A Crescendo of Forces: How Theodore Thomas & Friends Founded the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Learn the story behind one of the most well-respected orchestras in the world and how one man made today's Chicago Symphony Orchestra possible.

The renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra is one of the most respected orchestral organizations around the world. It’s known for its distinctive sound, its powerful brass section, and its many recordings, which have garnered more than sixty Grammy Awards.

But its beginnings were fraught with uncertainty and chaos. The creation and early survival of Chicago’s orchestra, and its permanent home on what is now Michigan Avenue, came down to a few dedicated philanthropists, a public that needed the arts, and one man in particular who insisted on creative freedom and excellence.

Up until the end of the 19th century, Chicago was not known for its cultural aspirations. That doesn’t mean they didn’t exist, but in comparison to New York, Boston, and other cities that had been around a lot longer, Chicago was the wild wild west.

It was perceived as a town of merchants and industrialists who cared more about making money than enjoying the finer things in life. Who had time for frivolous things like concerts when there were hogs to be butchered and railroads to build?

Chicago did.

Attending a concert in Symphony Center is one of the most quintessential things to do in Chicago. Here’s the story of how the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its home came to be in this excerpt from my book, Living Landmarks of Chicago.

History of Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Chicago’s first orchestral organization dates back to 1850, a mere thirteen years after the town officially became a city.

Chicago didn’t even have its own public water works when Julius Dyhrenfurth formed the Philharmonic Society. After that first season of eight concerts, the society continued intermittently under multiple leaders, none of whom could make a go of it.

Then in 1860, Hans Balatka breathed new life into the Philharmonic, and through the Civil War Chicagoans flocked to hear them.

After six successful years, interest waned and attendance dropped. Hans discontinued the Philharmonic Society and in 1868 reorganized it, but attendance was discouraging.

Still, he continued, and on November 26, 1869, Hans conducted the First Grand Symphony Concert at Farwell Hall.

Hans was “a good musician and an able Conductor,” according to Philo Adams Otis in The Chicago Symphony Orchestra. That November, however, good and able was overshadowed by the arrival of a touring orchestra from the east led by a former child prodigy.

Immediately following Hans’ concerts, on November 27, 29 and 30, Theodore Thomas’ Grand Concert Organization performed in the same venue. For weeks local critics denounced Hans and lauded Theodore, to the point that Hans accused one pundit in particular, the Tribune’s George Upton (a.k.a. “Peregrine Pickle”), of attempting to break up his orchestra.

The reality was that Theodore Thomas had set a higher standard, and from that point on, Chicago demanded it.

Born in Germany in 1835, Theodore took up the violin and before he was ten years old, the boy was paying the bills with performances at weddings, balls, and taverns. His family immigrated to New York City in 1845 and the prodigy quickly became a regular member of several pit orchestras.

Theodore was ten years old. Ten!

At the ripe old age of fifteen, he set off on his own, touring the country on horseback and setting up concerts which he arranged completely, from venue to publicity to ticket sales to performance.

He realized he needed an education and returned to New York, where he studied conducting. At nineteen he joined the first violin section of the New York Philharmonic Society.

Theodore visited Chicago three times as a violinist before 1869: in 1851 as a solo violinist with Jenny Lind, and then in 1854 and 1858 with a small orchestra.

He began touring the country with his own orchestra in 1862, making his first appearance in Chicago as a conductor seven years later.

Chicago wanted more of the Theodore Thomas Orchestra. In 1870, they returned for a seven concert series.

The next year, a line of ticket buyers stretched down Washington Street hoping to secure seats at the Crosby Opera House. It was Saturday, October 7. On Sunday, the city would go up in flames.

Crosby Opera House, which went up in flames in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871

In The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Otis recalled leaving his home on South Michigan on October 9th:

“…there I observed a line of men walking north, carrying violins, ‘cellos, trombones and other instruments. I learned, on inquiry, that they were members of the Thomas Orchestra, who had just arrived at the Twenty-second Street Station of the Lake Shore road. ‘We are going to the Opera House for rehearsal,’ replied one of the men.”

