THEODORE THOMAS'S MUSICAL GRANDCHILD
(MAUD POWELL'S DEBUT)
There is no thought to be taken about precedents,
for there is no precedent.
‑‑‑ Francis Bacon
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.
It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did
not know, . . .
‑‑‑ Walt Whitman
It was springtime in Aurora, a perfect time for a family reunion. Those who knew Bramwell Powell had never seen him happier. On April 19, 1885, he had returned from New York with his wife and daughter. He could not take his eyes off his Maud; his little girl had been transformed into a young woman. Charles Van Liew, who used to play the cello with Maud, noted that she was “looking her best.” “She had a splendid figure, moved with spring and vivacity, and her cheeks were becomingly plump and rosy.”1 If the father could hardly recognize his daughter as a result of her physical transformation, he could find great comfort and satisfaction in the fact that she remained unaffected in manner ‑‑‑ simple, modest, vivacious ‑‑‑ her sense of humor and keen sense of fun still intact.
Bram’s friends said he “counted nothing as lost that enhanced . . . [his daughter’s] culture and widened her powers.2 In this, his wife was at one with him. Maud’s parents could embrace each other feeling that their daughter’s gifts and her development of them had justified the sacrifice they had made to further her musical promise.
At the behest of the people of Aurora, gratified by the honest efforts she had made and proud of her success, Professor Stein scheduled a “musical welcome” in Maud’s honor for May 11, in which she would appear with a variety of local artists. Through music, Maud could thank the many family friends in Aurora for their support and dispel the skepticism about her abilities that underlay the fuss that had been made over her return from study abroad. Maud responded to the gesture with a note, part of which read: “I am very glad to be at home again. The warm greetings and generous appreciation you give me, are a source of great pride and much gratification, for I have desired first, to please and satisfy my friends. I return to Aurora, as a child to its dear home, . . . happy to be among those whom I love.”3
More than a week before the concert the Coulter Opera House was sold out for “the grandest affair of its kind ever held in this city.” The program was light. Stein’s Orchestra played “Home Sweet Home” as the audience eagerly awaited the young violinist’s appearance: “With firm step and the perfection of youthful grace she walked upon the stage, with a self possession which many an older artist would fain acquire. Opera glasses were leveled and the eyes were satisfied, the magic bow was drawn and harmonies from another world delighted the ear.”4
Maud rendered Sarasate’s technically demanding Faust Fantasie with breathtaking ease and perfection. She stood with “willowy grace, bending over her beloved instrument with the soulful eyes of an artist,” and when she released the final notes the audience shouted and applauded its approval, showering her with floral pieces which she smilingly acknowledged. She then played Nardini’s Larghetto, Zarzyki’s Mazurka, and Dancla’s Bolero. One reporter wrote: “The star of the evening was Miss Maud Powell, tall, graceful and girlish. There was about her a dignity that comes of a life decorously spent and native gentility combined. She was of Aurora, and Aurora determined to show its pride and appreciation of her four years of patient climb up the rugged steps of art to fame and we might almost say, perfection.”5
The violinist had won over her hometown, according to local critics: “The large audience, many of whom had come with suspicious ideas that her talents were greatly over‑estimated, applauded to the echo, and none of them departed with any other idea than that they had been in the presence of an artist of wondrous capability.” Maud made the listeners feel that they were in the presence of a “human being who has great gifts and who dedicates them to the uplifting of his fellow man.”6
Maud soon journeyed to Chicago to seek out her former teachers William Lewis and Agnes Ingersoll. The crucial question now was how to launch her career. There was only one answer. She must play with an orchestra conducted by Theodore Thomas. Maestro Thomas stood at the pinnacle of classical music in America and as a conductor was hardly equaled abroad. The history of classical music in America is inextricably intertwined with the life of Theodore Thomas, so great was his ideal and so fully was it lived.7
Born in 1835 in Hanover, Germany, Thomas was a violin prodigy when he arrived in America with his family at the age of ten. When the Italian Opera Company was formed in New York, he played among the first violins and taught himself how to develop a singing tone by studying the technique of such singers as Jenny Lind and Henrietta Sontag. In 1852 the completely self‑educated Thomas was made concertmaster of the orchestra, then under the direction of Luigi Arditi, and at the age of twenty‑two, he became the company’s permanent conductor.
