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In 1891, Theodore Thomas founded the Chicago Orchestra and served as its first music director for nearly fourteen years. But in 1864, he also founded an eponymous ensemble—the Theodore Thomas Orchestra—and for nearly three decades, they traveled around the United States, giving concerts from coast to coast.

Schedule for the Theodore Thomas Orchestra’s 1872-73 tour (* indicates concerts with Rubinstein and Wieniawski)

One of Thomas’s orchestra’s most extensive tours—with stops in Connecticut; Illinois; Indiana; Kentucky; Maine; Maryland; Michigan; Missouri; New York; Ohio; Pennsylvania; Rhode Island; Washington, D.C.; and Wisconsin—was given between September 1872 and April 1873, culminating in a series of concerts in New York’s Steinway Hall. And for the last leg of the tour, Thomas was joined by pianist Anton Rubinstein and violinist Henryk Wieniawski.

“These great artists were the leading exponents of their respective instruments,” wrote Rose Fay Thomas in her husband’s Memoirs, “and Thomas knew that the houses would be sold out wherever they played. Consequently, he was able to make the programs without any consideration for the box office, and he was not slow to take advantage of it . . . It was the first time in his life that Thomas had permitted himself to make a series of programs exactly in accordance with his artistic standards . . . and this two weeks of great performance, in association with two of the most renowned executant musicians who ever came to America, was an inspiration to him such as he had never before enjoyed.”

Henryk Wieniawski

Shortly before ending the tour in New York, three concerts were given in Chicago. The programs were as follows:

March 17, 1873, Michigan Avenue Baptist Church
BEETHOVEN Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72b
RUBINSTEIN Piano Concerto No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 70
Anton Rubinstein, piano
MENDELSSOHN First Movement from Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64
Henryk Wieniawski, violin
LISZT Les préludes
HANDEL Air and Variations from Suite No. 5 in E Major (The Harmonious Blacksmith), MOZART Rondo, BACH Gigue, and SCARLATTI Sonate
Anton Rubinstein, piano
ERNST Fantasie brillante, Op. 11 (Otello)
Henryk Wieniawski, violin
WEBER Overture to Der Freischütz

March 18, 1873, Union Park Congregational Church
CHERUBINI Overture to Les deux journées
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (Emperor)
Anton Rubinstein, piano
BERLIOZ Part 2 from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 17
WIENIAWSKI Violin Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 22
Henryk Wieniawski, violin
SCHUMANN Carnaval, Op. 9
Anton Rubinstein, piano
WAGNER Huldigungsmarsch

Anton Rubinstein

“Those who had the good fortune to hear [Rubinstein in the Emperor concerto] will long remember it, not only as one of the grandest of Beethoven’s compositions, but as the most superb musical performance ever heard in this city,” wrote the critic in the Chicago Tribune. “Wieniawski created a perfect furore by his masterly playing of his own violin concerto, which culminated in a very emphatic encore, to which replied with Paganini’s Carnival of Venice, which was such a marvel of technique that it called out even the loudest applause of the orchestra itself. . . . As a whole, the concert was the best ever given in this city.”

March 19, 1873, Aiken’s Theatre
SCHUMANN Overture to Genoveva, Op. 81
LISZT Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major
Anton Rubinstein, piano
MENDELSSOHN Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64
Henryk Wieniawski, violin
BEETHOVEN Finale from The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43
WAGNER Overture to Rienzi
MENDELSSOHN Songs Without Words and CHOPIN Nocturne and Ballad
Anton Rubinstein, piano
WIENIAWSKI Legende, Op. 17 and Airs russes, Op. 6
Henryk Wieniawski, violin
LISZT Hungarian March

In a letter to William Steinway of Steinway & Sons (who had sponsored the tour), Wieniawski wrote, “I shall take away with me from America one unexpected reminiscence. Little did I dream to find here the greatest and finest orchestra in the wide world. I have been in Munich, Brussels, Amsterdam, London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and all the great European art centers, but never in my life have I found an orchestra and a conductor so in sympathy with one anther, or who followed me as the most gifted accompanist can follow a singer on the piano.”

Portions of this article previously appeared here.

Ray Chen is soloist in Wieniawski’s First Violin Concerto on December 5, 6, 7, and 10, 2019. John Storgårds conducts.

March 31, April 1, 2, and 3, 1873, concerts at Steinway Hall in New York

March 31 and April 1, 1873

April 2 and 3, 1873

You never know what might arrive in the mail.

A few days ago, we received a package from our friends at the New York Philharmonic Archives, and it contained a number of early Theodore Thomas programs, pre-dating his founding of the Chicago Orchestra. A few of these fantastic items are described below.

