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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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Cover of one of four World’s Columbian Exposition pop-up books

On April 28, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed an act of Congress awarding Chicago the honor of hosting a world’s fair—the World’s Columbian Exposition—to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World. Architects Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root were charged with oversight of the design and construction, but following Root’s unexpected death in January 1891, Burnham became the sole director of works. He engaged several other architects—including Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles Follen McKim, and Louis Sullivan—to design a classical revival–themed city with grand boulevards, elaborate building façades, and lush gardens. Beaux Arts design concepts—based on symmetry, balance, and grace—were employed, and the 200 new, but intentionally temporary, buildings were mostly covered in plaster of Paris and painted a chalky white, giving the fairgrounds its nickname, the “White City.”

Chicago World’s Fair 1893 by Harley Dewitt Nichols (1859–1939)

The fairgrounds stretched over nearly 700 acres in Jackson Park and officially opened to the public on May 1, 1893—125 years ago. Over the next six months, nearly fifty countries would exhibit and close to twenty-eight million people would visit. Juicy Fruit chewing gum, Cream of Wheat, Quaker Oats, Shredded Wheat, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, and the Ferris Wheel were introduced, along with the first U.S. Post Office–issued picture postcards and commemorative stamps and U.S. Mint–issued commemorative quarter and half-dollar coins. Following its blue ribbon–win as “America’s Best” at the exposition, the Pabst Brewing Company officially changed the name of its signature beer.

One visitor was poet and author Katharine Lee Bates, who would later include “Thine alabaster cities gleam” in her poem America the Beautiful. Herman Webster Mudgett (a.k.a. Dr. Henry Howard Holmes) traveled to the fair with two of his eventual victims (later described by Erik Larson in his book The Devil in the White City). And natives bragging about the fair likely contributed to the popularity of Chicago’s nickname as the “Windy City.”

Theodore Thomas

Soon after Theodore Thomas agreed to lead the new Chicago Orchestra, the exposition’s executive committee (many of whom were the same men who were helping to finance his new orchestra) offered him the job of director of music for the fair. Inspired by Burnham’s imagination and drive—not to mention that the committee was prepared to spend nearly one million dollars on music and two performance halls—Thomas accepted shortly after his new orchestra’s inaugural concerts on October 16 and 17, 1891, in the Auditorium Theatre.

Thomas laid out an extensive plan for all types of concerts and issued a proclamation in the spring of 1892 setting forth many lofty goals, among them “the hearty support of American musicians, amateurs, and societies, for participation on great festival occasions of popular music, and for the interpretation of the most advanced composition, American and foreign.” He made his new orchestra the foundation of the resident ensemble, the Exposition Orchestra, augmented to over one hundred players, and he invited the most important musicians in the world to participate: Johannes Brahms, Antonín Dvořák, Joseph Joachim, Piotr Tchaikovsky, Jules Massenet, Camille Saint-Saëns, Giuseppe Verdi, Pietro Mascagni, Charles Gounod, Anton Rubinstein, and Hans Richter, among others.

Music Hall, designed by Charles Atwood

Two music buildings were constructed for a combined cost of $230,000. Music Hall, designed by Charles Atwood, had two performance spaces, seating 600 and 2,000. Festival Hall, designed by Francis M. Whitehouse, had a stage that was reportedly larger than the entire Metropolitan Opera House and seated 4,000 with standing room for more than 2,000.

The inaugural ceremony on October 21, 1892, was given in Festival Hall and included 5,500 singers in the chorus, an orchestra of 200, two large military bands, and two drum corps of fifty players each. In order to for everyone to see, Thomas used a large white handkerchief to conduct, rather than a baton. The event opened with the American composer John Knowles Paine’s Columbus March and Hymn, and continued with Carl Koelling’s World’s Columbian Exposition Waltz and George Whitefield Chadwick‘s Ode for the Opening of the World’s Fair held at Chicago 1892 (set to a poem by Harriet Monroe).

George Whitefield Chadwick’s Ode for the Opening of the World’s Fair held at Chicago 1892 (Theodore Thomas collection)

Carl Koelling’s World’s Columbian Exposition Waltz (piano reduction, Theodore Thomas collection)

As excitement mounted for the official opening of the fair, nearly one hundred piano manufacturers began to vie for the opportunity to exhibit. Some exposition officials began to take sides with different manufacturers, and Thomas attempted to steer clear of the growing controversy. East-coast builders, most notably Steinway, felt the planners were giving unfair advantage to Midwest piano manufacturers, and, as a result withdrew their participation. It was decided that only pianos made by exhibiting companies could be used at the fair. The press had a field day, criticizing both Thomas and the exposition planners, accusing all of conspiring for personal advantage.