By 1854, Thomas had been elected a member of the Philharmonic Society of New York, and for thirty‑six years his name was associated with this orchestra, first as a violinist and later as its conductor. From 1855 to 1868, Thomas also led the Mason‑Thomas String Quartet, and by 1859 he was regarded as America’s most accomplished violinist.
When he was twenty‑seven, Thomas found that he could not be satisfied with the standard set by the New York Philharmonic, that the field of quartet music was too restrictive, and that the opera, which he conducted, was not wholly congenial to his nature. There was only one thing for him to do ‑‑‑ create his own orchestra. With the formation of the Theodore Thomas Orchestra in 1862, he dedicated himself to conducting, determined to raise his audiences and musicians alike to an appreciation for the highest form of classical music.
It was a goal not easily attained. The public of the period was used to programs filled with miscellany designed solely for entertainment, programs characterized by a hodge‑podge of vocal and instrumental numbers. Thomas’s aim was to accustom these same audiences to purely orchestral music, the highest expression of which was the symphony. He discovered soon after organizing his orchestra that he could not sustain public interest in a complete symphony. Instead, he had to offer music of the lightest character compatible with his standards, which meant that he could present only one movement of a symphony sandwiched in among opera overtures and waltzes to lighten the fare.
Theodore Thomas was an autocratic conductor who demanded the best from his men, expecting their full devotion to their work ‑‑‑ a standard he likewise demanded of himself. He did everything in his power to protect his players and look after their welfare, paying their salaries out of his own pocket when necessary even when, following the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871, it meant financial ruin for him.
He raised the quality of their performance to the highest in America ‑‑‑ and eventually beyond standards set in Europe ‑‑‑ by keeping his men playing together all year and by drilling them until they played with perfection. He was the first to compel the string sections to bow every work uniformly, insisting that the phrasing with the bow was critical to the quality of sound the orchestra achieved. Steinway Hall on Fourteenth Street became his orchestra’s permanent home when it opened in the winter of 1866‑67.
In 1867 the self‑educated Thomas went to Europe to take the measure of himself, his standards, his goals, his techniques. Thomas met Berlioz in Paris and then Dvořák in Berlin, where he heard Joachim play Beethoven’s violin concerto. Thomas was surprised to find himself ahead of the first European musicians in conducting, and he had little to learn in quartet and solo playing even from Joachim. The trip confirmed him on his course, giving him new confidence. He was further fortified with new ideas for attracting audiences to his concerts through the irresistible melodies of Johann and Josef Strauss.
Thomas was now a master program-builder. His New York Summer Night Concert programs were at once attractive and educational to the public. He divided each program with two long intermissions. The first part was composed of short, brilliant pieces, during which latecomers were settled. The second part featured symphonic movements and classic gems, presuming the audience to be settled down and receptive. The third part featured marches, waltzes, and pieces with rich orchestral color and strongly marked rhythms, rejuvenating the audience with high spirits and sending them home happy.
Thomas said, “What our over‑worked business and professional men most need in America is an elevating mental recreation which is not an amusement.”8 This he provided for them, rarely presenting the same program twice and giving performances which met the highest standards, rising above the mediocrity that he claimed was the “curse of art.”
After the 1868‑69 season, Thomas gave up the unremunerative winter concert season in New York in favor of a tour schedule which at first included the larger cities of the East and Midwest as well as smaller ones along the route. Between 1869 and 189l, Thomas traveled a “Musical Highway” several times a year, thereby becoming the educator in classical music of a nation. He nowhere dropped his standards, forcing all his audiences to reach for something that was above them collectively.
