4th (8th) Symphony performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Thor Johnson.
cover of Remington R-199-182: Jorge Bolet, piano, playing Prokofiev's
Alec Templeton is the soloist in Gershwin's Concerto in F
Antherms and Chorales of the American Moravians, performed by the
Moravian festival Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Thor Johnson,
Columbia Stereo MS 6102.
Sigurd Jorsalfar Suite Op. 56 - incidental music to the play by
- composed by Edvard Grieg, was released on Decca LXT 2630 in December
1951, coupled with Vigil by Hugo Alfven.
1954 the Sigurd Jorsalfar Suite was issued on a single 10 inch Decca
LP with reference LW 5124.
No. 3 by Robert Ward and "Three Hassidic Dances" by Leon
the same plates the release in the Webster Living Sound Series was
No. 2 of Tchaikovsky
Origin of Fire" and "Pojohla's Daughter" coupled
with Glazunov's Violin Concerto
Symphony No. 3 (Schubert)
Brant's Saxophone Concerto - coupled with Sinfonietta
(Rudhyar) and Gymnopedia (Glanville-Hicks) with Jonel Perlea conducting
the RIAS Symphony Orchestra
player Sigurd Rascher around 1949.
asking Laszlo Halasz to join Remington Records as Recording Director,
in 1952, after Edward Kilenyi had left for Florida, Don Gabor brought
the classical catalog to a higher level. Gabor always had excellent
contacts with artists of ethnic popular music, and with local jazz
musicians. Through conductor Laszlo Halasz, Gabor had access to many
more artists and musicians, orchestras of quality, and conductors.
One of the conductors was the eminent Thor Johnson in Cincinnati.
1947 Thor Johnson had become music director of the Cincinnati
Symphony Orchestra, a quality ensemble, disciplined in the classical
repertory and also in the music of modern composers. Thanks to the
new conductor, the orchestra's signature was becoming more modern
than it had been before under Fritz Reiner and Eugene Goossens. Now
under Thor Johnson the Cincinnati Symphony not only performed existing
compositions of many a modern American composer, but Thor Johnson
did commission many works himself to be premiered by the orchestra.
The current website of the orchestra states that during his 11 years
in Cincinnati, Johnson conducted the premieres of 120 American and
European works, half of which were commissioned by him!
The liner notes of Remington R-199-168 with Antonin Dvorak's Symphony
No. 4 (No. 8) from 1953 read:
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has been one of the top ranking
symphonic ensembles in the country since its inception in 1895.
That year it presented three series of three concerts each,
with an orchestral unit of 48 players. Today, this 85-members
organization of virtuoso players gives approximately a hundred
concerts each season.
Through the years seven men have held the post of music director:
Frank van der Stucken; Leopold Stokowski; Ernst Kunwald; Eugene
Ysaye; Fritz Reiner and Eugene Goossens. In the 1947-1948 season,
the young American conductor, Thor Johnson, was appointed director.
Under his brilliant direction, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
has attained even greater recognition than at any time in the
Aside from its crowded schedule of concert giving in Cincinnati
- a schedule which includes regular subscription concerts with
world famous soloists, young people's and junior high school
series, popular concerts and others - the orchestra tours each
season throughout a large part of the country.
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has been a pioneer in the
recording industry. Beginning in 1917, records have been made
for Columbia, RCA Victor, London ffrr and now Remington. - Arthur
Darack, music critic of the Cincinnati Enquirer (1952-1967)
and program annotator for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
Johnson of course did inherit from his predecessors a well trained
ensemble, but by the very nature of his character, he continued to
improve and perfect the playing of the orchestra. He was a good organizer
and leader, two assets which a conductor needs. Practically every
recording of the orchestra under his baton is the sonic realization
of a precise concept. It is probably this strictness and seriousness
which Sergei Koussevitzky did like less if compared to the more playful,
"musical" attitude of a Leonard Bernstein; Thor Johnson
was picked on by Koussevitzky during a course in 1940. True, in Johnson's
performances beauty for the sake of beauty is in conflict with the
organization of the execution of the music. In his music making beauty
stands for construction, for architecture and dynamics. Nevertheless
a great intuitive feeling can be noticed at times.
