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The New World Symphony

Behind the Baton in Chicago

By Richard Carter | HUMANITIES, September/October 1999 | Volume 20, Number 5

By 1890, Chicago had rebuilt itself from the fire that all but destroyed it two decades before. The city was about to bask in the honor of being the host of a world's fair celebrating the four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in America. It saw itself on the brink of possibility, ready to rival New York not just in commerce but in culture as well.

The meatpacker millionaires and the cultural establishment of the city--Swift and Armour and University of Chicago president William Rainey and architect Daniel H. Burnham--quickly established that what Chicago needed was a world-class orchestra. They decided to hire the most famous conductor in nineteenth-century America, Theodore Thomas.

The story of Thomas and the men who succeeded him over the century is told in the Samuel R. and Marie Louise Rosenthal Archives of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra’s archives, whose work is supported by NEH, has been on a three-year project of appraising and cataloging its collection.

At the time Thomas took command, his reputation was enormous. He had led more than two thousand concerts from coast to coast, introducing American audiences to traditional European music and to some of the fairly new works by Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, Hector Berlioz, Richard Strauss, and Edward Elgar. On his arrival in Chicago, Thomas said he intended to establish an orchestra "without a rival and quite certainly without a superior."

In his first season, he took his newly formed orchestra on tour, first to Milwaukee and then to other parts of the Midwest and the South. It was the beginning of a tradition of travel that would eventually take the Chicago Symphony to forty-two states and twenty-two foreign countries. The concert programs, the reviews and accounts of parties for the visiting performers are all part of the Rosenthal Archives.

Thomas, who died in 1905 after thirteen years as music director, was followed by Frederick Stock, who like Thomas was German born and educated. Under both men the orchestra played a heavy diet of meat and potatoes nineteenth- century standard German repertoire. There was a nod in the direction of the Russians, Edvard Grieg, a few of the more conservative French, and a heavy helping of American music. The composer Richard Strauss said he found performances of his music to be the equal of Amsterdam's Concertgebouw and the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics.

In 1916, Stock became the first American music director to take his orchestra into the recording studio. He set down the “Wedding March” from the incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream by Felix Mendelssohn. A decade later the symphony was broadcasting on radio to the rest of the country, and eventually, by transcription, to the world. The archives contain a complete library of these recordings, one of its most valuable resources. These early recordings not only detail musical tastes, but also document the changes in performance styles and practices.

Stock's death in 1942, after thirty-seven years as its music director, brought a period of searching. Belgian-born Désiré Defauw was music director from 1943-47. Artur Rodzinski, a former assistant to Toscanini, lasted less than a season.

What followed next was one of the more controversial episodes in the orchestra's history. The symphony board invited the eminent German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler to become the conductor.

The problem with Furtwängler was political: Unlike many of his musician colleagues, Furtwängler had refused to leave Germany during the war. The American press and the U.S. classical music establishment branded him a Nazi, although by all accounts he was no Nazi and had even saved the lives of Jews before and during the war.

The composer Arnold Schönberg and the conductor Otto Klemperer, both Jewish, defended him. The violinist Yehudi Menuhin, a noted activist for Jewish causes, performed and recorded the Brahms and Beethoven concertos with him at Lucerne. The Rosenthal Archives detail the frenzy of the time, led by the Chicago Tribune. James Petrillo, the head of the musician's union, and others prominent in the musical world, including Arturo Toscanini and Vladimir Horowitz, protested the choice. The appointment was derailed and the symphony board withdrew its offer.

The selection went to young Rafael Kubelik, the son of one of the world's preeminent violinists and a champion of contemporary music. Music critic Claudia Cassidy of the Tribune was relentless with her criticism; Kubelik lasted three years. Although the stay was short, he made some of the orchestra's most important recordings, today considered collector's items.

The next man was to gain high marks: Fritz Reiner. His knowledge of the most complex works was profound. His memory was equally astounding. And his reputation as a tyrant preceded his arrival.

One section leader (who would not reveal his name for fear of retribution) said "All the stories you've heard about Reiner are not true, since he was much worse than that."

The Reiner reign was no holiday, by the accounts in the archives. He cancelled a European tour. He was openly hissed by the players before rehearsal. Several players stomped on his effigy backstage at one point.

