Theodore Thomas (1835 – 1905)

November 28, 2011

Theodore Thomas, celebrated orchestra conductor, was born on October 11, 1835.

Christian Friedrich Theodore Thomas was born in Esens, Germany, and displayed a musical proclivity from a very young age. At just two years old, he begged his parents for a violin and was granted one that had been found in an attic. By five he had learned to sight read music, by six he had already given a public performance, and by seven he had traveled and performed throughout his native province.

Thomas’ father could no longer support his growing family, so they moved to New York in 1845 with the hope of success in the new world. Thomas supported his family through his violin performances, and the family’s financial situation improved, with Thomas joining his father in the Navy band on the Pennsylvania.

Thomas toured the southern states during his 15th year, and in 1851 was made a first violin of the Italian Opera Company. He spent the next several years traveling and gaining a reputation. In December of 1860 he was asked to fill in for an ill conductor at the Academy of Music in New York, and after thoroughly impressing the audience and the academy, became its permanent conductor.

In 1862 Thomas organized his own orchestra and performed at Irving Hall. He became known for interspersing more obscure works with popular symphonies, polkas, and waltzes in a bid to influence public tastes, and though initially met with criticism, Thomas eventually won over the public. He later became one of the head conductors at the Brooklyn Philharmonic and married Minna L. Rhodes, a music student, in 1864. He began a summer concert series the following year that continued for the next seven years.

Thomas’ orchestra began touring the United States and Canada in 1869 and spent the next 25 years bringing his sophisticated taste in music to cities that did not yet have their own orchestras, like Chicago and Boston. Minna died in 1889 and Thomas married Rose Fay the following year. Fay’s brother, Charles Norman, had previously asked Thomas to move to Chicago to found an orchestra, but it was not until after his marriage to Rose that Thomas finally accepted. The Chicago Orchestra was founded in 1890, and Thomas headed the orchestra for the next fourteen years, until his death, when he was buried at Mount Auburn in his wife’s family lot.

Theodore Thomas monument

Theodore Thomas is buried at Mount Auburn in Lot 6150 on Spruce Avenue where an impressive Celtic Cross commemorates his life.

Adapted from the research of Judy Jackson and Cathy Breitkreutz, as published in Mount Auburn’s Person of the Week: Theodore Thomas, 2000.

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