By 1870, Thomas could give a whole symphony for the Summer Night Concerts in New York, although he did it only occasionally. This progress encouraged him to use the centennial of Beethoven’s birth to render a Beethoven program in each city along the “Highway.” For most cities, it was a first.9
From the beginning, Thomas persistently presented to American audiences new music not previously performed in the United States, and sometimes not even in Europe:
The people cannot read new scores for themselves, as they read new books, it is therefore one of the missions of a symphony orchestra to perform for them the current musical literature. . . . As for the American composers, the only way in which to develop composition in our own country is to play the works by American writers side by side with those of other nationalities, and let them stand or fall on their own merits. I do not believe in playing inferior works merely because they are American, nor rejecting good ones because they are not foreign. Let our composers realize there is a standard to be reached before they can be recognized, but that if they do reach it, they will be certain of equal recognition with writers of other nations. They will then have an incentive to produce the best that is in them and will produce it.10
In March of 1873, the appearances of Anton Rubinstein, pianist, and Henri Wieniawski, violinist, in the United States enabled Thomas to present a program which for the first time met his personal standard.11 In Chicago, Rubinstein played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in E‑flat and Wieniawski played his own Concerto No. 2. Rubinstein described his experience with the Thomas Orchestra to William Steinway, the piano manufacturer:
I shall take away with me from America one unexpected reminiscence. Little did I dream to find here the greatest and finest orchestra in the wide world. I have been in Munich, Brussels, Amsterdam, London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and all the great European art centers, but never in my life have I found an orchestra and a conductor so in sympathy with one another, or who followed me as the most gifted accompanist can follow a singer on the piano. There exists but one orchestra of sixty or eighty men which plays so perfectly, and which is known as the Imperial Orchestra of Paris, and was created by a decree of the French Senate in the days of the first Napoleon and they are engaged for life. They may have twenty or more rehearsals for one performance, to insure absolute perfection, and they play as perfectly as the Thomas Orchestra, but unfortunately, they have no Theodore Thomas to conduct them.12
Theodore Thomas and his orchestra first came to Chicago on a permanent seasonal basis with the opening of the Chicago Summer Night Concerts in 1877. These concerts were held in the Interstate Industrial Exposition Building near the railroad tracks on the Lake Front of Michigan Avenue, opposite Adams Street, until 1888. Eventually, in 1891, Thomas fulfilled his dream of a permanently endowed orchestra in that Midwestern city. He found the people of Chicago “openhearted, generous, and enthusiastic” and claimed that “Chicago is the only city on the continent, except New York, where there is sufficient musical culture to enable me to give a series of fifty successive concerts.”13
The Chicago Summer Night Concerts enhanced the friendship between Theodore Thomas and William Lewis. Hence it was natural for Lewis to introduce his protégée to the great conductor. Maud recalled: “My introduction came to Theodore Thomas through ‘Billy’ Lewis, my Chicago teacher. It seemed impossible to make an appointment with Mr. Thomas as Mr. Lewis’ letter was disregarded. I reported this to Mr. Lewis, who straightway wrote another and a stronger letter to Mr. Thomas, in which I understand some strong language was used. Mr. Lewis said ‘damn it’ he must hear Maud Powell; that he, William Lewis, was not the person to recommend anyone to a man in Mr. Thomas’ position, whose talent was not worthy of the introduction.”14
Unknown to Maud and her teacher, Thomas had embarked on a transcontinental tour from Maine to San Francisco in April, and he might not have received the letters until later. Maud waited with increasing anxiety as Thomas’s reply was delayed: “At the time I finished my studies abroad and returned to this country . . . girl violinists were looked upon with suspicion, and I felt that I had a hard road to travel in my native land.”15 Many another young woman would have retreated from her ambition right then, but Maud Powell was no ordinary lady. It was inconceivable to her that anything or anyone could stand between her and her artistic destiny. With her mother, she went to New York City and found her way to Steinway Hall to face the man who stood at the doorway to her future:
I determined to take matters into my own hands. I walked into the hall one morning where the rehearsal was being held with my violin under my arm. When it was over, and before the musicians had dispersed, I walked up to the great leader. My heart was in my throat, but I managed to say pretty bravely, “Mr. Thomas, I am Maud Powell, and I want you to give me a chance to play for you.” His big heart was touched, I suppose, for he nodded his head, reached out his hand for my score, and called the musicians together. I knew it was a crucial moment in my life ‑‑‑ a girl only eighteen [seventeen] daring to be a violinist and demanding a hearing of the greatest orchestral leader in America! I had brought the score of the Bruch Concerto, and it is not difficult to do one’s best when one knows every note of a concerto backward. When I had finished, Mr. Thomas engaged me on the spot for his next concert.16
It seemed as if half of Aurora turned out for the Summer Night Concert on July 30, 1885. Chicagoans turned out in force as well. One critic noted that “a considerable number of musicians and musical people” had been attracted to the concert by the announcement of Maud Powell’s debut. The word among Chicago’s music circles was that William Lewis’s protégée had returned from study abroad with the great Joachim’s warm endorsement. William Lewis and the Powell family were seated in front for the concert, which the press would describe as “made memorable by the debut of the promising young American violinist, Miss Maud Powell.”17
She was booked to make her American debut with the Thomas Orchestra that summer in the Chicago Summer Night Concert Series.
