Theodore Thomas (1835-1905) was one of the fore most American orchestral conductors of his time and the original director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Theodore Thomas was born in Germany, the son of the town musician of Esens. When Theodore was 10, the family moved to the United States, settling in New York City. The family suffered financial hardships, and Theodore was forced to earn money by playing his violin at dances, weddings, theaters, and public amusement halls. His formal musical training was slight. While still a teenager, he made a concert trip through the South, billing himself as a prodigy.
In 1854 Thomas joined the New York Philharmonic and also began traveling with famous soloists as a violinist. He found conducting exciting and became dedicated to raising Americans' musical taste. He organized an orchestra which gave its first concert in 1862 in New York City and which later made a series of nationwide tours, playing concerts in most of the major cities. Thomas's orchestra performed in churches, railroad stations, or whatever hall the town provided. His programs were geared toward educating the public in listening to symphonic music, combining the familiar with the unfamiliar.
In addition to conducting his own orchestra, Thomas became alternate conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic Society in 1862. Four years later he was made the organization's sole conductor.
In 1873 Thomas was asked to organize and direct the Cincinnati Festival; it proved one of the finest musical events in the nation. He took charge of the concerts for the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876, with unhappy financial results, and the following year became conductor of the New York Philharmonic. He continued his own orchestra, minimizing competition by programming his own concerts in a lighter vein than those of the Philharmonic.
In 1878 Thomas became head of the new College of Music in Cincinnati but resigned the next year when he realized the commercial nature of the enterprise. He returned to New York and to the Philharmonic, leading that orchestra to new artistic heights. In 1885 he conducted the American Opera Company, an insufficiently underwritten venture that failed after one season. Thomas was invited in 1891 to become conductor of the recently endowed Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He held that post for 14 years. In 1893 he was appointed director of music for the Chicago World's Fair but resigned when his elaborate program was jeopardized by public apathy and national financial reverses. He died on Jan. 4, 1905.
A primary source is Theodore Thomas: A Musical Autobiography (2 vols., 1905); the second volume contains a listing of Thomas's major programs. Thomas's role in the development of symphonic music in America is assessed in C. E. Russell, The American Orchestra and Theodore Thomas (1927), and David Ewen, Music Comes to America (1942; rev. ed. 1947).
Schabas, Ezra, Theodore Thomas: America's conductor and builder of orchestras, 1835-1905, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989. □