The American Orchestra & Theodore Thomas
By: Charles Edward Russell
Doubleday, Page & Company, 1927
In The American Orchestra & Theodore Thomas Charles Edward Russell takes on a subject that I had never considered before. Before Thomas began the Theodore Thomas Orchestra, there had not existed a permanent orchestra fully supported by public benefactors and ticket sales. Orchestra's did exist that were supported with government fund but none that could support itself. These government funded orchestras in the United States played music that, Thomas felt, was substandard in the world of music. He sought, with his orchestra, to introduce to the country great European composers like Beethoven and Wagner. His first orchestra made it's home in New York, but later it traveled the country. Thomas ended his career as the creator of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra which still plays in the orchestra hall he dreamed of and was finally able to have built shortly before his death in 1904. The hall still has the name Theodore Thomas Orchestra Hall inscribed in it's facade.
The story of Thomas and his orchestra is a painful one. Thomas spent most of his life in debt, partially due to his generosity and partially due to the fact that this type of orchestra was a novel idea in the United States and took some time to gain a footing. Thomas was also often criticized for not playing the type of music that the public wanted to hear - his standards were very high and he refused to lower them to play the waltzes and polkas demanded by the people. In the end, though, he succeeded in raising the standards of the people.
Russell knew Thomas and covered him as a journalist before writing this biography. Because of this he often writes in the first person. This is generally against all rules for this type of writing, but I found it a bit refreshing. It gave the story a more personal note - Russell knew this or that because he had witnessed it first hand. I truly enjoyed reading about this particular part of American history that I had never read about before.