The first division of the concert featured the Overture, Air, and Gavotte from Bach’s Orchestral Suite in D, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, and the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The second division began with Beethoven’s Coriolanus Overture. Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G Minor was next. Maud appeared as a “tall, graceful figure” with a “sweet, though firm and expressive face.”18 The seventeen‑year‑old violinist was received with warm applause as she lifted her violin to her chin with “perfect confidence.”
The conditions under which she played were hardly ideal: “A solo violin in a ‘Union Depot’ . . . has enough to contend with in the size of the place and the heat of the evening without the too‑officious help of escaping steam, tooting whistles, ringing bells, and the ‘chough, chough, chough’ of departing trains ‑‑‑ all of which came out in full force last night. . . . Add to these the babies crying, also turned on in the softest passages of the music.”19 Intonation was also a problem for Maud. It was a hot July evening and humid breezes coming off Lake Michigan blew through the open‑air hall, demoralizing her gut strings.
The Bruch concerto had been played so rarely as to be “quite strange” to her listeners. However, the critics for the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Daily News were familiar with the work. The Daily News critic noted: “She played the adagio with fine expression and remarkable purity and sweetness of tone. The finale requires a broad style of playing which it is natural that Miss Powell should not yet have acquired. Its difficulties of execution were, however, overcome with skill and apparent ease. Her bowing is very graceful and her stage presence is unusually pleasing.”20
The Chicago Tribune critic observed that “Miss Powell has an excellent bow, good execution, a large tone, for so young a player, and much sentiment.”21 Her playing created a “favorable impression” and her work as a whole was “full of promise.” Her performance was greeted with “prolonged and flattering” applause. Upon reflection, the Chicago Daily News critic observed: “She is a young girl of remarkable talent and a commensurate amount of application and perseverance. These qualities are all that is needed to give her a place in the front rank of American violinists.”22 The Chicago Inter Ocean pronounced her a “worthy successor of Camilla Urso.”
Maud later discovered that William Lewis, “the dear man,” had sat dissolved in tears as she played the Bruch concerto with a mastery beyond his reach. An Auroran observed that she played the concerto “with complete mastery of its difficulties and a full understanding of its depth and beauty.”23 Even then, she was said by the musician and writer Gustav Kobbé to have played with a “large solid tone and a technique which was finished without being finicky.” “Classical repose, romantic tenderness, grace, esprit and great technical nerve,” all were points in her style which she could bring into play whenever the composition demanded them.24
Above all, Theodore Thomas glowed over her success: “At the close of that concert ‑‑‑ my debut in America ‑‑‑ Mr. Thomas came to me with his two hands full of greenbacks. He handed them to me, saying, ‘I want the honor of paying you the first fee you have earned as an artist.’”25 Theodore Thomas christened the young American his “musical grandchild” and engaged her as soloist for the New York Philharmonic’s first concert of the 1885-86 season in November.26
The history of the New York Philharmonic illuminates the early struggles for symphony orchestras in the United States. When the New York Philharmonic Society was founded in 1842, there was no responsible music director, with predictable consequences. The standard of performance was inferior and the programs consisted of a hodge‑podge of compositions, ranging from symphonies to inconsequential pieces, incongruously thrown together. Because the Philharmonic concerts were infrequently given (three the first season and only six per season by the twenty-seventh season), the musicians took other engagements just to make ends meet. This meant that rehearsals were haphazard, with orchestra players coming and going as they pleased.
When eighteen-year-old violinist Theodore Thomas was elected a member of the Society in 1854, the orchestra still lacked leadership. A decade later, when Thomas established his own orchestra in New York, the Philharmonic suffered greatly from the competition of the superior ensemble. Thomas’s impact on New York’s cultural life became painfully evident when financial necessity drove him to give up his “Symphony Soirée“ during the 1869 winter season in favor of the “Musical Highway.” However, in 1872, he heeded the pleas of New Yorkers and returned to the city once a month for a concert while maintaining his “highway” schedule.
By the spring of 1877, the Philharmonic’s fortunes were so low that the Society offered the conductorship to Thomas without any conditions, and he accepted. This arrangement ironically resulted in his becoming his own most successful rival in New York. He deliberately set out to make the Philharmonic series the most important concerts, giving second place to his own. In 1880, Thomas removed the rivalry by giving a lighter series of concerts with his orchestra, the Thomas Popular Concerts.