Ignace Paderewski

The Exposition’s inaugural concert was scheduled for May 2, 1893, and Thomas’s first choice for soloist was the famous Polish pianist Ignace Paderewski. He had performed with the Chicago Orchestra and had even offered to waive his usual $5,000 per concert fee. He would perform his Piano Concerto in A minor for the first concert and Schumann’s concerto for the second; Theodore Thomas would conduct the Exposition Orchestra (the Chicago Orchestra expanded to 114 players).

Paderewski was unofficially an exclusive Steinway artist and if he was going to perform, it had to be on a Steinway. With Burnham’s help—and unbeknownst to Thomas—workers were able to sneak Paderewski’s Steinway concert grand into Music Hall the night before the first concert.

May 2, 1893

“Those who sat beneath the potent spell [Paderewski’s] mighty genius weaves could but acknowledge his unrivaled greatness and congratulate the exposition upon having secured him for the assisting artist at the inaugural concert,” reported the Chicago Tribune, praising the “surpassing beauty and matchless artistic greatness” of his performance.

By the time the committee discovered Paderewski’s use of a Steinway, it was too late to react. Thomas was falsely accused of conspiring against the committee, and despite the musical success of the concert, again, he was roasted in the press and public debate and criticism increased.

Theodore Thomas’s Exposition ticket book

Other problems included the cavernous acoustics in the Music Hall, Chicago’s May weather was bitter cold and the halls were not heated, and ticket sales for concerts were significantly less than anticipated. Thomas had difficulty hiding his disappointment, which only added to the mounting criticism against him.

Stubs from Thomas’s ticket book

After having conducted nearly seventy concerts in little more than three months, distraught over poor attendance, and mired in controversy, Thomas resigned as musical director in early August. His ticket book for the fair confirms his attendance; the last admission stub removed is for August 11, and at noon that day in Festival Hall, he led his Exposition Orchestra in one last concert.

August 12, 1893

Of all of the musicians Thomas invited to participate in the fair, only one actually made the journey to Chicago—Antonín Dvořák. August 12—the day after Thomas’s last concert—was designated as Bohemian Day, and according to the Chicago Tribune, “Bohemia ruled the World’s Columbian Exposition yesterday. It was the special date set apart for that nationality, and its citizens invaded the White City at every entrance by the thousands.”

Nearly 8,000 people packed into the fair’s Festival Hall to hear the Exposition Orchestra under the batons of Vojtěch I. Hlaváč, professor of music at the Imperial University in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and Dvořák, then the director of New York’s National Conservatory of Music in America.

August 12, 1893

The Tribune reviewer continued. “As Dvořák walked out upon the stage a storm of applause greeted him. For nearly two minutes the old composer [age fifty-one!] stood beside the music rack, baton in hand, bowing his acknowledgements. The players dropped their instruments to join in the welcome. Symphony no. 4 in G major [now known as no. 8], considered a severe test of technical writing as well as playing, was interpreted brilliantly. The Orchestra caught the spirit and magnetism of the distinguished leader. The audience sat as if spell-bound. Tremendous outbursts of applause were given.” On the second half of the program, Dvořák conducted selections from his Slavonic Dances and closed the program with his overture My Country.

For the next several weeks, the concerts given were primarily organ recitals. Concertmaster Max Bendix would lead the Exposition Orchestra in most of the remaining scheduled symphonic concerts, and the repertoire was modified to feature lighter, more popular works.

Thomas never completely recovered from the disappointment of the fair, and in his 1904 autobiography, he made no mention of the exposition whatsoever. In Memoirs of Theodore Thomas, completed in 1911 by his widow Rose Fay, she described one silver lining: during the fair, the “the daily concerts and rehearsals of the Orchestra had brought it up to the very highest point of artistic proficiency, and given it an enormous repertoire of music, so that Thomas felt he now had an almost perfect instrument for the concerts of the coming winter . . . This was a great relief to his mind.”

The Chicago Orchestra’s third season began the day after Thanksgiving on November 24 and 25, 1893, at the Auditorium Theatre.

Portions of this article previously appeared here and here, and an abbreviated version will appear in the CSO’s May 2018 program book.

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