Monthly Archives: June 2016

America Returns the Favor: Theodore Thomas

On the next Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, July 2nd, 5–6 pm on WRTI-FM:

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893): Piano Concerto No. 2 (1879–80), Finale
Richard Strauss (1864–1949): Symphony in F minor, Op. 12 (1883–4)

American conductor Theodore Thomas in Cincinnati, 1902

American conductor Theodore Thomas, Cincinnati, 1902

For the last few months on Discoveries, we’ve looked at the beginning generations of American composers of orchestral music. In the last decades of the 19th century they began making their way to Europe—mostly to Germany—to study their craft, which they then brought back. MacDowell, Chadwick, Parker, Paine, and others are prime examples of this pilgrimage. Their legacy remains to this day, through their music and their students.

We’ll turn the focus now, however, from the American composer to the American conductor—specifically, to Theodore Thomas, who, living from 1835 to 1905, fits right into this time. As the first music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and as conductor of other ensembles including the New York Philharmonic and his successful Theodore Thomas Orchestra, he is the emblem of the burgeoning life of classical music in the U.S. Thomas is the first truly famous American orchestral conductor.

In another twist from our recent look at American music, we’ll hear two works from Europe that received their world premieres by Theodore Thomas—in America.

It may be that no composer’s career is completely smooth, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s, although extremely successful, is no exception. Nikolai Rubinstein violently dismissed Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto to the composer’s face, but later completely changed his mind. In repentance he offered to premiere the Second Concerto. He would have, too, if he hadn’t died in 1881, so the world premiere went to Madeleine Schiller. She performed it in front of the New York Philharmonic that very year, conducted by Theodore Thomas.

Thomas was touring the U.S. with his own orchestra, mostly in cities with many German immigrants: Philadelphia, Cincinnati (where he also directed its conservatory and led its yearly May Festival), St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Chicago. His orchestra was to play Chicago one October night but arrived to find a large part of the city, including its intended concert hall, burned to the ground. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 had happened just the day before.

But Thomas was unstoppable. After two stints as New York’s music director in 1877–78 and 1879–1891, he worked with business leaders to found the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1891. He led it until his death in 1905.

Back to New York and the Philharmonic, in 1884 Richard Strauss was only 20 and by no means world famous. However, he was ferociously gifted and just happened to be a friend of Theodore Thomas. The world premiere of the Strauss First Symphony also took place in New York under Thomas’s baton.

And that hints at the other twist in this story of American classical music. It was natural that Theodore Thomas would know the music of Strauss and Tchaikovsky because Theodore Thomas, the first great American conductor, was born in Germany. His family emigrated to the States when he was 10, and so this reversed pilgrimage sparked America’s growth as an orchestral beacon to the world ever since.

The Bremen Town Musicians, for Orchestra

Orchestrated for narrator and small orchestra, 2016, for the English Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Woods, conductor, and premiered 10 Jul 2016. 1111–1110-1perc-narrator-str. 8′

Original composed 2008. Violin, cello, narrator.From a story compiled by the Brothers Grimm; version by K.S.  (Program notes, text, and recording of original here.

Here’s MIDI audio of the orchestral version:

Click on the first page below for the entire score:


The Greatness of Edward MacDowell

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, June 4th, 5-6 p.m.

Edward MacDowell (1860–1908): Piano Concerto No. 1 (1882)
MacDowell: Suite No. 1 (1888–93)

EdwardMacDowellAt the end of the 19th century, many thought that Edward MacDowell was the great composer America had been waiting for. He may have been. But if so, he was a great American composer cut down in his prime. The music of MacDowell is lyrical, vigorous, and at times gripping, but we get the feeling that we are witnessing the first blossoming of a great artist, one about to enter the later stages of a career that never happened.

His mother took the 17 year old to the Paris Conservatory. Already a prodigious pianist, he had taken lessons in his native New York City, even with the world-famous Venezuelan pianist/ composer Teresa Carreño. After top honors in Paris, he moved to Frankfurt, continuing with piano but also studying composition with Joachim Raff. He composed, performed, traveled, and met an impressed Franz Liszt in Weimar, who introduced him to the powerful music publisher Breitkopf & Härtel (which would publish MacDowell’s First Piano Concerto in 1911, three years after his death).

MacDowell also taught piano, and took on an American girl who had come to Frankfurt to study with the great Clara Schumann. Schumann was out of town at the time, though, so the school assigned Marian Nevins to MacDowell. Three years later they married.

The MacDowells moved back to the States in a few years, settling in Boston at the instigation of the pianist and conductor Benjamin Lang. It was a congenial place for MacDowell, who taught and whose work began to be performed by major ensembles. Both his First Piano Concerto and his first Suite for orchestra were premiered in that city, with Lang, in fact, conducting the concerto’s premiere. MacDowell had already composed the piece in Germany and had dedicated it to Liszt. The Suite was picked up by the Boston publisher Arthur P. Schmidt.

America was noticing Edward MacDowell, his success burgeoning from many solo piano pieces and songs. He did write a handful of orchestral works—a second concerto and the famous Second “Indian” Suite, some tone poems—but no symphonies. He moved back to New York City and became the first professor of music at Columbia University. Princeton gave him an honorary doctorate. He was one of the first elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He and his wife bought a summer home in New Hampshire.

All was not well, however. He had battled ill health of various, baffling forms for years, when in 1904 a horse-drawn cab ran him over as he crossed Broadway in New York. His physical recovery was hampered by severe depression and perhaps dementia. Dying four years later, his body was taken to be buried at his summer home, now the MacDowell Colony. His wife, by his side all though his illness, used the proceeds from his publications not only to establish the Colony, but to fund the work of other composers. Marian MacDowell, born in 1857, died in 1956.

Was Edward MacDowell the great American composer? For a time, yes, he may have been exactly that, a great composer cut down on the way to greatness. But even greater, his legacy enlivens countless artistic creators who live, work, and become a part of his beloved summer home.