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Theodore Thomas, founder and first music director of the Chicago Orchestra, insisted that his young ensemble also needed its own chorus in order to perform important works in the repertoire. He enjoyed frequent collaboration with local choruses but desired an ensemble specifically dedicated to the Orchestra.

Arthur Mees

At Thomas’s insistence, the board of trustees of The Orchestral Association voted on July 3, 1896, to proceed with the organization of a chorus with the hope that Arthur Mees* would agree to serve as the Orchestra’s first associate conductor and chorus director, as well as program annotator. Mees previously had worked with Theodore Thomas in training the Cincinnati May Festival Chorus and also was assistant to Thomas at the American Opera Company.

Mees agreed and began to audition singers on September 8, 1896, but interest was much less than expected. According to Philo Adams Otis (a member of the board and the author of The Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Its Organization, Growth, and Development 1891–1924), the timing was off—it was just before the presidential election and Chicago was “aflame with excitement over the rival parties—[William J.] Bryan and ‘Free Silver!’ [William] McKinley and ‘Protection!’—but it was not a favorable time to talk of symphony concerts and chorus rehearsals.”

Roster for the Chorus of the Association’s official debut on December 18 and 19, 1896

Despite the sparse turnout, the Chorus of the Association began rehearsals on October 5, with ninety-five singers. Membership gradually increased, and the Chorus made its informal debut on the second concert of the season on October 31, leading the audience in The Star-Spangled Banner in “recognition of the presidential election, then near at hand.”

According to Thomas’s Memoirs (edited by Rose Fay, Thomas’s second wife), the Banner was performed as an encore, following Massenet’s “quiet and almost ethereal” suite, Les Érinnyes, using a “device [Thomas] had employed at the opening ceremonies of the World’s Fair. His new chorus were seated in the front rows of the parquet, to lead the singing of the audience, and a drum corps was placed on the stage behind the orchestra. As the last strains of the Massenet suite were still vibrating on the strings, the drums began a double roll so softly that it was barely audible. Louder, louder, and still louder it rose, till every heart began to beat wildly with excitement, wondering what was coming next. At last the moment of climax was reached, and then Thomas turned toward the audience, motioned to them to rise and sing, and, with the full power of the orchestra, the great organ, the chorus, and the [four] thousand people of the audience, all joining together in one stupendous maelstrom of sound, The Star-Spangled Banner was given such a performance as is not often heard. Many people were in tears before it was over, and when Thomas held aloft both hands to sustain through the full measure its final glorious chord, the singing was merged in a great shout—cheer on cheer echoing through the hall.”

December 18 and 19, 1896

The ranks soon increased to 125, in time for the Chorus’s formal debut in the Choral Fantasy and the chorus from The Ruins of Athens on an all-Beethoven program on December 18 and 19, 1896.

The Chorus would appear three more times during the Orchestra’s sixth season (1896–97)—in Grieg’s Olaf Trygvason, Nicolai’s Festival Overture on Ein’ feste burg, and selections from Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Parsifal—and then on five occasions during the following season—the chorale and chorus from Bach’s Reformation Cantata (no. 80), Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Brahms’s A German Requiem, and Mendelssohn’s 114th Psalm and selections from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

After William L. Tomlins, who had led the Apollo Chorus since 1875, announced his resignation in 1898, there was some discussion (according to newspaper accounts) regarding merging the Chorus of the Association with the Apollo. The accounts also mention the possibility of Mees serving as the director of the new ensemble.

A merger did not occur, and the Chorus of the Association was disbanded in the fall of 1898, most probably as a result of the Orchestra’s deficit following its seventh season and the departure of Arthur Mees, who returned to New York. The next year, Thomas appointed the Orchestra’s twenty-seven-year-old assistant principal viola—Frederick Stock—to also serve as his next assistant conductor.

*Arthur Mees (1850–1923) and Theodore Thomas likely first worked together during the inaugural Cincinnati May Festival in 1873, and Mees would serve the festival in a variety of capacities—including organist, chorus master, and assistant director—until 1898. He also was the program annotator for the New York Philharmonic Society from 1887 until 1896. After Mees returned to New York in 1898, he conducted the Mendelssohn Glee Club (1898–1904) and, in 1913, the Bridgeport Oratorio Society. His New York Times obituary concluded with, “He was a thorough musician and a constant friend to students. As a writer he had a gift of clear analysis and expression. His loss is a grievous one, not only to his friends, but to American music.”