Theodore gathered his musicians and they moved onto St. Louis for their next engagement. He’d lost so much money, though, that he wouldn’t return to Chicago for several years.

That return would cement Theodore’s place in Chicago music history.

From 1877 until 1891, Theodore led Summer Garden Concerts in the Inter-State Industrial Exposition Building in Lake Park. The location, with its cool breezes, enticed men and women of all ages to come downtown, enjoy ice cream and lemonade, and pay twenty-five or even fifty cents for a dose of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.

Inter-State Industrial Exposition Building

Charles Norman Fay took in a performance during that first season. When Charles and Theodore met in person four years later, they became friends.

In 1889, Charles met up with his friend in New York. By this time, Theodore was fifty-three years old and he was tired. He was tired of traveling. He was tired of playing in scratch orchestras. His wife, Minna, was dying.

He complained that New York City couldn’t support his orchestra so he had to disband it, and he couldn’t find any patrons. New York treated him as a “music merchant, a commercial proposition, subject to the laws of supply and demand.”

Charles asked him to come to Chicago.

“I would go to hell if they gave me a permanent orchestra,” Theodore said.

Hell, with caveats. Theodore listed his requirements, and the successful Chicago businessman agreed to every one. The conductor would have absolute control over his orchestra and would have the freedom to create programs without regard to box office receipts.

An association would provide all necessary operational funds and guarantee against any loss. Charles acquiesced, but Theodore wasn’t done yet.

There were to be “no entangling associations of any kind with piano houses, musical colleges, or newspapers.” Orchestra members would receive contracts for twenty-eight weeks a year, with a series of symphonic concerts on Fridays and Saturdays for twenty of those weeks.

These weren’t the demands of a prima donna: they would ensure artistic freedom as well as financial support for his musicians.

Minna died in 1889, leaving behind Theodore and five children. The next year, Theodore married Charles’ sister, Rose. Rose was a force in her own right. Not only did she form the music clubs at the World’s Columbian Exposition, out of which grew the National Federation of Music Clubs, she also founded the Anti-Cruelty Society in 1899, an organization that to this day works to prevent cruelty to animals.

When Charles returned to Chicago and presented the proposal to his colleagues, he found immediate support. On December 17, 1890, he and fellow businessmen met at the Chicago Club and held the first meeting for incorporation of The Orchestral Association.

Charles went to work securing funds. The proposed guarantee was $50,000 a year for the first three years, and he figured he could get ten men each to guarantee $5,000 per year. Marshall Field was the first to sign on. Then Nathaniel K. Fairbank, followed by George Pullman.

When Charles approached Ferdinand Peck, who’d completed his Auditorium Building the year before, Ferd suggested a more reasonable sum of $1,000 a year. That would require a lot more investors, but they made it happen.

The rolls of those initial investors include the Armours, Blackstone, Fullerton, Hutchinson, Wacker, Leiter, Gage, and McCormick, a veritable checklist of Chicago’s wealthiest.

The first concerts performed by the new Chicago Orchestra took place October 16 and 17, 1891. They filled the acoustically perfect, though cavernous, theater in the Auditorium building with the sounds of Wagner, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak.

They also filled the seats, but it would be one of the few times that would happen. The theater was simply too large, and that first season was rough. They had to share space with other performers, and there was no way they could sell season tickets when there were open seats every night.

One concert brought in an abysmal $598. The season ended with a loss of $53,613.41. The second season didn’t fare much better, with another loss over $50,000.

Those losses were bad, but what happened with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was worse.

Exposition authorities hired Theodore as the Director of the Bureau of Music, which seemed logical considering his preeminence. However, his steadfast belief in artistic freedom may have precipitated accusations of a scandal.

Piano firms exhibiting at the fair insisted that no musicians could use instruments from companies that did not have a presence, which meant, for one, no Steinway & Sons. If a Steinway piano was found to be in use, teams would be dispatched to dump it outside the gates. 