October 23 and 24, 1871

October 18-24, 1871

In early October 1871, Thomas was on tour with his orchestra—the Theodore Thomas Orchestra—on its way to Chicago. According to Memoirs of Theodore Thomas, completed in 1911 by his widow Rose Fay: “At the close of the summer season, Thomas and the orchestra started westward on their customary fall tour over the ‘highway.’ The Chicago engagement on this trip was to have been an unusually long and important one, for the Crosby Opera House there had been handsomely renovated and Thomas was to open it with a two-weeks’ series of orchestral concerts.

“As the train, bearing the orchestra, neared the city on the morning of October 9, 1871, Thomas was paralyzed by the announcement that Chicago was burning, and the 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.”

In addition to the five concerts originally scheduled at DeBar’s Opera House in Saint Louis—not even two weeks after the Great Chicago Fire—a “grand extra concert” was added 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.”

March 31–April 3, 1873

April 2 and 3, 1873

Thomas and his orchestra were later in New York in the spring of 1873 for a series of concerts at Steinway Hall. These concerts were billed as “the greatest concert combination on record” and the “last joint appearance” of Thomas; composer, pianist, and conductor Anton Rubinstein; and violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski. Rubinstein’s 1872-74 tour was his first and only visit to the United States, and he later communicated to William Steinway of Steinway & Sons (who had sponsored his journey): “I shall take away with me from America one unexpected reminiscence. Little did I dream to find here the greatest and finest orchestra in the wide world . . . never in my life have I found an orchestra and a conductor so in sympathy with one another, or who followed me as the most gifted accompanist can follow a singer on the piano.”

Wagner’s Centennial March cover

In addition to several other concert programs, the donation also included a piano version of Richard Wagner’s Centennial March, arranged by Thomas. The work had been commissioned by Thomas for the 1876 Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia, for which he served as music director. According to Chicago Symphony Orchestra program annotator Phillip Huscher, “The premiere took place in Philadelphia as part of the exposition opening ceremonies, before President [Ulysses S.] Grant, members of Congress, and justices of the Supreme Court. The New York Tribune called Wagner’s Centennial March a masterpiece and the Herald critic found it noble and grand. But the New York Times concluded that it was ‘altogether devoid of pomp and circumstance,’ and that its impressive orchestral writing did not make up for its ‘lack of thought.’ Wagner later confided to his friends that the best thing about the piece was his [$5,000] fee.” Huscher’s complete note from the Orchestra’s October 2010 performances is here.

Wagner’s Centennial March first page

Wagner’s Centennial March title page

To our friends and colleagues in New York . . . thank you for these amazing additions to our Theodore Thomas collection!

 

Ida Klein

The surviving programs from the Chicago Orchestra’s first seasons’ tours show founder and first music director Theodore Thomas’s enthusiasm for promoting talented young women at a time when it was still rare for them to appear as instrumental soloists. Vocalists appeared regularly, and during the 1891-92 season, Katherine Fisk, Ida Klein, and Christine Nielson traveled with the Orchestra, singing a mix of operatic and popular repertoire (a common practice at the time and likely part of Thomas’s desire to entertain audiences).

Julia Rivé-King

Composer and pianist Julia Rivé-King—who already had a well-established career as a soloist, having toured the U.S. with Thomas and his orchestra in the 1880s—also appeared frequently with the Chicago Orchestra and traveled to the Metropolitan Opera House in Saint Paul, Minnesota in March 1892 to perform Saint-Saëns’s Rhapsodie d’Auvergne. The Saint Paul Daily Globe reported that “the applause which followed [her performance] was so persistent that the famous pianist was forced to return with an encore.” In her book Unsung: A History of Women in American Music, Christine Ammer estimates that by the time Rivé-King would have appeared in Saint Paul, she would have performed in nearly 1,800 concerts since her 1873 debut. She became a fixture of Chicago’s musical life, teaching for over thirty years at the Bush Conservatory of Music.

Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler

Also featured on that Saint Paul program was local violinist Marie Louise Paige, performing a polonaise by Henryk Wieniawsi (it’s not clear in the program whether it is the Polonaise de concert, op. 4 or the Polonaise brillante, op. 21). The same article praised Paige’s technical prowess: “[H]er execution is brilliant, her tone clear. . . . She was recalled again and again, but refused an encore.” Little else seems to be known of Paige; like many women of this period, perhaps she gave up her performing career after marriage. (The complete review is here.)