Portions of this article previously appeared in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s program book in November 1997.

December 16 & 17, 1892, program book cover

December 16 & 17, 1892, program book cover

During the Chicago Orchestra‘s second season, music director Theodore Thomas programmed Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 for the first time with his new ensemble. The performances were given on December 16 and 17, 1892, at the Auditorium Theatre.

According to an account in the Chicago Daily Tribune on December 18: “Like whistling winds broken by the blare of trumpets and the crash of cymbals and again like a sigh breathed upon the strings of a harp, Beethoven’s ninth symphony and his music to Goethe’s Egmont were listened to by nearly 4,000 music-lovers at the Auditorium last night. . . . The highest social circles of the city were in attendance. Chicago’s cultured and fashionable classes enjoyed a musical festival in honor of the 122nd anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. For the first time in the history of the city the great composer’s birth was fittingly celebrated. In 1870 the 100th anniversary was observed with a concert in old Farwell Hall, but as compared with the event of last evening it was insignificant.”

What the reviewer recounted next is nothing short of jaw-dropping: “Mr. Thomas had his men play the last movement of the Symphony a full tone lower than it is written—a proceeding without precedent in the entire history of the great work and which bids fair to call down upon him the wrath of musical purists and classicists. The subject was vigorously discussed by musicians present at the concert last night, and, although many liberal minds defended the director in his action, conservatives who bitterly assailed him were not wanting. The men of the orchestra covered themselves with glory by playing the movement with entire accuracy a tone lower than was indicated by the notes on the music parts before them. . . .

December 16 & 17, 1892, program page

December 16 & 17, 1892, program page

“When the Apollo Club chorus of 200 voices [prepared by William L. Tomlins], together with Miss Minnie Fish and Mrs. Minna Brentano and Charles A. Knorr and George E. Holmes, joined with the orchestra . . . the majesty and grandeur of the music were highly appreciated and greeted with almost boundless applause. The words of the ‘Ode to Joy‘ were sung with such precision and distinctness they they could be heard and appreciated in every part of the house. When the notes of the Choral Finale had died away the vast audience applauded for several minutes.”

The reviewer described Thomas’s “innovation”—surprisingly, not mentioned at all in Adolph W. Dohn’s program note (the complete program book is here)—as follows: “The last movement of the Symphony Mr. Thomas gave in C minor instead of D minor, the key in which Beethoven wrote it. It was an act which demanded no slight courage on the part of the great leader, and there were not lacking last evening musical conservatives who indignantly accused him of ‘taking unwarrantable liberties with music’s masterpieces,’ and ‘marring the works of the great composers.’ Mr. Thomas did not make the change, however, save after long and serious consideration. To make the change meant to break one of the ironclad, time-honored rules governing symphonic form, and possibly to lessen slightly the brilliancy of certain passages. On the other hand, the change freed the sopranos from the necessity of singing numerous high Gs and As, and could but result in marked gain in the volume and quality of the tone produced. He weighed these matters and decided upon the transposition, a decision that liberal thinkers in the musical world will uphold him in and approve of.”

Even with the modification, the reviewer was moved to write: “The rendition accorded the Symphony last evening by Mr. Thomas and his forces was worthy of the work itself, of the master whose greatest power it represents, of the event the concert celebrated, and of the great leader to whom musical Chicago is indebted for so much. The orchestra was in its best condition, and upon it Mr. Thomas played as does a master upon some perfect instrument. The result was a performance technically flawless, interpretatively superb. . . . And last night the choral finale brought with it no disappointment. A larger chorus might have been wished for, perhaps, but in the Allegro energico and the great climax that follows, but in the other portions of the work—and it is in these that the chorus after all finds opportunity for effective singing, the voice parts in the climax being buried under a mountain of orchestral tone—in these portions, the 200 singers from the Apollo Club acquitted themselves most creditably, their work being satisfactory and deserving of sincere praise.”

There is no evidence to indicate that Thomas’s later performances of the Ninth Symphony were performed in a similar manner.

(The complete Chicago Daily Tribune article—courtesy of Proquest via the Chicago Public Library—is here.)

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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