All these qualities made him not only a good classical conductor but
rather the man to perform often complicated modern scores as his discography
edited by R.A.B., taken from the cover of Remington R-199-168.
Thor Martin Johnson
was born in Wisconsin Rapids (Wisconsin) on June 10th, 1913 in a religious
family. His father, Herbert Bernharth Johnson, was of Norwegian descent.
He was minister of the Moravian church which originated in that part
of Europe what is the Czech republic today. His mother, Anna Josephine
Reussnig, was born in a family of German immigrants. When Thor was
seven years old his parents took him to a concert of violinist Efraim
Zimbalist. This left a great impression on the kid as the day
after the concert he was imitating the violinist and taking his bow
before an imaginary audience. By the time he was 13 he conducted a
choral group and a few years later small ensembles when studying at
the University of North Carolina (UNC) and
at the Universitty of Michigan.
In June 1936 he traveled to Europe to attend courses at the Mozarteum
in Salzburg and later in Vienna given by Bruno Walter, and
courses by Nikolai Malko (Prague), Bernhard Paumgartner
(Salzburg), and Felix Weingartner (Vienna). Thor decided to
study for a longer period with Malko and spent several months studying
in Prague, early in 1937.
these famous names were investing in the younger generation by giving
instruction for hours at length. Also significant was attending performances
by Arturo Toscanini, Volkmar Andreae, and Max Reinhardt.
He met Eugene Ormandy during the Salzburg Mozarteum Festival,
and Max Reinhard in person. Ormandy was conductor of the Minneapolis
Symphony at the time. When following courses in Leipzig with Herman
Abendroth, 23 year old Thor also met with Richard Strauss.
In Budapest he met the great Béla Bartók. When
Thor visited the Ferenc Liszt Conservatory he was introduced to the
head of the academy, Ernö Dohnányi, who asked him
about the reception of his compositions in the USA.
The many teachings he received from these great names in music, before
the Second World War broke out, must have impressed the young student.
Traveling to Europe, in fact to the region where his religious beliefs
found their origin, is of significance too.
returned home to conduct the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra.
He went to Chicago to teach at the University of Michgan and
led a variety of orchestras and bands, a.o. TheWorld Youth Orchestra.
In 1940 he took up the post of conductor of the Grand Rapids Symphony,
but after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he (like so many
other musicians) left the orchestra and enlisted in the US army in
1942 where he became a band leader and performed with pianist Eugene
List and Australian composer/pianist Percy Grainger. They
also had enlisted.
leave one day he visited Eugene Ormandy, now conductor of the
Philadelphia Orchestra. Arturo Toscanini was not well to conduct
a planned concert and Ormandy proposed that Thor Johnson would conduct
the program which listed Symphony No. 5 of Jean Sibelius, and
Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto Op. 23 which he performed with
pianist Eugene List. As army band leader he was eventually
sent to Great Britain. There he had the opportunity to meet with important
people from the music scene there.
after World War Two things were gradually getting back to normal,
Thor Johnson was offered the post of music director of the Cincinnati
Symphony Orchestra which he accepted in 1947, a post which he
held for more than ten years, until 1958.
From 1967 until his death in 1975 he was music director of the Nashville
Johnson was a man of discipline and he also was a man of faith. He
founded the Peninsula Music Festival and led the Moravian
Music Festivals. He did so for the first time in 1950 and for
the last time in the summer of 1974, the season prior to his death.
he became music director of the Cincinnati Symphony, he was announced
as "the youngest native born American to lead a major American
orchestra". This fact may have incited English Decca through
their American branch, London Records, to make recordings with
this relative young conductor and the orchestra of Cincinnati which
had of course a great reputation. This resulted in the recordings
of five works with which his discography begins.
LL 405/Decca LXT 2604 -
Johann Christian Bach: Sinfonia, coupled with Franz Schubert's Third
Symphony (1951). Schubert's 3rd was later also available on a 10"
LL 406/Decca LXT 2630 - Alfven: Midsommervaka, coupled with Sigurd
Jorsalvar by Edward Grieg (1951). Sigurd Jorsalfar was reissued on
a 10" Decca LW 5124 in 1954.
