Thomas, Theodore



Theodore Thomas was a self-educated musician, who by ceaseless industry and a constant maintenance of highest artistic standards became the first American orchestral conductor, and, according to some authorities, the first conductor of his time. Not only did he create orchestras of the greatest efficiency and interpretative ability, but he created the audience as well, for at the time when his work began, music of the kind he wished to play was almost unknown and unappreciated in America, and it was necessary to create a demand for it. The mission that he undertook has been nobly accomplished and love of great music is steadily growing throughout the country.


Theodore Thomas was born at Esens, East Friesland, Oct. 11, 1835. He was taught violin by his father, and is said to have played in public when six years old. Soon after the family's removal to America, in 1845, he began to play in an orchestra, and in 1849 he made his first concert tour, going through the South, and on his return to New York in 1850 he became soloist in concerts given by Dodsworth's performers, or played in theatre orchestras under Eckert or Arditi. In 1854 he was elected to the New York Philharmonic Society. In 1855 William Mason organized chamber-concerts, which afterward became famous as the Mason and Thomas Chamber concerts, and which had great influence on this form of music. The performers were William Mason, pianist; Theodore Thomas, first and Joseph Mosenthal, second violin; George Matzka, viola, and Carl Bergmann, cellist, later replaced by Frederick Bergner, one of the ablestcellists of the time. Thomas was the leading spirit in these concerts until they were given up in 1868. Besides the chamber-concerts Thomas did much other work. In 1856 he conducted a series of sacred concerts at the City Assembly Rooms. In 1857 and 1858, under the management of Ullmann, the impresario, he made concert tours with Thalberg, the pianist, and finally succeeded Anschütz as conductor of Ullmann's opera orchestra. He severed his connection with this company in 1861.


During these years of varied labor as orchestra conductor and concert player Thomas had reached the conviction that his true life-work lay in cultivating the public taste for orchestra music, and with characteristic zeal and energy he set about accomplishing it. Calling together the best orchestral players of New York, he laid his plan before them, and asked their support and cooperation. The result was an orchestra of about sixty men entirely under his control, with which he gave initial  performances at Irving Hall in 18rc  and also the first series of Symphony Soirees. The following winter more concerts were given, and in 1866 the famous Summer Night concerts had their beginning at Terrace Garden. These delightful concerts attained an immediate popularity, which lasted as long as they were given. During the season of 1866 and 1867 the number of concerts was increased and they were given in Steinway HalL Thomas also led the concerts of the Brooklyn Philharmonic Society. The second series of Summer Night concerts was given under the conductorship of George Matzka and F. J. Eben, Thomas being in Europe, and attracted such audiences that a concert hall was built in Central Park Garden, which was opened with the first Summer Night concert of 1868.


Although all of Mr. Thomas' undertakings had been artistically successful the financial results had not always been so good, and he decided on prolonged concert tours as the best method of meeting expenses of a large orchestra. Accordingly he organized a permanent orchestra in 1869, and made his first tour, beginning at Boston and going as far west as Chicago and St. Louis. This tour was immensely successful and a similar arrangement was followed for many years after, with ever-growing success and ever-increasing appreciation on the part of his audiences. The Summer concerts were continued, and in 1876 Mr. Thomas was made director m of music at the Centennial Exposition, but this work proved unsuccessful, owing to lack of popular interest. In 18 3 were inaugurated the Cincinnati Musical Festivals, which Mr. Thomas directed for so many years and by which he so greatly raised the standard of American musical appreciation. These festivals put him closely in touch with music in the West, and in 1878 he accepted a position as musical director of the newly organized Cincinnati College of Music, in the hope that this would afford him the opportunity he wished to educate public taste in America. Unfortunately Mr. Thomas' ideals and those of the governing body of the school were not in harmony, and his connection with the college lasted only two years. In 1880 he returned to New York and resumed his work as conductor of the Brooklyn and New York Philharmonic   Societies, giving musical festivals in New York and Chicago in 1882 and making a tour to the Pacific Coast in 1883.


About 1888 another crisis came in Mr. Thomas' life and work. For twenty years he had spent the winter seasons traveling with his orchestra, since there was no hall in New York which could accommodate it. The hardships of travel and the lack of opportunity for rehearsal made it hard for him to retain his high standard and he felt that his work was not progressing. It is not surprising that when Chicago, organizing an orchestra of eighty-six members in 1890, offered him the conductorship he should come   West and begin anew. His work with this organization is well known, and the orchestra which he developed shows what he accomplished. Two years after coming to Chicago he was given charge of music at the World's Columbian Exposition, but this work, like that at the Centennial, was only partly successful, owing to the indifference of the people. In 1904, when Thomas was almost seventy years old, the object of his life-work was accomplished. On Christmas Eve, 1904, the magnificent hall built by the people of Chicago for his orchestra was finished, and he conducted the dedicatory concert. It was the last time he wielded the baton. Attacked by pneumonia, he died at daybreak, Jan. 4, 1905.


In a sense the work of Theodore Thomas was finished. He had firmly established an orchestra of the very first rank, and he had awakened an appreciation of the best music in the minds of American people. But in a broader sense his work will never be finished; the ideals he has awakened and the knowledge he has implanted will bring increasingly great results in years to come. The reasons for his great success are embodied in his musical creed: "To endeavor always to form a refined musical taste among the people by the intelligent selection of music; to give, in order to accomplish the desired results, only standard works, both of the new and old masters, and to be thus conservative and not given to experimenting with the new musical sensations of the hour. I may exemplify this further by saying that, while Berlioz, Liszt, Rubinstein, Brahms and others may be, and will be given, such masters are never allowed representation to the exclusion, even in a degree, of Beethoven and Mozart. Nor would the first mentioned be permitted on the program if the great symphonies were not thoroughly understood by the public."


Theodore Thomas' success as a conductor was greatly augmented by his genius for arranging orchestral programs, a genius so great that his programs are everywhere recognized as models of their kind. He also had remarkable ability for adapting and arranging music for orchestral performance. His best work in this line is probably his arrangement of Bach's Passion Music; his adaptation of andante and variations of the Kreutzer Sonata; his arrangement of Chopin's Polonaise in A flat and his Funeral March; Schubert's Erl King, and Schumann's Traumerei. He received the degree of Doctor of Music from Yale in 1880 and from Hamilton College in 1881, and was an honorary member of the Italian Society of Artists at Milan and of Verein Beethoven Haus in Bonn, and he founded and was president of the Wagner Verein of New York in 1872. His excellent musical library is now in Newberry Library of Chicago.