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Theodore Thomas and the Chicago Orchestra (as we were then called) gave the U.S. premiere of Edward Elgar‘s In the South (Alassio) at the Auditorium Theatre on November 4, 1904.

According to the program note, the work was “‘conceived on a glorious spring day in the Valley of Andorra,’ and that it is ‘meant to suggest the Joy of Living in a balmy climate, under sunny skies, and amid surroundings in which the beauties of nature vie in interest with the remains and recollections of the great past of an enchanting country.'”

The reviewer in the Chicago Tribune was not quite impressed with the premiere of Elgar’s overture: “The novelty of the afternoon was the concert overture ‘In the South’ by Edward Elgar, which on this occasion had its first performance on this side of the Atlantic. Mr. [Walter] Damrosch is to give it its initial hearing in New York tomorrow night, but yesterday marked its premiere in this country. It is a work of unusual magnitude for a composition in the overture form, and the estimate here placed on it after a single hearing can of course be but impressional and subject to future revision. Twenty minutes are required for the performance of the overture and there are many things in the score which may prove clearer and more significant when more familiar. Yesterday the impression received was that the music has nothing in particular to do with Italy or the south. . . . It was not as successful cacophony as Richard Strauss when at his most daring produces, but it will suffice. . . . The performance by Mr. Thomas and the orchestra was a splendid one, each man giving of his best powers, musical, temperamental, and technical.” The complete review is here.

Advance advertisement for Elgar's April 1907 conducting appearances

Advance advertisement for Elgar’s April 1907 conducting appearances

Less than three years later, Elgar himself fared much better, appearing with the Orchestra on a program of compositions all by living composers. The first half featured Vincent d’Indy‘s Wallenstein’s Camp, Alexander Glazunov‘s Spring from The Seasons, Frederick Converse‘s The Mystic Trumpeter, and Richard Strauss’s Love Scene from Feuersnot, all led by Frederick Stock. After intermission, Elgar took to the podium to lead his In the South (Alassio), Enigma Variations, and the first Pomp and Circumstance March.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the composer was greeted with “applause which compelled him to turn twice and bow his acknowledgements. . . . When the last number was ended the orchestra sounded a fanfare, and the audience remained applauding until Sir Edward had returned a second time to the center of the stage and bowed. It was an unusually spontaneous and hearty tribute to a man who has come to loom large in the musical world of today and in whom American music lovers take a kind of quasi-national pride. . . . Rarely has a musical lion impressed as so modest as did he yesterday.” The complete review is here.

Vasily Petrenko leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Elgar’s In the South (Alassio) on January 8, 9, and 10, 2015.

Today we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss, a composer who has been a cornerstone to the performance history of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since our founding. At the invitation of our first music director—and a friend of the composer’s since the early 1880s—Theodore Thomas invited Strauss to guest conduct the Orchestra in 1904.

Program book advance advertisement for Strauss's guest conducting engagement

Program book advance advertisement for Strauss’s guest conducting engagement

According to William Lines Hubbard‘s newspaper account in the Chicago Tribune on March 31, 1904, during the Orchestra’s rehearsal at the Auditorium Theatre the previous day, Thomas introduced the composer/conductor with whom he would share the podium that week: “Gentlemen, Dr. Richard Strauss.”

Strauss went straight to work, leading the Orchestra in three of his well-known tone poems: Tod und Verklärung, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, and Also sprach Zarathustra. Halfway through the rehearsal, he paused to say: “Gentlemen, it is my pleasure and my pride to be able to direct today so faultless an orchestra and to hear my music played in a manner so completely in accordance with my every wish. Your organization is a model in all ways, and I feel proud to be associated with an orchestra which has been brought to such perfection by a man whom I have honored and wished to know for full twenty years—Mr. Thomas.”

Following the Friday matinee performance on April 1, Hubbard wrote: “That master musician of modern music, that wonderful combination of poet, painter, and composer, the man to whom pictures are audible and tones visible—Richard Strauss—appeared at the Auditorium yesterday afternoon, and for over two hours some 3,700 persons sat beneath the spell his great gifts weave and listened to the tonal tales they enable him to tell.”

The concert opened with Thomas leading the prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and the Orchestra “gave a performance of the splendid number such as has rarely been heard from them, and their record is a brilliant one.”

April 1 and 2, 1904, program page

April 1 and 2, 1904, program page

Following the Wagner, Thomas escorted Strauss to the stage, accompanied by “a rousing fanfare from the whole orchestra and applause loud and long continued expressed to the celebrated conductor-composer Chicago’s cordial welcome. He bowed repeatedly, and then raised his baton for the first measures of Thus Spake Zarathustra.”

“The orchestra was on its mettle, and a more superb technical presentment of the intensely difficult scores than it gave could not be desired. Every wish of the conductor was instantly responded to, and Dr. Strauss’ pleasure in the work done by the men was unmistakable.”