5355/Decca LXT 2605 - Berlioz: Nuits d'été, with
Suzanne Danco (released in the nineteen nineties on CD together with
recordings by Ernest Ansermet entitled "French Vocal Music").
recording project was probably not what the sales department had in
mind and by the time conductor Laszlo Halasz had joined Remington
Records as Recording Director, Johnson and his orchestra were free
to record for Don Gabor. The knowledge Laszlo Halasz had not
only about music but about the American and European music scenes
was a great asset for the Remington label and by the cooperation with
the ACA, American Composers Association, Remington Records could gain
in importance. In this context the choice for Thor Johnson and his
orchestra was a logical consequence. Both Halasz, Gabor and Johnson
may have conferred and made suggestions for the repertory to be recorded.
Johnson's Remington recordings (1953-1954):
- Antonin Dvorak: Symphony No.
4 (8) in G Major Op. 88.
the time when the 8th Symphony of Dvorak was issued, Harold
Schonberg reviewed in a Dvorak Discography the available performances
of this Symphony. He found the Wolfgang Sawallisch (Angel),
George Szell (London/Decca), and Bruno Walter (Columbia) discs
the best performances. Rafael Kubelik (RCA) and Gerhard Pflüger
(Urania) came second so to speak. And he bluntly stated at the
end of the review without any further comment: "The Remington
disk is outclassed". Schonberg was apparently allergic
to the label and would not bother much. That is probably why
he never mentioned Jorge Bolet's Remington recordings of the
Scherzi by Chopin in his book "The Great Pianists".
Warren DeMotte wrote in his in 1955 published Long Playing Record
Guide: "Johnson is direct and lacking in tonal warmth".
That could well have been because of the odd practice of Remington
to use the cheap vinyl mix, not adhering to a normalized frequency
curve, and that less care was taken when lacquer and matrix
Thor Johnson's musicianship was appreciated by many and his
Remington recordings with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
were generally well received. His approach of whatever score
he interpreted with his orchestra was individualistic and surely
could have lacked some subtlety here and there, but his recordings
show that he had a firm hand, that he had insight in the overall
structure of a work, that he knew what the music was about,
and that he was well in command of his orchestra.
good example is exactly his recording of Dvorak's 4th Symphony
(No. 8 today) in G Major Op. 88 which shows at several instances
beautiful melodic lines and phrasing, and sometimes prominent
brass which may be less appreciated by some but is well a part
of this score and may have been emphasized somewhat by the microphone
placement used by Remington at the time.
original Musirama pressing of this symphony does not completely
reveal the merits of this performance. The Remington disk is
not very detailed in clusters and sudden outbursts, and it is
easy to say that the performance of Johnson is not precise and
would lack the right intensity. Right, the orchestra of Cincinnati
is of course in a different league if compared to the orchestras
of Philadelphia, Cleveland, Boston, New York, etc. And we should
not expect the level of Rafael Kubelik's 8th recorded for Deutsche
Grammophon many years later or Karajan's for Decca/London.
there is more to Johnson's performance and that can be heard
in its full glory, strength, assertiveness, nervousness, power,
suspense and - yes - nuances as the signal of the Varèse-Sarabande
Stereo LP VC 81044 reveals. The disk is cut from the original
taped recording which was done in stereo by engineer Robert
Blake way back in the fall of 1953; the production was supervised
by Don Gabor and Laszlo Halasz. The Varèse LP was prepared
for release by Tom Null, Dub Taylor, and Chris Kuchler and was
issued in 1979 in
Series. Thanks to Robert Blake and of course to Tom
Null c.s., it has magnificent sound for a 1953 stereo recording,
and it lets us hear also the virtuoso side of the members of
the Cincinnati Symphony.
of us do agree that Johnson did so very well in the performances
of the Gershwin Concerto with Alec Templeton and in Jorge Bolet's
performance of Prokofiev's Opus 16. He brings exitement and
passion to the Sibelius recordings, specifically to Pohjolah's
daughter. The Varèse-Sarabande disc of Dvorak's Symphony
No. 8 shows once more that Thor Johnson was a good conductor
and this is particularly illustrated in the impressive and emotional
rendering of the symphony's Second Movement (a reminiscence
of a hardanger fiddle - hardingfele as they call the instrument
in Norway - included). No doubt that attending courses given
by Bruno Walter in Austria, Nicolai Malko in Prague, and Hermann
Abendroth in Leipzig, did form the conductor.
