- Category: November/December 2001
by Joseph Horowitz
Establishing an orchestra in Chicago
City of stockyards and railroads, of McCormick and Pullman, Armour and Swift, Chicago was new and raw. Founded in 1833, it was rebuilt after the fire of 1871. Between 1880 and 1890 its population doubled to one million, of which nearly eight of ten were foreign-born. An overgrown boomtown, a city of laborers, it also spawned an exceptional business elite whose aspirations would prove cultural as well as commercial.
As elsewhere in America, the first cultural stirrings, with regard to music, were instigated by Germans, representing one-third of the foreign-born population. As elsewhere, there were singing societies and a Philharmonic Society -- organized by Hans Balatka in 1860. As elsewhere, Jenny Lind, Ole Bull, and Louis Moreau Gottschalk visited. As elsewhere, the touring Theodore Thomas Orchestra effaced all local efforts. Thomas came regularly beginning in 1869. In 1877, he initiated an annual outdoor summer season at popular prices, a series that would run for thirteen years and total 360 programs.
A pivotal year for music -- for its accreditation as a prestigious civic signature -- was 1885. The Metropolitan Opera visited for three weeks; among its 21 performances were the Chicago premieres of TannhŠuser and Die Walküre -- a heady Wagner experience. Then came a Grand Opera Festival, featuring a company from New York's Academy of Music in such favorites as Semiramide, Lucia, I puritani, and La sonnambula. Adelina Patti, on opening night, drew a crowd of 6,000 to the barnlike Interstate Exposition Building in Grant Park. Advertised as "Music for the People!," the festival was also an unprecedented social occasion. Four years later, Chicago had a proper opera house: the 4,200-seat Chicago Auditorium, whose architects were Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, and whose supporters included the WASP business elite.
All this formed the backdrop to the Chicago Orchestra. Charles Norman Fay was a minister's son, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In Chicago he was, successively, vice president and general manager of the Chicago Telephone Company, president of the Chicago Gas Company, and president of the Chicago Arc Light and Power Company. He supported the Art Institute, Field Columbian Museum, and American Historical Society. But music was the Fay family's special object of devotion. As early as 1879, Fay wrote to Thomas proposing a Chicago orchestra, with assurance that "as far as money goes, I can form a strong and satisfactory society, with little delay."
Thomas was busy with other things. Fay waited; he was not interested in starting an orchestra for anyone else. In 1889 -- a famous anecdote -- Thomas and Fay met at Delmonico's in New York. Thomas's wife was dying. His savings had been wiped out along with the American Opera Company. He had given up his Thomas Orchestra. New York seemed not to want him. Fay asked if he would consider moving to Chicago. Thomas replied: "I would go to hell if they gave me a permanent orchestra." And the Chicago Orchestra was born.
In May 1890 Thomas, now a widower, married Rose Fay. The significance of this alliance was social as well as personal. Long itinerant, Thomas entered a world of privilege and wealth. With regard to the new orchestra, Fay was as good as his word. He assembled guarantees enough to insure a $50,000 subsidy for each of three seasons. If most of the backers had no special affection for music, their affection for Chicago was special enough. Thomas would enjoy complete artistic freedom. "All my life," he reflected, "I have been told that my standard was too high, and urged to make it more popular. But now, I am not only to be given every facility to create the highest standard, but am even told that I will be held responsible for keeping it so! I have to shake myself to believe it."
And Thomas had every intention of doing things his way. He decided to bring 60 musicians from New York, including key members of the old Thomas Orchestra, to create a core ensemble that could tour from its Chicago base. Only 26 additional musicians were hired locally. The Chicago musicians' union objected, to no avail. The contracts specified a maximum of 108 concerts. Rehearsals would be called at the conductor's discretion and were unpaid. During the 28-week season (including eight weeks on the road), members would "play at no balls, and at no performances of any kind in which the orchestra does not take part, without permission of the director."