In order to perfect the New York Philharmonic, he drew from the ranks of his private orchestra, assuring constant engagements for the greater part of its members, which also conveniently placed them under Thomas’s direction year round. These same musicians then were employed in the New York Philharmonic, the Brooklyn Philharmonic (which Thomas conducted from 1866 to 189l), and the Thomas Orchestra. Brooklyn and New York choral societies were also founded under his direction. Hence, New York’s classical music life was dominated by the artistic prowess, inspiration, and tenacity of one man.
Thomas’s musical stature was evident in his lowering the concert pitch of the orchestra by nine‑sixteenths of a tone in 1881. After long consideration, Thomas decided to align American orchestras with the reformed German pitch or the “normal diapason” adopted by a French government commission twenty‑five years before. The action required every instrumentalist in America to buy a new instrument or adapt his old one to the new pitch, as well as requiring instrument manufacturers to conform. That the musical world followed Thomas’s lead was ample testament to his influence.
To play with the Thomas Orchestra or the New York Philharmonic under Thomas’s direction was to arrive as a musician. Not only had Maud Powell played with the Thomas Orchestra in Chicago, she was to be introduced to New York audiences and a number of other important Eastern cities under Thomas’s baton.
A Friday afternoon public rehearsal always preceded the New York Philharmonic’s Saturday evening concert in its season series of six concerts. Maud was anxious as she arrived at the Academy of Music on November 13, 1885. She had discovered that her Petrus Guarnerius violin, chosen for her by Joseph Joachim, was disabled. Learning of her plight, one of the orchestra members generously loaned her his own Guarnerius, which Maud gratefully played.
Besides Bruch’s G minor violin concerto, the program featured Weber’s Euryanthe Overture, Arnold Krug’s Symphonic Prologue to Shakespeare’s Othello (a new composition), Dvořák’s Scherzo Capriccioso, Op. 66, which the orchestra was playing for the first time, and concluded with Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony No. 3. The November 14 concert was hailed by the critics as a flawless performance, in which the 115-member orchestra presented with “utmost dignity and worthiness that art which makes us understand how heaven is a possibility.” The Philharmonic, at its opening concert of the season, was recognized as “far in advance” of any other orchestra in the United States, and it was greeted appreciatively by a “large and brilliant” audience.
Maud Powell won the “final stamp” from Henry E. Krehbiel, the Nestor of New York critics, that day:
It is seldom that a woman is honored with an invitation to play a violin solo at a concert of the Philharmonic. Such an invitation, when it is justified by the performance, is an introduction to the first rank of interpretative artists in this country. In the case of Miss Maud Powell, the distinction was well bestowed. She is still a very young woman and has her home in the West. By last night’s performance she established a right of domicile wherever good music is cultivated. She is a marvellously gifted woman, one who in every feature of her playing discloses the instincts and gifts of a born artist. She has not reached the height of her ability by any means but her accomplishments are already so bright that they challenge the application of the severest standard from one who would pass judgment upon her. She plays with a conscious ease and reposefulness that is astonishing in one so young. Without great warmth, she yet exhibits a fine intellectual grasp of her music and is able to hold the interest of her listeners for every bar. Technically her management of the bow is more finished than her stopping, but the latter is remarkably firm and correct. Few violinists have been heard here in recent years whose intonation was as free from fault as Miss Powell’s. Her occasional slips in this respect are uniformly in the high positions of the G and D strings, or in double‑stopping. Her tone is not fully developed and is wanting in dignity and suavity, but is ample in quantity for all purposes. It is delightful to meet a young American artist who has in her the ability to give so much present pleasure, and who promises so much for the future. . . . If she maintains the standard she set for herself last night, she will win the abiding favor of the New York public, and her future career will be watched with warm interest.27
The critic for the New York Sun seemed also to grasp the significance of the debut: “[Miss Powell] displayed every qualification of a true artist ‑‑‑ repose, dignity, discretion, talent, and study. Her bowing is vigorous, her tone marvelously sweet and clear, her sentiment healthy and genuine. . . . [T]he impression left by her debut in the Philharmonic was that Miss Powell has a great artistic career open before her ‑‑‑ one justly earned, which will surely be honorably maintained.”28
Uncle Wes and his wife had joined Maud’s parents and brother Billy in New York for the concert, swelling the family celebration.
from Chapter 7, Maud Powell, Pioneer American Violinist, by Karen A. Shaffer and Neva Garner Greenwood, (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1988) (out of print)
Copyright by The Maud Powell Society for Music and Education, 1988