b. Esens, Germany, October 11, 1835
d. Chicago, Illinois, January 4, 1905
Born to a father who was a violinist of ability and the town bandleader, Thomas expressed interest in the violin at an early age, and by age ten he was practically the breadwinner of the family, performing at weddings, balls, and even taverns. By 1845 Thomas and his family, convinced a better life for a respected musician awaited them in America, packed their belongings and journeyed to New York City. In 1848, Thomas and his father joined the Navy Band, but after a year his father ceased to support him, and he set out on his own, becoming a regular member of several pit orchestras and touring the United States as his own manager.
Thomas returned to New York in 1850 with full intentions of returning to Germany for advanced musical education, but instead began conducting studies with Karl Eckert and Louis Antoine Jullien, the beginning of a life of musical fruition in the States. He made his New York solo violin debut at age 15 with Jenny Lind’s orchestra, and subsequently joined the first violin section of the New York Philharmonic in 1854. He spent much of the 1860s and ’70s gaining conducting experience and fame with his chamber group — including Carl Bergmann on cello — which began a series of chamber music soirées at Dodworth’s Academy and with his Theodore Thomas Orchestra, founded in 1862, which toured extensively across the United States and Canada, along with light summer concerts in Central Park.
Thomas finally assumed leadership of the Philharmonic in 1877 and ruled the Orchestra with absolute authority. The result was an ensemble of unsurpassed greatness that thrived both financially and artistically, with 47 additional musicians brought into the fold. The Philharmonic 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’s tenure at the Philharmonic, Beethoven and Wagner were played most frequently, followed by Dvořák and the newly rediscovered Bach, among others. Notable performances included the US Premiere of Richard Strauss’s early Symphony in F Minor, along with a special festival at the Park Avenue Armory in which 200 musicians and 3,200 vocalists joined the Philharmonic. Conducting the Orchestra until 1891, he went on to premiere several of his later tone poems with the newly minted Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which he conducted from its inception in 1891 until his death in 1905.