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
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.
Origin of Fire" and "Pojohla's Daughter" coupled
with Glazunov's Violin Concerto
Symphony No. 3 (Schubert)
asking Laszlo Halasz to join Remington Records as Recording Director,
in 1952, after Edward Kilenyi had left for Florifa, 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.
In 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.
The Cincinnati Symphony not only performed existing compositions of
many a modern American composer, but Thor Johnson himself 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.
notes of Remington R-199-168 with Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 4
(No. 8) from 1953 read:
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
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 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.
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
imigrants. 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 follow courses at the Mozarteum in Salzburg and later in
Vienna given by Bruno Walter, and courses by Nikolai Malko
(Prague), Bernhard Paumgartner (Salzburg), Felix Weingartner
(Vienna). With Malko he spent several months studying in Prague, early
All these famous
names were investing in the younger generation by giving courses and
instruction four hours at length. Also significant was attending performances
by Arturo Toscanini, Volkmar Andreae, and Max Reinhardt.
He met Eugene Ormandy (who attended 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.
He 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 (with 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.
When on 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 Op. 23 which he performed with pianist Eugene
List. In the end he was sent to Great Britain. There he had the
opportunity to meet with important people from the music scene there.
When 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 Festival. He did so for the first time in 1950 and for the
last time in the summer of 1974, the last season prior to his death.
When 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.
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" Decca LW5328.
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.
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").
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.
At the time when the 8th Symphony of Dvorak was issued Harold
Schonberg reviewed in a Dvorak Discography all 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". And Warren DeMotte
wrote in his in 1955 published Long Playing Record Guide: "Johnson
is direct and lacking in tonal warmth". That could have
been because of the odd practice of using the cheap vinyl, not
adhering to a normalized frequency curve and that less care
was taken when a matrix was produced.
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, read the overall structure of a work,
knew what the music was about, and was well in command of his
orchestra. A good example is exactly this recording of Dvorak's
4th (8th) Symphony 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
part of this score and may have been emphasized a little by
the microphone placement used by Remington at the time.
Musirama pressing of this symphony does not completely reveal
the merits of this performance. The Remington disk is not always
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. Ok, 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 tells us. 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, under the supervision of
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
Thanks to Robert Blake and of course to Tom Null c.s., it has
magnificent sound for a 1953 stereo recording, and 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 and Nicolai Malko in Prague did form
On 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 final vinyl pressing are, be it in its original form or
in a more modern release - even if some in-constancy in speed
can be noticed (whether it originates from the tape or the pressing
is not sure). Technique can make or break a performance. It
is also 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, 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. - R.A.B.
for a Sound Clip of the Second Movement of Dvorak's 4th (8th)
Symphony conducted by Thor Johnson.
The arrival of the tape recorder - the German invention brought
back from Europe by Jack Mullin, after World War Two had ended,
and 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 to the American
way of life. Soon
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. A-V Tape Libraries,
located at 730, Fifth Avenue, New York 19, was a pioneer in
the field of pre-recorded tape. The company offered a vast catalog
of titels originating from various record companies that licensed
their recordings to be issued.
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 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 issue of A-V Tape Libraries
and not to the binaural tape which became available sometime
later. This may have well influenced his negative opinion. We
should also bear in mind that Robert Blake, Don Gabor's technician,
was sort of pioneering in the domain of stereo recording. 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 Label. The Cook Binaural records had
to be played back using a special arm with two cartridges.
The stereo LP record with the two signals engraved in one single
groove, invented by Alan Blumlein in the 1930s, came into being
in 1958 and was officially launched in September of that year.
R-199-173 - 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.
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 clangerous brasses."
(Photograph Frank Donato.)
- Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2 with
pianist (reissued in 1974 in simulated stereo on Turnabout TV-S 34543).
- George Gershwin: Concerto in
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.
That 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 high. 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 interesrting
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
- 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 well.
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.
- 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 Jonel Perlea).
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
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) with the RIAS Symphony
Orchestra conducted by Georg Ludwig Jochum). Tom Null issued the Sibelius
recordings for the first time in stereo 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 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.
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.
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 and updated since.
(c) Rudolf A. Bruil
about Thor Johnson's studies in Europe, the period prior to his appointment
in Cincinnati, the Oscar Levant incident, and his visit to Finland
are from the biography "Thor Johnson - American Conductor"
written by Louis Nicholas, published in 1982 by The Music Festival
Committee of the Peninsula Arts Association, Ephraim, Wisconsin.