In Fritz Reiner: A Biography, author Philip Hart writes about the idiosyncratic way Reiner wielded the baton, using small, close-to-the-chest gestures. "Musicians who poked fun at him for his tiny beat rarely got the chance to do so again. When a double bass player brought a telescope to rehearsal once for a better view of Reiner's 'vest pocket beat,' he was summarily fired. 'People say that I hate musicians,' Reiner once said. 'They are wrong. I only hate bad musicians.'"

Whatever the human cost on both sides, the recordings of that era show symphony members playing better than they had ever played before. They knew that though Reiner demanded much from them, he demanded even more from himself.

Reiner programmed more modern music than Kubelik had even considered—Bartók, Milhaud, Copland, Stravinsky, and Samuel Barber, to name a few. Since he was reluctant to tour, the Reiner achievement in Chicago was spread through the recordings. "From the Archives," available from the Chicago Symphony, reveal the Reiner reign in all its glory: impeccable balance in the orchestra, shimmering intonation, detail, an obsessive concern for clarity, and performances that are rhythmically taut but highly expressive. His recordings for RCA Victor won many awards and are still the benchmarks against which others are measured. Few have been out of print in any format in the last forty-five years. He lead the Chicago Symphony in the first commercial orchestral stereo recording: Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss.

When Reiner died in 1963, the Chicago Symphony went through an interregnum with French conductor Jean Martinon. Five seasons later, it was to regain its voice under the direction of Sir George Solti .

Like Reiner, Solti was Hungarian. A conductor of pronounced virtuoso and dramatic tendencies, Solti seemed to fit the big-shouldered appeal of the orchestra and the city itself. Good- natured about some of the outlandish schemes to broaden the orchestra's popularity, he even played "Bear Down, Chicago Bears" in concert before the team won the Super Bowl in 1986. "All these years I fight for the music of Bruckner, Wagner, Mozart, and Mahler," he remarked in mock frustration, "and now I become famous for a damn football fight song!"

Solti loved the full-bodied sound of the Chicago Symphony, or what the Germans call the "klang" of an orchestra, and his players responded to his rhythmic élan. If the soul of an orchestra and the soul of a conductor rarely meshed, it did here.

Within months of taking over the orchestra Solti reestablished the Chicago Symphony with a series of concerts in New York's Carnegie Hall devoted to the Fifth and Sixth symphonies of Gustav Mahler, works that test the mettle of the post-romantic orchestra. The New York critics were left speechless. Suddenly everyone in the music world was talking about Chicago and Solti. He was on the cover of Time. Tours followed to Europe, Japan, Australia, and the Soviet Union—all to great acclaim. He took the orchestra back into the recording studio for his label, Decca, called London Records in the U.S. By the time Solti left the music directorship of the orchestra in 1991 the Chicago Symphony had more Grammys than any other orchestra in the world.

Solti passed the baton to Daniel Barenboim, but remained affiliated with the orchestra until his death in 1997. Like Toscanini, whose assistant he had been at Salzburg sixty years earlier, Solti in his mid-eighties conducted like a man half his age. He capped his many years in Chicago with a legendary recording of Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger taken from live concert performances in 1996. His last recording, the enigmatic Shostakovich Symphony nr.15, was released just this year.

Mining the archives has already produced numerous videos, television, and radio programs about Frederick Stock, Fritz Reiner, Sir Georg Solti, and Daniel Barenboim. The archives have also been a critical source for biographers of Furtwängler, Reiner, Stock, and Thomas. "From the Archives" recordings in the collection trace the orchestra and its sound from Stock in 1916 to Solti. There is also a library of the commercial recordings, many of which are out of print. Another section contains marked-up scores from Thomas, Stock, and Reiner, which offer insights into the way a piece changed in performance from the 1890s to the 1960s.

Orchestra archivist Brenda Nelson-Strauss says the public response to the Rosenthal Archives has been at times overwhelming. A recent Shostakovich Festival prompted four hundred people to visit the archives and see exhibitions before the concert.

In January the Rosenthal Archives moved into a new facility with double the space. Eight hundred of the forty-five hundred square feet is devoted to a new reading room, and Nelson-Strauss reports, "We have additional capacity for listening to historic recordings and watching videos of the orchestra and the conductors who stood before it."

With its new home and state of the art facilities, the Rosenthal Archives hopes to ensure that the great performances of the past will inform the music making of the future.