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Theodore Thomas, the Chicago Orchestra‘s first music director, died on January 4, 1905. For many years after, the Orchestra would dedicate the first concerts of the new year to his memory, frequently performing works closely associated with their founder. We continue that tradition on this week’s radio broadcast, as Frank Villella, director of the CSO’s Rosenthal Archives, co-hosts a retrospective of works that Thomas introduced to audiences in the United States, both with the Chicago Orchestra and other ensembles.

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BRAHMS Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80
Daniel Barenboim, conductor
Recorded by Erato in Orchestra Hall, September 1993

In 1879, the University of Breslau in Poland bestowed upon Johannes Brahms an honorary doctorate, and to show his appreciation, he composed the Academic Festival Overture the following summer. The composer himself led the first public performance at the university in January 1881, and later that year on November 29, Thomas led the U.S. premiere in New York.

Daniel Barenboim, early in his tenure as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s ninth music director, recorded Brahms’s complete symphonies, along with the Tragic Overture, Variations on a Theme by Haydn, and the Academic Festival Overture, all for Erato Records.

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WAGNER Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde
Artur Rodzinski, conductor
Recorded by RCA in Orchestra Hall, December 1947

In the nineteenth century, Thomas was Richard Wagner’s greatest advocate in the United States, both before and after he founded the Chicago Orchestra. During his fourteen seasons as music director, he programmed Wagner’s music on nearly half of his concerts, both in Chicago and with the Orchestra on tour. Thomas gave the U.S. premiere of the Prelude from Tristan and Isolde in New York on February 10, 1866, less than a year after the opera’s first complete performances in Munich; and he also gave the first U.S. performance of the Prelude paired with the Liebestod in Boston on December 6, 1871. Thomas programmed these two works together fifteen times on subscription concerts during his tenure as music director.

Artur Rodzinski was the Orchestra’s fourth music director for only one season (1947–48). One of his great successes was a concert performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in November 1947, featuring soprano Kirsten Flagstad in her first operatic appearance in the United States since the end of World War II. The legendary Chicago Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy called the performance “the dawn of a new operatic day in Chicago.” A month later, Rodzinski and the Orchestra recorded the Prelude and Liebestod for RCA.

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ELGAR Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 (Enigma)
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Recorded by London in Medinah Temple, May 1974

Thomas gave the U.S. premiere of Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the Chicago Orchestra on January 3, 1902, and it was such a crowd-pleaser that he programmed it a second time later that season. A few years later in April 1907, second music director Frederick Stock invited the composer himself to lead several of his works, including In the South, the first Pomp and Circumstance March, and the Enigma Variations. The Chicago Tribune reported that, “The men of the Orchestra gave him their closest attention and heartiest sympathy yesterday, and the result was a performance of the three compositions which was technically and tonally of highest worth. Sir Edward himself seemed genuinely pleased and his assertion after the concert that the ‘work of the Orchestra surpassed all his fondest expectations’ evidently was the expression of his true feeling.”

Sir Georg Solti, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s eighth music director, recorded the Enigma Variations on May 15, 1974, at Medinah Temple for London Records.

reiner-heldenleben
STRAUSS Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40
Fritz Reiner, conductor
Recorded by RCA in Orchestra Hall, March 1954

During the summer of 1883, Thomas visited Europe and according to his Memoirs—edited by his widow, Rose Fay Thomas—the conductor, “had met, in Munich, a young and almost unknown composer, one Richard Strauss, who has recently finished writing a symphony. Thomas secured the first movement of the work, and was so much impressed with it that he requested young Strauss to let him have the other movements, promising to bring out the whole work in a concert of the Philharmonic Society.” Thomas kept that promise and in New York in December 1884, he led the world premiere of the Second Symphony in F minor—the first music of Richard Strauss to be performed in the United States. Strauss would later send new scores, and Thomas introduced several works to the United States with the Orchestra, including Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote, along with Ein Heldenleben, first performed in Chicago on March 9, 1900.

Near the end of his first season as sixth music director, Fritz Reiner made his first recordings with the Orchestra for RCA. In Orchestra Hall on March 6, 1954, they recorded Strauss’s Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome and Ein Heldenleben, with violin solos performed by then-concertmaster John Weicher. Reiner’s CSO recordings of music by Strauss have never been out of print, and in 2013, Sony re-issued Reiner’s complete CSO catalog on RCA, a boxed set of sixty-three CDs.