This restriction was unheard of, and Theodore flat out told them that his musicians would use the best instruments, period. The exhibiting firms asked for Theodore’s removal, newspapers accused him of accepting bribes, and on May 17, Director-General George Davis asked for his resignation.

Theodore ignored the request. According to Otis in The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the conductor would have resigned, but it would have put his one-hundred and fourteen orchestra members out of work and they had families to feed.

The musicians performed every announced concert and Theodore led all but the last, on August 12, when he finally resigned.

During this time the fair had been struggling and the loss of an official music program didn’t seem like a big deal, but suddenly the crowd came en masse and the officials realized they still needed a Music Director. They came crawling back to Theodore.

He said no.

After two seasons of heavy losses followed by a summer of vitriol, Theodore considered skipping a third season with the Chicago Orchestra, especially when he was offered the conductorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

What a coup that would be! He wouldn’t have to train the audience, he wouldn’t have to deal with Chicago’s acrimonious press, and he definitely wouldn’t miss those piercing winters which were beginning to damage his health.

New York wanted him back, too. But, he thought of Charles and all of his other Chicago friends who had fought for the creation of this orchestra, put in the work, and guaranteed it with their own money.

Until the orchestra was either permanently established or abandoned altogether, he’d see it through.

The struggles continued. The orchestra could not fill the theater in the Auditorium building, and because they shared use of the theater with other performers, sometimes they’d have to find other venues. They had no permanent rehearsal space.

By 1896, Theodore was repeating a consistent refrain: the Chicago Orchestra needed a smaller, permanent hall. Without it, he’d have to quit. But, the rent they paid for the Auditorium was keeping it afloat, and Ferd wrote him a letter telling him that it was the massive building’s salvation.

Theodore, a man of integrity who felt his obligations keenly, stayed.

None of this happened in a vacuum, and The Orchestral Association in 1898 appointed longtime orchestra supporter Daniel Burnham as Chairman of a Committee on Organization with the goal of getting that permanent hall.

But the next year, the weather, attacks in the media, and stress had gotten to be too much, and on November 14, 1899, Theodore attempted to resign one more time. No one responded to his letter and he appeared at a meeting of the trustees.

He complained of the continued attacks by the press. According to The Chicago Symphony Orchestra:

 “Thereupon one of the Trustees, President of a steel corporation, and one of the ‘misguided lot of wealthy citizens’ of Chicago, said quietly: ‘We do not wish to think of your resignation, Mr. Thomas. You are engaged to play only the great works of ancient and modern times, and nothing else. If there are any deficits in giving the concerts, we will take care of them.’

Mr. Thomas never again suggested his resignation.”

The Trustees were determined to get Theodore his hall. They found a perfect spot, occupied by livery stables, on Michigan Boulevard between the Pullman Building and the Railway Exchange.

In 1902, Bryan Lathrop purchased the land for $450,000, and then later shared the title with Daniel Burnham and John Glessner before they transferred it to The Orchestral Association. In February of 1903, Charles wrote an article with the desperate prediction that the orchestra might be abandoned at the end of the season if people didn’t step up.

Money came in, but slowly. On March 24, Charles made a second appeal, and within three weeks they’d raised $375,000, half of what they needed. Burnham, who was donating his services, printed the architectural designs in the papers to generate excitement.

Season ticket sales opened in June, and although they were $6,000 higher than the previous year, the season still suffered a loss. The Trustees kept at it, and an insert in the March 4 and 5, 1904, program announced that $625,000 had been subscribed, and in the book of the final concert of the season on April 29 and 30, they announced that the next season would be in their brand new hall.

The first few concerts of the Chicago Orchestra’s fourteenth season took place in the Auditorium, but finally, on December 6, Theodore and his musicians held their first rehearsal in their new home.

Orchestra Hall in Chicago

It wasn’t quite done yet, with floors covered with detritus and the stink of drying plaster permeating the air, but Theodore was pleased, sending a cablegram to Burnham, who was in Manila, that the hall’s “Quality exceeds all expectations.”

