to spend an entire evening verifying the opus number of a Beethoven quartet before he would copy it on a program for the printer.”

—excerpt from the preface to Talks About Beethoven’s Symphonies by Theodore Thomas and Frederick Stock, edited by Rose Fay Thomas, 1930.

“The man who does not know Shakespeare is to be pitied; and the man who does not understand Beethoven and has not been under his spell has not half lived his life.”

—excerpt from the epigraph to Theodore Thomas: A Musical Autobiography by Theodore Thomas, edited by George P. Upton, 1905.

Happy, happy birthday!

Another unexpected donation arrived last week, and it is nothing short of spectacular: the first numbered set of a limited first edition printing of Theodore Thomas‘s autobiography.

Copy number one

Copy number one

Our founder and first music director completed his autobiography during the summer of 1904, just before the opening of the Orchestra’s fourteenth season. It was first published in two volumes—Life Work and Concert Programmes—on April 5, 1905, just three months after his unexpected death on January 4.

Inscription from editor George P. Upton to publisher Ogden Trevor McClurg

Inscription from editor George P. Upton to publisher Ogden Trevor McClurg

And what makes this donation all the more remarkable is that it bears an inscription from the editor to the publisher A. C. McClurg & Co. The inscription reads: “To Ogden Trevor McClurg / These memorials of the great conductor / with its very cordial regards of their compile[?] / Geo. P. Upton / Chicago May 2, 1905”.

In the preface, Thomas wrote: “. . . I never intended to write my autobiography, or anything else; I desired only to preserve my programmes—representing over half a century of a very important part of the history of music in America—in some permanent form, and this is the result. I am happy to say that at my request, Mr. George P. Upton, whose interest in the cause of good music has been of such marked benefit to Chicago for fifty years, has undertaken the laborious task of compiling and editing this publication, of selecting and classifying the programmes to be printed, and of writing such explanations as they have required.”

The limited edition open to the title page

The limited edition of the autobiography open to the title page of volume one

The standard issue of the book with volume two opened to an illustration of Thomas sitting at his desk

The standard issue of the autobiography with volume two opened to an illustration of Thomas sitting at his desk

From left to right: the 1905 two-volume limited edition, the 1905 two-volume standard edition, and the 1964 reprint

From left to right: the 1905 two-volume limited edition, the 1905 two-volume standard edition, and the 1964 reprint

“Never was leader more strict, but never was leader more just and kind. The men knew that he had their interests at heart, that he was thoroughly loyal to them, that he would sacrifice himself to them, as he did more than once, and that in moments of success he always unselfishly sunk himself out of sight and awarded them the praise. When off duty and enjoying himself with his players at their informal functions, he was a boy with them, and led their mirth as enthusiastically as he led their music. Even in rehearsals, when all was going well, he kept his players in the best of humor with his hearty jokes or quiet sarcasms, but when things were not going well, Jove frowned. But the strongest reason why his men not only respected, but had a feeling of affection for him, was because they never questioned his superior attainments, and appreciated the kind, humane, loving nature behind his austere seeming.”

— “Reminiscence and Appreciation” from Theodore Thomas, edited by George P. Upton, 1905.

Happy birthday, Maestro!

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The opinions expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.


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