Thursday, August 22, 2013

Spirit of Music (Theodore Thomas Memorial)


Spirit of Music (Theodore Thomas Memorial), 1923
Albin Polášek
Grant Park
East of South Michigan Avenue and north of East Balbo Drive

            Holding a lyre in her left hand and extending her right in a motion that evokes a conductor in action, this majestic 14-foot tall bronze figure honors the memory of Theodore Thomas, violinist and first conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Starting in 1864, Thomas traveled with his own orchestra to various cities in the United States, including Chicago, presenting summer concerts. In 1889, Thomas was approached by Charles Norman Fay, a Chicago businessman, who asked him if he would agree to come to Chicago if they gave him a permanent orchestra. He replied, “I would go to hell if they gave me a permanent orchestra.”
            Thomas led the first concert of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on October 16, 1891 at the Auditorium Theatre and it featured works by Beethoven, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák. His dream of achieving a permanent home for the Orchestra was realized with the December 1904 dedication of Orchestra Hall, designed by Daniel H. Burnham. Sadly, Thomas contracted influenza while preparing for the opening concert and died of pneumonia on January 4, 1905.
            The B. F. Ferguson Monument Fund commissioned Czech artist Albin Polášek (1879-1965) to create this memorial and the artist fashioned a “feminine, but not too feminine” figure who might convey the grandeur of the symphony. The strong, sweeping lines of the drapery emphasize the curves of her body and arm and she stands upon a hemispherical base with low relief images of Orpheus, musician of Greek mythology, playing his lyre, opposite the figure of Chibiabos, the singer in Longfellow’s narrative poem “The Song of Hiawatha.” Surrounding animals appear to be listening to the music. Polášek claimed that his own face was present on the piece as well, behind the mask on the lower end of lyre held by the female figure.
            The sculpture has had a tumultuous life in terms of relocation. Originally erected facing Orchestra Hall across Michigan Avenue near the Art Institute, the site included a granite exedra and bench that depicted orchestra members playing their instruments, designed by architect Henry Van Doren Shaw. The statue was moved in 1941, when the museum’s south garden underwent renovations, and placed in front of a classically-inspired peristyle in Grant Park near Randolph Street. In 1958 the statue was moved again to a spot near the Clarence F. Buckingham Memorial Fountain formerly occupied by the Governor Henry Horner Memorial. Sometime during the early 1990s, a jogger on the lakefront discovered pieces of the original carved exedra and they were subsequently retrieved and restored by the Chicago Park District. The statue, formerly known as the “Grant Park Sweetheart,” was given a new home with its original exedra restored on Balbo Drive. 

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