On December 14, 1904, Theodore Thomas conducted his first concert in the new permanent home of the orchestra he’d built. He would conduct only four more concerts before succumbing to pneumonia on January 4, 1905.

The next day, pianist and frequent collaborator Ignace Paderewski sent the following in a telegram to Rose Fay Thomas, the conductor’s widow:

“Scarcely any man in any land has done so much for the musical education of the people as did Theodore Thomas in this country. The nobility of his ideals, with the magnitude of his achievement, will assure him everlasting glory.”

Theodore’s death, although not quite unexpected considering his declining health, still came as a shock and was an unreserved tragedy, but the orchestra he’d poured his life into was now on solid footing.

Frederick Stock, a fellow child prodigy and German immigrant whom Theodore had recruited when he formed the orchestra, was appointed temporary conductor while the Trustees searched for a permanent replacement. After everyone else they approached declined, they unanimously voted to give the job to Frederick.

In 1905, the Chicago Orchestra was renamed the Theodore Thomas Orchestra. While a respectful honorific, the name hampered fundraising efforts, and eight years later, the Trustees renamed it the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, founded by Theodore Thomas.

Geo. R. Lawrence Co., Copyright Claimant. Chicago Orchestra, founded by Theodore Thomas, Orchestra Hall, Chicago, Feb. 5. United States Illinois Chicago, 1907. February 5. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2007663605/.
Chicago Orchestra, founded by Theodore Thomas, in Orchestra Hall 1907

Frederick held the position of Music Director until 1942. During his tenure, he oversaw the first summer concerts at Ravinia, began youth concerts, and created the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, which to this day trains musicians for positions in the top orchestras in the country.

On May 1, 1916, Frederick began the orchestra’s long history of recording with Felix Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” from Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Columbia Records.

Frederick and Theodore are credited with building the foundation of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Since Frederick’s death in 1942, that standard of excellence has continued and been enhanced by conductors including Fritz Reiner (1953—1962), who established the Chicago Symphony Chorus in 1957; Sir Georg Solti (1969—1991), who took the orchestra on its first overseas tour and led them in more than one hundred recordings, and Daniel Barenboim (1991—2006).

Barenboim led the orchestra in its first appearance in his native Argentina, and oversaw the development of the new Symphony Center. When he left the CSO, he cited frustration with fundraising activities as one of his reasons. Theodore Thomas would have agreed.

For the next four years, Bernard Haitink was the orchestra’s Principal Conductor, but he declined the position of Music Director due to his age.

Riccardo Muti filled that role and has been continuing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s standard of excellence ever since.

The building itself underwent a few changes over the years.

In 1907, the Cliff Dwellers Club moved into the top floor in a space specifically designed for them. Chicago novelist Hamlin Garland and sculptor Lorado Taft founded the arts club, originally called the Attic Club and renamed in 1909.

It stayed on the ninth floor until moving next door—and thirteen stories higher—in 1996.

In 1950, Daniel Burnham, Jr., gave the interior a $75,000 polish. By 1966, the building needed an overhaul, and Harry Weese and Associates added a new HVAC system and modern elevators.

Fifteen years later, the original Lyon and Healy pipe organ was replaced, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill enlarged the stage and added new lighting, among other improvements.

Then in the 1990s, the firm oversaw a $110 million project, taking on the much-needed job of adjusting the acoustics, which had been a major complaint over the years, as well as creating the Symphony Center music complex.

Read more of Chicago’s fascinating stories in Living Landmarks of Chicago.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Symphony Center Today

Symphony Center, home of Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Today Orchestra Hall resides inside the larger complex of Symphony Center. It remains the home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Chorus, and Civic Orchestra of Chicago.

Buntrock Hall is a rehearsal and performance space, and event organizers can rent the Grainger Ballroom, which overlooks the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra continues its long history of excellence established and insisted on by Theodore Thomas.

Symphony Center is located at 220 S. Michigan Ave. Discover upcoming performances and learn more at cso.org

Sources for Orchestra Hall

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