The names inscribed on the façade of Chicago’s Orchestra Hall – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Wagner – are familiar to every concertgoer. But another name that is proudly displayed not once, but twice alongside this pantheon of musical masters may be less familiar to you: Theodore Thomas.
Theodore Thomas founded what would later be known as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and was its first music director. But he was much more than that. Called “the father of the American orchestra,” Thomas was a champion of American musical excellence and left an indelible mark on the formation of our country’s orchestral tradition.
“Talentless and Sluggish” Beginnings
Less than 200 years ago, the phrase “American musical excellence” would have been something of an oxymoron. After all, the United States was considered unlikely soil for the planting of a great orchestral tradition. Our nascent nation sought to establish its own cultural institutions, though was ideologically opposed to the aristocratic patronage of the arts that was so central to European music. The United States also needed trained musicians, and plenty immigrated from Europe to the U.S. for work.
Back in Europe, many were not just doubtful that America was capable of establishing its own orchestral tradition: they were contemptuous of it. Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick jabbed at the opportunism of musical émigrés when he characterized America as “the promised land, if not of music, at least of the musician.” Negative stereotypes of American orchestras persisted as late as 1909, when Gustav Mahler wrote about the New York Philharmonic to a friend: “My orchestra here is the true American orchestra: talentless and sluggish.”
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