top of that, while comparing the old mono from the early 1950s
to the modern Varèse stereo disc, one gets another proof
how important the technical aspects of lacquer cutting, matrix
production and finally vinyl pressing are, be it in its original
form or in a more modern release - even if some inconstancy
of speed can be noticed (whether it originates from the tape
or the pressing is not sure). The quality of the technique can
make or break a performance.
is evident that many reviewers are constantly overloaded with
discs and if they are not captivated right after the needle
has been dropped in the groove or after the play-button has
been pressed on the CD-player, they mentally discard a release.
Whatever may be the case, the Varèse LP is revealing
the truth about Thor Johnson's artistry in a beautiful way,
as did the 1955 A-V Tape Library edition, reviewed by Charles
in Tape Recording Magazine, March-April issue of 1955
(see below). - R.A.B.
for a Sound Clip of the Second Movement of Dvorak's 4th (8th)
Symphony conducted by Thor Johnson recorded with the Cincinnati
Symphony in 1953.
arrival of the tape recorder - the German invention brought
back from Europe by Jack Mullin, after World War Two had ended,
and which was first built by Ampex, in 1947 - inspired many
a company to design recorders for use by audiophiles and amateurs
in and outside the home. The tape recorder became a popular
medium on both sides of the Atlantic, but the simultaneous release
of music on disk and pre-recorded tape belonged more to the
American way if compared to the European practice.
systems, also suited for the playback of binaural tapes (in
fact 2-track tapes with material recorded in stereo or quasi
stereo) became available as well, long before the actual stereo
record was launched. A-V Tape Libraries, located
at 730, Fifth Avenue, New York 19, was a pioneer in the field
of pre-recorded reel-to-reel tape. The company offered a vast
catalog of titels originating from various record companies
that licensed their recordings to be issued.
recording of Dvorak's 8th ymphony with the Cincinnati Symphony
under Johnson, became available on A-V Tape Libraries in the
Spring of 1954. The recording was not yet released by Remington
on disk. The Sibelius program recorded by Remington with the
Helsinki University Chorus and the orchestra from Cincinnati
became available on A-V Tape at the same time. Also this recording
was only released on disk much later. Both tape issues were
reviewed by John M. Conly in High Fidelity Magazine of May,
1954. Conly was less positive (to put it mildly) about the Dvorak
performance than about the recording of the works of Sibelius.
However he found that the microphone placement in the Dvorak
was much better. Mr. Conly listened to the mono tape issues
of A-V Tape Libraries and not to the binaural (stereo) tape
which became available sometime later. This may have well influenced
his more or less negative opinion.
should also bear in mind that Don Gabor's technician, Robert
Blake, was pioneering in the domain of stereo recording and
that he had not established a definitive technique yet, so it
seems. About Thor Johnson's artistry M. Conly wrote in his review:
"Thor Johnson is completely over his head and this is no
foul blow to him". If Mr. Conly could have heard the stereo
tape or the transfer of the original tape to a modern medium,
he would have been more positive about the performance no doubt.
was the first company to tape performances in stereo. The Remington
stereo recordings were issued on mono disks at the time, naturally.
Possibly Emory Cook made his first binaural recordings in Boston
around the same time for release on his Binaural records which
had to be played back by a special arm with two cartridges.
The stereo LP record with the two signals engraved in one single
groove, the technique invented by Alan Blumlein in the 1930s,
came into being in 1958 and was officially launched in September
of that year. - R.A.B.
Binaural Records Label.
- Ulysses Kay: Concerto for Orchestra, Norman Lockwood: Concerto for
Organ and Brasses; Quiet Design.
Marilyn Mason (Organ), brass ensemble, Thor Johnson conducting. Recorded
in St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia University.
with compositions of Kay and Lockwood, was reviewed in High
Fidelity Magazine of July 1954 by Paul Affelder. His conclusion:
"The Kay performance is excellent and the Lockwood is superb;
both recordings are first rate, with sonorous organ and properly
(Photograph by Frank Donato.)
- Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2
with pianist Jorge
Bolet (reissued in 1974 in simulated stereo on Turnabout TV-S
- George Gershwin: Concerto in
F with pianist
Johnson's leading the orchestra in Gershwin's Concerto in F
played by pianist Alec Templeton has style and the structure
is well balanced, this certainly also being the result of the chemistry
between Templeton and Johnson.
things could be different is illustrated by the performances of Oscar
Levant with Thor Johnson given in Chicago Orchestra Hall in
the 1952-53 season. Tchaikovsky's First and Gershwin's Concerto
in F were on the program. There was no rehearsal time and Oscar
Levant complained that Johnson's tempi were too fast. At the end of
the Tchaikovsky, irritated Levant dragged Johnson with such a firm
hand to the grand piano in front of the stage that Thor Johnson almost
fell face flat on the stage.
Afterwards critic Irvin Sablosky reported in the Chicago
Times that the Cincinnati Orchestra "is not a good orchestra.
Thor Johnson is not a very good conductor." Another critic wrote
that Johnson did not have the feeling for Gershwin's music. It must
be said however that R-199-184 with the recording of Gershwin's
Concerto in F clearly demonstrates the opposite.
The ill behavior
of Oscar Levant resulted in a letter from the Union to Columbia
Records who managed Levant, to forbid Oscar Levant to perform again
with whatever orchestra, because Levant did not honor contracts.
- Robert Ward: Third Symphony;
Leon Stein: Three Hassidic Dances.
It is interesting to read what Warren DeMotte wrote: "This
is a symphony of satisfying proportions, skillful in construction,
deep in emotional content, unmistakably American in character. Thor
Johnson is at home in this contemporay music, more so it seems than
in the older music he conducts. His performance is lyrical, supple,
and assured, and variegated in color and dynamics. The orchestra plays
with enthusiasm and finish; and the recording stands high in the scale
of Remington achievement."
- Peter Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2.
It is true that Thor Johnson had his own style. In a review from 1955
the recording of Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony was compared
to the performance by Sir Thomas Beecham released on Columbia (USA
and Great Britain), and on Philips A 01130 L (Europe). However the
reviewer preferred the pace of Johnson rather than the slow tempi
of Beecham. Only in the Andantino Johnson's concept did not work too
Another trait of Thor Johnson - so the reviewer noted - was that he
could make climaxes and tutti sound rather loud. Nevertheless the
technical quality of the Remington recording was judged the equal
of the Columbia/Philips Minigroove with Beecham in those early mono
- Henry Brant: Concerto for Alto
Saxophone. Sigurd Rascher soloist
(coupled with Glanville-Hicks: Gymnopedies 1, 2 and 3; Rudhyar: Sinfonietta;
performed by the RIAS Symphony Orchestra conducted by
recordings of works by Ward, Stein, Brant (and of course those
of Glanville-Hicks and Rudhyar led by Jonel Perlea)
were all done in cooperation with the American Composer's Alliance
(ACA). It is not sure who came up with the idea to make recordings
of modern music, Halasz, Gabor or Johnson, but in view of Johnson's
interest it is suspected that he proposed to record from the vast
reservoir of compositions of modern American composers.
The cooperation with the ACA resulted in a few more records
in the Remington catalog of modern American music, performed by other
artists, like the Musirama edition of Ulysses Kay's Concerto for
orchestra and Concerto for Organ and Brass, Lockwood's Quiet design
(organ solo), cello music of Harrison Kerr, and violin music of Otto
this context the unique recording of String Quartet No. 1 composed
by John Freeman - reviewer and author of many liner notes - was made
in Berlin. It was performed by the Koeckert Quartet (Rudolf Koeckert,
Willi Büchner, Oskar Riedl and Josef Merz) that recorded for
Deutsche Grammophon. However Freeman's Quartet was never issued on
a Remington disc. It was issued by Tom Null on Varèse-Sarabande
the cooperation between Remington and the ACA (and Thor Johnson for
that matter) was not continued. When Remington Records ceased to exist,
Composers Recordings Inc. from New York continued making recordings
of modern American music. One of the releases was CRI 122 with
works performed at the Peninsula Music Festival in Fish Creek, Wisconsin,
in 1957, with music of four composers:
Hungarian Set for Strings and Celeste by Irvin Fischer who
had studied with Zoltan Kodaly in Budapest in 1936.