The inaugural concert, on October 17, 1891, in the cavernous Auditorium,
swelled Chicago with pride and enthusiasm. The program read:
Wagner: Faust Overture
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (with Rafael Joseffy)
Dvorák: Hussite Overture
In the next three weeks, Thomas conducted symphonies by Schubert (Nos. 8 and 9), Schumann (No. 3), and Saint-Saëns (No. 3), Bach's Third Orchestral Suite, Dvor‡k's Violin Concerto (with concertmaster Max Bendix), Tchaikovsky's Hamlet Fantasy Overture, and vocal selections by Gluck, Schubert, and Wagner. An all-American program was pitifully attended. The season, overall, included ten additional concerts of comparably "serious" fare, four "popular" programs of garden-variety bonbons, and a "request" program of subscriber favorites.
Thomas had purposely pitched the repertoire higher than anything Chicago had known before: It was his mission. But what many in Chicago expected more resembled the summer garden concerts that had made Thomas a local favorite. The orchestra was called "this monster that nobody wants" and "the greatest curse to the musicians of Chicago." Though George Upton of the Tribune was a staunch supporter, the city's other leading critic, W.S.B. Mathews, wrote in his Music magazine that the orchestra had committed mistakes "of such gravity that any one of them might well have endangered the successful issue of the undertaking." Ticket prices were too high. There were too many "long works." Of Thomas, Mathews wrote that he "no doubt has his own ideas, and, for that matter, will stick to them." Mathews too, had his ideas. A self-made organist and pianist, a fearless freethinker who early espoused the Music of the Future and admired Arthur Nikisch, he called Thomas's interpretations "conventional and safe, rather than sensational. His work is characterized by great repose, but also by great reserve."
Thomas was taxed by such critiques. The orchestra's annual post-season tours to St. Paul, Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis, Nashville, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Milwaukee -- Chicago and its environs could not support 28 weeks -- proved arduous. The deficits were $53,613 for 1891-92, $51,381 for 1892-93. Fay and the guarantors loyally made up the difference -- but it was clear to all that false expectations had distorted the enterprise. The Thomas Orchestra's lakeside summer concerts had turned a profit; hot July evenings were soothed by overtures and dances, beer and cigars. The winter concerts Thomas now inflicted seemed a penance.
Tensions were brought to a head by Chicago's signature Gilded Age event: the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. This was the fair famous for its fairytale "White City" of waterways, lagoons, and monumental Greco-Roman structures and statuary. The music bureau was lavishly provided with two new halls and an orchestra -- Chicago's, expanded to 130 players -- for the entire six months. Thomas was named music director for the fair. He scheduled "a perfect and complete exhibition of the Musical Art in all its branches." There would be a noontime concert every day and two evening concerts of lighter music with a split orchestra -- all free of charge -- plus ticketed concerts of a more serious nature. Singing societies and bands galore would also take part. It would be the capstone of Thomas's career.
Everything went wrong. When it opted not to exhibit, Steinway was forbidden to furnish a piano for Paderewski; when Thomas had one smuggled onstage, he became subject to an investigation. As with the Chicago Orchestra at the Auditorium Theatre, concert supply far outstripped demand and the serious concerts interested the fewest customers. Thomas resigned after three months. Rose Thomas later reflected: "He was growing old now, and the many hardships and disappointments of life had left their mark and taken away from him the buoyant, indomitable spirit with which he had hitherto faced the worldÉHe was never afterwards the man he had been before."
The coming 1893-94 Chicago Orchestra season was the last covered by Fay's three-year guarantee; Thomas fully believed that, at season's end, the enterprise would die. Still, he went doggedly to work. The audiences grew. The guarantees were renewed. The press came around. The deficits shrank. The repertoire maintained its rigor. Thomas was perceived to have become a more amiable autocrat. The appreciation of the trustees was an unaccustomed balm.
In 1896 Thomas was at last able to abandon the "popular" programs that had leavened all previous seasons. He took the orchestra east the same year. The New York Times called it "a well-trained organization of mediocrities." He returned in 1898 with better critical success in New York and triumphant acclaim in Boston. He told the New York Press that he had no plans to leave Chicago or to alter his method there: "I do not adapt my work to audiences, they must adapt themselves to the music."
In fact, the adaptation had at last taken hold sufficiently to insure the likelihood of permanence. Bravely emulating Henry Higginson's Boston Symphony, the Chicago Orchestra had suffered a premature birth. The infant struggled, gasped for breath and was firmly supported until conditions for survival -- experienced audiences long before established in Boston and New York -- were attained. The effort was improbable, the outcome heroic.
