Belfast, 2-4 November 2007


Theodore Thomas's 1902 Performance of Bach's B-minor Mass: Working within the Grand American Festival

Paul Luongo

(Florida State University, USA)

Over the course of his career, orchestral conductor Theodore Thomas became one of the most influential figures in nineteenth-century American musical culture.  As with many career conductors from the nineteenth century, Thomas has faded into the background of American history.  Despite this current obscurity, he was revered at the time of his death as a leader of American music.  Condolences from individuals such as Felix Weingartner, Arthur Nikisch, William Mason, and Richard Strauss contextually affirm his historical prominence.  Strauss best summarized Thomas’s realm influence in his condolences when he wrote, “What Thomas signified for musical development in America is universally known.  What we Germans owe him shall be held in everlasting remembrance.”

Thomas is best known today for his role in the founding of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but this was only a small part of his involvement in the musical development of the United States.  Also important was Thomas’s role in bringing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach to America.  Through Thomas's zeal to introduce Bach’s music, he conducted twelve premieres between 1865 and 1887.  These works included a cantata, a magnificat, one of the Brandenburg concertos, multiple suites, and the premiere of sections of the B-minor Mass in 1886.  Further establishing Thomas’s concern for the music of Bach is the fact that he was among only twelve individual American subscribers to the first volume of the Bach Gesellschaft edition.  Thomas’s interest in Bach’s music intersects with his involvement in the Cincinnati Musical Festival, a biennial event considered by contemporaries to be one of his greatest achievements.  This concert series is a paradigmatic example of the grand American festival, an influential nineteenth-century performance tradition.

Thomas’s 1902 festival performance of Bach’s B-minor Mass was not the American premiere, but it best demonstrates the conflict inherent in reconciling large festival performance forces with those implied by the composition.  While some of the larger contemporary European performances of this work used “only” a 250-voice choir, for this 1902 performance Thomas used an approximately 500-voice choir and 129-piece orchestra.  These performance forces were vital for any concert in the Cincinnati Music Hall.  Built in 1878, this massive venue was the musical pride of the city, and Thomas was keenly aware of its importance in maintaining support from the city and financial success at the festival.  For this reason, the conductor adapted works to suit the vast dimensions of the hall and the large chorus that performed there.

The B-minor Mass held a place of special significance for Thomas, prompting the conductor to calculate carefully any adaptations for its performance during the festival.  Fortunately, the score from his 1902 performance has been preserved and is currently in the Midwest archives of the Newberry Library in Chicago.  This score is particularly useful for the wealth of information it provides about specific aspects of the 1902 performance.  Theodore Thomas spent two years preparing the work, meticulously writing out in full every ornament, and every change to the instrumentation and orchestration.  Despite these changes, Thomas believed that he presented the work in a respectful manner while also maintaining the spirit of the composer.

Performance practice issues in Bach’s B-minor Mass have received considerable attention in recent years.  In light of the trend towards smaller performance forces (in some cases extremely small) and examinations of the possible size of Bach’s own choir and orchestra, it is interesting to examine a performance tradition that pursued an opposite aesthetic.  Knowledge of specific performance conditions before the recording age are often vague and speculative.  This score, however, is exceptional in providing a glimpse of the actual performance without consultation of any recording. 

Throughout his career Thomas developed firm views about his own musical ideal, but he also understood the significance of the American public in furthering his art.  The score to his 1902 performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor demonstrates the conductor’s ability to balance his own musical priorities with those of the American public.  Out of this compromise came a performance tradition that responded to the American aesthetic in a way that only an American could.

Last updated on 24 June 2007