* Concerto for Trumpet and Strings, Op. 8 by Robert Nagel.
* Landscapes by Chou Wen-Chung who initially studied to be
an engineer but later studied composition and devoted himself completely
* Concerto for Flute, Clarinet, Bassoon, String Quartet and String
Orchestra by John Lessard who, like Hine Arthur Brown and many
other Americans studied at one time with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.
of the Helsinki University Chorus in front of Cincinnati's Music Hall
in November 1953, while taking a break during the rehearsals of the
recording of works by Jean Sibelius.
Image courtesy The Helsinki University Chorus - Ylioppilaskunnan
Laulajat - edited by R.A.B.
- Jean Sibelius: The
Origin of Fire
with the Helsinki
University Chorus and soloist Sulus
Saarits, baritone, and Pohjolas
Daughter, Op. 49 (coupled with Glazunov's
Violin Concerto, played by André Gabriel (Roman Totenberg)
RIAS Symphony Orchestra conducted
by Georg Ludwig Jochum).
The Sibelius recordings were issued for the first time in stereo by
Tom Null on Varèse-Sarabande VC 81941. See
The Remington Series.
Thor Johnson and baritone Sulus Saarits.
Image courtesy The Helsinki University Chorus - Ylioppilaskunnan Laulajat
- edited by R.A.B.
Origin of Fire" was in good hands with Thor Johnson leading the
musicians of Cincinnati and the Helsinki University Chorus. Thor Johnson
was a great admirer of the music of Jean Sibelius. When two
years earlier, in 1951, a festival was scheduled in Helsinki devoted
entirely to the music of Sibelius, Thor Johnson flew to Finland to
attend the seven concerts. But Jean Sibelius himself was not present,
this to the disappointment of Johnson. Luckily he met Mrs. Eva Palleheimo,
oldest daughter of Sibelius, and met with Sibelius. He was also introduced
to Mrs. Jussi Jalas, youngest sister of Eva Palleheimo and wife of
conductor Jussi Jalas (who also recorded for Remington conducting
the RIAS Symphony). In a telephone conversation with their father
the daughters arranged that Thor Johnson would join them and their
children to visit Jean Sibelius to say goodbye for the summer. That
was one of Johnson's most cherished encounters.
commissioned many compositions. For example: Lord of the Ascendant
(Ellis B. Kohs; 1955). Henry Cowell wrote Variations for Orchestra
for Thor Johnson and his orchestra (1956, revised in 1959). Johnson
commissioned and first performed T.J. Anderson's Chamber Symphony
with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra (1969). Ulysses Simpson Kay wrote
the overture "Of New Horizons", commissioned already
in 1944 by Thor Johnson.
Johnson himself arranged Georg Frederick Handel's Music for the
He gave the first performance of William Schuman's Credendum-Article
of Faith (1955) and with the Cincinnati Symphony in 1951 the American
premiere of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, not sung in English as
Schoenberg had asked, but in the original German text.
rehearsing with cellist Zara Nelzova in November 1974, all of a sudden
Thor Johnson had difficulty turning the pages. On December 8, 1974,
a brain tumor was diagnosed which was operated upon on December 24.
But Thor Johnson never regained strength and mental alertness. On
January 16, 1975, he passed away. On the same evening it was Thomas
Schippers who conducted in memory of Thor Johnson a Bruckner Mass
which Johnson himself had planned and prepared with the orchestra.
by Rudolf A. Bruil and first published in March 2004. (c) Rudolf A.
about Thor Johnson's studies in Europe, the period prior to his appointment
in Cincinnati, the Oscar Levant incident, and his visit to Finland
can be found in "Thor Johnson - American Conductor" written
by Louis Nicholas, published in 1982 by The Music Festival Committee
of the Peninsula Arts Association, Ephraim, Wisconsin.