b. Esens, East Friesland, Germany, October 11, 1835
d. Chicago, January 4, 1905
Theodore Thomas made his New York solo debut on the violin at age 15, and in 1854 he joined the first violin section of the New York Philharmonic Society. By the time Thomas assumed leadership of the Philharmonic in 1877, he had nearly two decades of conducting experience and had formed the Theodore Thomas Orchestra, with which he toured extensively throughout the United States and Canada. From 1868 to 1875, he gave summer concerts of lighter fare in Central Park Garden.
Thomas ruled the New York Philharmonic with absolute authority; the result was an ensemble of unsurpassed greatness that thrived both financially and artistically. The Orchestra could now afford high fees for celebrated soloists like Lilli Lehmann and Lillian Nordica, even though a few, like the pianist Rafael Joseffy, performed purely for the prestige of the occasion. Thomas’s salary, $2,500, was the highest yet paid by the Philharmonic to its conductor.
Thomas firmly believed that part of his role as conductor was to elevate musical taste by educating his audiences. This meant familiarizing them with established works by the old masters as well as exposing them to “contemporary” music. During Thomas’ reign at the Philharmonic, Beethoven and Wagner were played most frequently, followed by Schumann, Schubert, Mozart, Rubinstein, Brahms, Bach (recently “rediscovered”), Liszt, Berlioz, Dvorák, and Weber. Thomas led the American premiere of Richard Strauss’s early Symphony in F Minor with the Philharmonic. He would do the same for several of his later tone poems with the newly minted Chicago Orchestra, which he conducted from its inception in 1891 until his death in 1905.