Maud Powell

Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler also was a frequent soloist with the Chicago Orchestra, both at home and on tour. She made her premiere on subscription concerts at the Auditorium Theatre on March 25 and 26, 1892, and later that spring accompanied the Orchestra to Louisville, Kansas City, and Omaha. Returning the following season, the Chicago Tribune review of her December 2, 1892, subscription concert performance demonstrates the high regard in which she was held as a performer: “Mme. Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler was the soloist in the Saint-Saëns Concerto [no. 4] . . . She has for several seasons stood first among the women pianists of America, but her work last evening proved that now she need acknowledge as her superior none of her brother artists residents[sic] in this country. . . . The audience received her work with merited enthusiasm, recalling her five times and resting satisfied only when an encore was given.”

The rest of the Orchestra’s second season saw many female violinists, including Maud Powell’s Chicago debut as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Powell was the only solo female violinist programmed by Thomas in that series, and in a review of her performance of Bruch’s G minor concerto on July 18, 1893, the Musical Courier wrote that “her conception of the concerto was equal to that of any of the great violinists whom I have heard.”

Central Music Hall, November 30, 1892, program

Augusta S. Cottlow

The support of the Orchestra also was given to fourteen-year-old pianist Augusta S. Cottlow on November 30, 1892, for a “testimonial concert” at the Central Music Hall in Chicago. It is unclear how Thomas met or learned of Cottlow (perhaps through her teacher, the Chicago-based Carl Wolfsohn) or why he was willing to throw the full might (and cost) of the Orchestra behind a concert for her. It might have been a benefit concert to fund her impending trip to Europe; however, as late as 1895, she was still appearing in concerts around Chicago.

Amphitheatre Auditorium, Louisville, Kentucky, January 7, 1893

While Rivé-King, Bloomfield Zeisler, and Powell had long careers as performers, the story of violinist Mary Currie Duke is perhaps more representative of the professional trajectory for many women musicians of this period. There are few data points about her, but her appearance with the Chicago Orchestra at the Amphitheatre Auditorium in Louisville, Kentucky on January 7, 1893, is noteworthy and likely led to her invitation to perform for the World’s Congress of Representative Women at the World’s Columbian Exposition later that year. The Californian Illustrated Magazine of November 1893 indicates that she spent some time studying music abroad in Europe, even claiming that she became “one of [Joseph] Joachim’s idols” and had performed Bruch’s First Violin Concerto with the composer accompanying at the piano. Duke married William Matthews in 1899, and it is unclear if she continued her musical career following her marriage. However, according to Gary Matthews’s biography of her father General Basil Wilson Duke, her husband died in 1910, putting her in a precarious financial position. While she might have returned to the stage in order to earn an income, she developed arthritis soon after her husband’s death, definitively ending her performing career.

Electa Gifford (Chicago Tribune, August 4, 1899)

As discussed in part 1, the Orchestra’s third season saw a drastic reduction in the number of tour concerts and, as a result, fewer performing opportunities for women. However, two unusual concerts in Chicago helped launch the careers of several singers. A “Grand Concert” was given by soprano Electa Gifford at Central Music Hall on November 27, 1893, where she was accompanied by Thomas and the Chicago Orchestra. The concert was a mix of vocal works performed by Gifford along with standards from the Orchestra’s tour repertoire, including the Forest Murmurs from the second act of Wagner’s Siegfried. Once again, it is unclear how Thomas came to know Gifford, but this act of patronage had an important impact on her career. In August 1899, the Chicago Tribune announced her engagement with the Grand Opera of Amsterdam, where she sang the lead soprano roles in many of the company’s performances that season.

Central Music Hall, Chicago, May 8, 1894

Similarly, a benefit concert was given for pianist Laura Sanford and mezzo-soprano Fanchon H. Thompson with the Chicago Orchestra supporting the two young soloists. In this instance, the connection from performers to Thomas is much easier to draw: both were students of Amy Fay, the sister of Thomas’s second wife, Rose Fay. While little is known of Sanford, Thompson went on to a successful career as a singer in Paris, where she debuted at the Opéra-Comique in 1899. According to a 1929 New York Times obituary appearing in the New York Times in 1929, “she twice sang before Queen Victoria at Windsor in Cavalleria rusticana and Romeo and Juliet.

The lives and careers of female performers at the end of the nineteenth century are often difficult to assemble, punctuated as they were by long periods of absence due to marriages and births in ways that did not similarly affect the careers of male musicians. However, following the clues offered in the surviving programs of the Orchestra’s initial seasons demonstrates that Chicago was rapidly becoming a hub for the musical education of men and women at this time, and illuminates the direct role that Theodore Thomas and the Orchestra often played in launching many a career.

Jenna Harmon is a doctoral candidate in musicology at Northwestern University and an intern in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association’s Rosenthal Archives.

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