Midwestern advances in musical understanding, Thomas once wrote, were due "almost wholly to women. They have more time to study and perfect themselves in all the arts. They come together in their great clubs and gain ideas." In Chicago, Anna Millar, the orchestra's manager from 1895 to 1899, played an outstanding role in increasing subscription sales.
But it was doubtless Rose Fay Thomas, at his side, who most directly inspired and instructed Thomas about women's roles in art. She was his emotional bulwark and aide-de-camp. For the 1893 exposition, she chaired a three-day national convention of women's amateur music clubs. She was no Midwesterner, but a transplanted New Englander who returned to Cambridge after her husband's death. Her influence may be inferred from her correspondence and from her valuable Memoirs of Theodore Thomas. It was Mrs. Thomas's observation that "A little experience taught [Thomas] that neither children nor what are called Ôwage-earners' were sufficiently advanced intellectually to be able to appreciate the class of music which was his specialty." Writing to a friend in 1892, she said:
Mr. Thomas is here to establish a great art work, and to make Chicago one of the first musical centers of the world -- and not to provide a series of cheap musical entertainments for the riff-raff of the public. The highest forms of art -- whether it be in painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, music or any other branch -- are not within the comprehension of the masses, they are the delicate blossoms which make the crown and glory of the shrub called humanity, but which roots and branches and stems can only catch vague glimpses of through parted leaves, and never wholly see. So it is a useless task to attempt to produce the highest form in any art, in such a way that it can be appreciated by the ignorant. All that can be done is to produce it, and let it stand till the ignorant acquire a little education and begin to understand it.
In short, Mrs. Thomas was of her class: a new milieu for her crusty spouse. Chicago here introduces a different tone to the symphonic enterprise, one not to be heard in New York from the likes of Carl Bergmann, Leopold and Walter Damrosch, Antonin Dvor‡k, Jeannette Thurber, or Anton Seidl, or from Henry Higginson in Boston. This pronounced us-and-them sensibility, whether welcoming or patronizing or condemnatory, was in Chicago made inescapable by manifestations of social unrest central to the civic imagination. The watershed event was the Haymarket Riot of 1886, triggered when a bomb exploded during a labor protest, killing a policeman; in the ensuring melee, five more officers were fatally shot, as were an undetermined number of protestors. Eight men, six of German extraction, were tried, convicted, and executed on scant evidence.
The specter of German "anarchists" distressed the business elite. The Commercial Club furnished land for an army base outside the city. But a kinder response was equally attempted. Twenty-five days after the Haymarket melee, Ferdinand Peck addressed the Commercial Club. A prominent philanthropist, he had presided over the grand Opera Festival of 1885 and there promoted "Music for the People" at prices "within the reach of all" as an antidote to "crime and socialism." Peck's post-Haymarket speech, titled "The late Civil Disorder; Its Causes and Lessons," pushed for a gigantic opera house for all Chicago: what became the $3.2 million Auditorium Theatre four years later. Chicago's commercial leaders played little role in city government, with its Irish and German ward politicians. Their emerging civic responsibilities were cultural. Social engineering was one rationale.
The Chicago Orchestra, in this context, complexly embodied the elitist or democratic aspirations of a Rose Fay Thomas, Ferdinand Peck, or Charles Norman Fay. No consistent picture of the orchestra's social role emerges. Its subscription ticket prices, which some thought too high, were comparable to the New York Philharmonic's; subscriptions to the Boston Symphony (in so many respects Chicago's model) were substantially less expensive. The orchestra also gave occasional "workingmen's concerts" with tickets for as little as ten cents. Similarly, Chicago's Apollo Club -- its most prominent singing society, and a WASP preserve -- offered inexpensive workers' concerts from which its regular subscribers were excluded. This form of segregation reflected cleavages in the population at large. Unthinkable in New York was the orchestra's refusal to advertise in the German-language press or to supply complimentary tickets to German-language critics. When challenged by the Freie Presse, Charles Norman Fay responded: "Germans who have contributed to the support of the orchestra, either in the purchase of tickets or by direct donationÉare few in number, and their donations have beenÉsmall in amount." And yet German was the language of the orchestra's rehearsals.