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TCHAIKOVSKY Final Waltz and Apotheosis from The Nutcracker, Op. 71
Morton Gould, conductor
Recorded by RCA in Orchestra Hall, January 1966

Thomas gave the U.S. premiere of a suite from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker on October 22, 1892, on the first concert of the Orchestra’s second season. The program note described Tchaikovsky as the “composer, who, in his fifth symphony, has led us into the highest realms of art and stirred our very soul,” and the note described the selections from the ballet as “miniature pictures painted with infinite grace and care,” showing the composer, “in one of his playful and trifling moods.”

Morton Gould, a frequent guest conductor on Popular concerts in the 1960s, recorded selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker at Orchestra Hall on January 31, 1966, for RCA. A six-disc set of Gould’s complete recordings with the Orchestra was released by Sony in February 2016.

In May 2016, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra celebrated 100 years of recording.

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Swift Bridge of Service  bandshell, date  (Chicago Tribune archive photo)

Eric DeLamarter and the Orchestra onstage at the Swift Bridge of Service bandshell, July 1, 1934 (Chicago Tribune archive photo)

A Century of Progress International Exposition—the World’s Fair celebrating the centennial of the city of Chicago—opened on May 27, 1933, and due to its immense popularity, was extended through October 31, 1934, attracting nearly fifty million visitors.

Beginning on July 1, 1934, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented 125 concerts at the Swift Bridge of Service, which linked the mainland with Northerly Island at 23rd Street. For ten weeks, the Orchestra regularly presented as many as fourteen concerts each week—a matinee at 3:30 p.m. and an evening concert at 8:00 p.m. every day of the week—only occasionally canceling due to extreme heat or rain and rarely repeating repertoire.

Weimer Pursell, silkscreen print by Neely Printing Co., Chicago

Image by Weimer Pursell (1906–1974), featuring the fair’s Government Building

Associate conductor Eric DeLamarter, who conducted more than two-thirds of those concerts, led the first program on Sunday afternoon, July 1. He conducted the Orchestra in Wagner’s Huldigungsmarsch, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, Parlow’s arrangement of two of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, Thomas’s Overture to Mignon, Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio italien, Glazunov’s Ruses d’amour, and dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor.

Guest conductors included Jerzy Bojanowski, Carl Bricken, Henry Hadley, Sir Hamilton Harty, Victor Kolar, Karl Krueger, Anthony A. Olis, Frank St. Leger, Willem van Hoogstraten, and Henry Weber. Several Orchestra members were featured as soloists, including concertmaster John Weicher, viola Clarence Evans, principal cello Daniel Saidenberg, cello Richard Wagner, principal bass Vaclav Jiskra, and principal harp Joseph Vito.

Frederick Stock led the final concert on Saturday evening, September 8, conducting his transcription of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, Ravel’s La valse, his arrangement of the love scene from act 2 of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and Respighi’s Pines of Rome.

This article also appears here.

Talks About Beethoven's Symphonies

In 1930, Oliver Ditson and Company published Talks About Beethoven’s Symphonies by Theodore Thomas and Frederick Stock. Rose Fay Thomas, Thomas’s widow, was the editor.

Theodore Thomas, the Orchestra’s founder and first music director, had completed analyses of the first five symphonies, according to the editor, “not intended by their author for professional musicians or dilettanti, but simply to serve as an aid to students and concert-goers in understanding and listening intelligently to these masterworks.” Following Thomas’s death in 1905, Rose Fay eventually asked Stock, Thomas’s successor, to complete the volume, contributing essays for the final four symphonies.

Excerpts from Stock’s essay—written in quite grand style—on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony are below.

“If we were to classify the nine symphonies of Beethoven we might attribute the First to Haydn. Not only was it strongly influenced by Beethoven’s teacher, but it could also have been written in homage to him. The Second may go to Mozart, for it is so joyously festive, so permeated with glow and warmth, that it might well be glorified Mozart. The Third, the Heroic, belongs, with the Fifth and the Ninth, in the realm of eternity. Then the B-flat major Symphony, the Fourth, might be called the Lyric, and the Fifth, the Dramatic. The Sixth, as named by the composer, is the Pastoral. The Seventh is, according to Richard Wagner, the ‘Apotheosis of the Dance.’ The Eighth might be called the Jovial, or Frolicsome. The Ninth—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. . . .

Freude

“Beethoven must have felt that he had exhausted the possibilities of instrumental expression and that nothing save the human voice could convey with sufficient eloquence the great thoughts he desired to set forth. . . .

“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.”

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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