Of course, Chicago audiences were familiar with all three orchestral works. Thomas first led Tod und Verklärung in February 1895, and he conducted the U.S. premieres of Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche in November 1895 and Also sprach Zarathustra in February 1897. Hubbard continued: “Interpretatively, the treatment of the works was not widely different from that to which we are accustomed when they are given under Mr. Thomas’ baton. There was a deepening of color here and there, the raising into prominence of certain details of the score, and a giving of all with an exaltation and enthusiasm that made the performances inspiriting and uplifting. Certain portions of the works which heretofore have been unclear in meaning took on clarity and beauty, but this may have been due not only to the remarkably finished and brilliant performances but also to the fact that the works were heard again—for each rehearing of a Strauss composition brings increase of understanding and fuller appreciation of its beauties.”

Strauss’s wife Pauline also appeared on the program, as soprano soloist in several of his songs. For her first entrance, escorted both by her husband and Thomas, she wore a gown that was “an elaborate creation of creamy lace and silk, which was distinctly becoming to her.”

Hubbard was kind in his critique of her performance. “Her singing proved interesting and satisfactory from an interpretive viewpoint. The voice has lost its richness in the upper middle register and in the high tones, but it is of no inconsiderable beauty in the lower half, and it is used throughout with so much of discretion and understanding that it seems adequate for all that is undertaken. The seven songs heard yesterday were beautifully interpreted, and the exquisite accompaniments played as they were in finest style by the orchestra, made the performance of them in high measure gratifying.”

The complete program notes for the performance of the Strauss compositions are here.


Strauss Steinway ad

A postscript . . .

The back page of the April 1904 program book includes an endorsement by Strauss of Steinway pianos (then sold exclusively by Lyon & Healy in Chicago). The composer wrote: “The superb tonal qualities and perfection of mechanism of your instruments have had such a fascinating effect on my musical feelings that for the first time in many years I am drawn irresistibly again and again to my Steinway to indulge in improvising and musical inspirations, although I lay no claim to being a pianist. In accompanying my wife in her song recitals it is a constant source of pleasure to me to note the remarkable sustaining and blending qualities of the tone of your piano, which certainly are a great aid and benefit to the singer.”


“Munich’s favorite son was Richard Strauss. I met him only three times, but he had a great influence on my professional life. Strauss had spent the immediate postwar years in Switzerland, where he composed his Four Last Songs, but he returned to his home in Garmisch, in the Bavarian Alps, shortly before his eighty-fifth birthday, on June 11, 1949. In honor of his birthday and homecoming, the Staatsoper put on a new production of Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss, whose health was frail, declined to attend any of the public performances, but he let us know that he would attend the dress rehearsal.”

“I conducted at his funeral. As he had requested in his will, the music was the final trio from Der Rosenkavalier. Marianne Schech sang the part of the Marschallin, Maud Cunitz was Oktavian, and Gerda Sommerschuh was Sophie. One after the other, each singer broke down in tears and dropped out of the ensemble, but they recovered themselves and we all ended together.”

“A few years ago, when I was conducting Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Salzburg Festival, I spoke with his grandson. As we sat talking in a friend’s garden, he told me that after the war his grandfather had despaired for the future of German opera houses, most of which were in ruins and the rest of which were an artistic and administrative shambles. Strauss thought this was the end—and in a sense it was, because the old German lyric-theater tradition died out within the following decade. But after my visit to Garmisch, he told his family, ‘This young man gives me a little hope.’ I hadn’t known this and I was of course delighted to hear it forty-five years later. I think Strauss must have sensed my enthusiasm and determination to do as much as I could, as well as I could. But I regret very much that my time with him was so short, because his advice has been a guide for me throughout my entire career.”

Text excerpted from Memoirs by Sir Georg Solti. And the attached YouTube video is not the property of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association. We just thought it was interesting.

The Chicago Symphony’s new recording of Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben—conducted by principal conductor Bernard Haitink with violin solos by concertmaster Robert Chen—is the Orchestra’s third. Do you know the other two?*

Theodore Thomas led the Orchestra in the U.S. premiere of his friend’s new tone poem on March 9, 1900. The concert also included selections from two of Beethoven’s works: his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus and (curiously) the first three movements of his Ninth Symphony. I wonder how the audience must have felt as the first half of the program ended with the adagio, without the resolution of the “Ode to Joy” . . .

The program note attempted to answer that question but mostly stressed the importance of the premiere: “The magnitude of Richard Strauss’ new tone-poem, and the fact that the present performance thereof is the first in America, warrant the devotion of the program notes, in the main, to its consideration. The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven and Siegfried’s Death March, from Wagner’s “Die Götterdämmerung” are both so well known as to require no comment at this time, beyond the remark that the former is now given without the choral Finale, owing to the present unavailability of the adjuncts necessary to its performance . . .”

And here is the first of more than twenty (!) musical examples that were included in the program note, introduced as follows: “without any introduction, the broad and noble principal theme . . . sets in at once. This is announced by the horn, viola and violoncello, which are joined in the eighth measure by the violins:”

“This is meant to convey an idea of the embodiment of the hero in toto. The attributes of a genial nature, emotional and vibratory (a and b, also d), are his principal, fundamental characteristics. His step is haughty and firm (c), and, as it were, of iron his indomitable will (e).”

*Fritz Reiner and the Orchestra first recorded Ein Heldenleben for RCA in 1954, and Daniel Barenboim led the second recording for Erato in 1990.

the vault

Theodore Thomas

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


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