In fact, the German cultural community, stigmatized by labor unrest, seems not to have intersected with the musical mainstream, as in New York. Notwithstanding its German conductor, membership, and repertoire, the Chicago Orchestra engaged the Apollo Club as its chorus of choice. Nor was there, as in Boston or New York, a prominent aggregation of local composers, mostly German-trained, to fortify the moment. Compared to Higginson's orchestra or Seidl's, Chicago's was emulative, curatorial.
The aging Theodore Thomas -- his new marriage, his new susceptibility to melancholy -- fits this picture. Thomas's disillusionment was not the product of individual mishaps or failures merely, but of a larger disappointment. The barnstorming populist -- plying the Thomas Highway, seducing novice listeners with the vanishing pianissimos of TrŠumerei -- seemed not even a memory. His mission of uplift -- educating and elevating audiences toward pure sermons in tones -- was in one respect an astonishing success. He laid the foundation for the Boston Symphony, for the Chicago Orchestra, for half a dozen other orchestras soon to come. But many listeners fell by the wayside in the process. His credo of 1874, that "the people will enjoy and support the best in art when continually set before them in a clear and intelligent manner," was not sounded in Chicago. Faced with complaints that his programs were too formidable, that too many seats remained empty, he replied: "To those who cannot enjoy the great music, poor fellows, I do not grudge what they can enjoyÉI will play for them now and then, but it is not for Tell Overture and Handel Largo that Chicago supports my orchestra. One does not buy a Krupp cannon to shoot sparrows." His hair turned white, his hard features softened. He grew a paunch. He looked, commented the Chicago Evening Post, "more like a substantial banker than one of the four most renowned conductors in the world." Thomas's uncompromising repertoire was not only more sober than in Highway days. He had also grown more conservative.
At the 4,200-seat Auditorium, the Chicago Orchestra was envisioned filling twice that number weekly. Thomas quite realistically began insisting that the orchestra needed a smaller home. Like Dvor‡k, like Seidl, like Thurber, he had doubtless imagined that, as in Germany or Bohemia, American symphonies and concertos would ultimately spring from native soil, would nourish and shape the culture at large. Informing his copious programming for the 1893 Exposition was the belief that concert music would become central to the American experience. In retrospect, the failure of music at the fair was prophetic. Surveying the fate of the music bureau's agenda in the wake of Thomas's forced departure, Chicago's Staats Zeitung summarized: "We have good music, but too much of itÉexperience teaches that the class which enjoys classical music is a small minority."
Declining physically and tiring of Chicago winters, Thomas in 1903 issued an ultimatum to the board: "Unless in the next six months a sufficient endowment can be raised to provide a suitable building in which to carry on the work of our institution, I shall resign my position and go elsewhere." The trustees duly raised the necessary funds, including $750,000 in the form of more than 8,000 individual donations from the general public. Orchestra Hall, with 2,500 seats and a gleaming white interior, was inaugurated on December 14, 1904. The program included the Tannhäuser Overture, Beethoven's Fifth, and Strauss's Death and Transfiguration. Thomas mounted the podium to a storm of applause, which he acknowledged with tears. Twenty-one days later, he was dead, worn out at the age of 69.
Thomas's death shocked Chicago and the nation. Chicago's telephone operators were instructed to tell callers, "Theodore Thomas is dead," before asking, "Number, please." Chicago's newspapers called him "dean of the world of music," the "greatest conductor of his time." In New York, Thomas was recalled from a distance. The Times described him as an exemplar for "the older generation of music lovers," versus "the Ômodern' conductor that has evolved from Wagner's influence." Six years later, the Musical Courier called him "a human metronome, a drill master who never yielded for a moment to a flexible or emotional indiscretion, as he would have called it."
In the wake of Thomas's death, the trustees of the Chicago Orchestra renamed it the Theodore Thomas Orchestra. Though major Europeans were considered, Frederick Stock, Thomas's 32-year-old assistant, was appointed music director. Stock's tenure lasted 37 years. Like his mentor, he was German-born, predisposed to German music and a burnished Germanic sound. He eschewed the flamboyance and glamour of his post-war colleagues in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. The Thomas-Stock orientation was absorbed by the orchestra as an enduring artistic identity.
Perennially homeless, Thomas was welcomed by Chicago as a Moses. No other American orchestra began with a music director of such stature, one whose imprint proved as resilient and firm. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra -- so renamed in 1913 -- was Theodore Thomas's final legacy.