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Theodore Eisfeld

Music Director, 1848–65


b. Wolfenbüttel, Germany, April 11, 1816
d. Wiesbaden, Germany, September 2 or 16, 1882

Theodore Eisfeld was born with a talent for musical leadership. After beginning his studies in composition with Carl Gottlieb Reissiger and in violin with Karl Müller, he was appointed Kappellmeister of the Court Theatre at Wiesbaden at the age of 23, residing there for four years. In addition to his palette of musical pursuits, Eisfeld held a conducting post with the Concerts Viviènnes in Paris.

In 1848, Eisfeld arrived in New York to be elected to the Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York (1850 to 1866, nine of those years as vice president), and quickly rose as a prominent musical force in the city. Although his first concert with the New York Philharmonic was on March 17, 1848, it was customary for several musicians to share conducting duties. It wasn’t until 1852, in the Philharmonic’s 11th season, that Eisfeld became the first conductor to lead an entire season single-handedly. In this position he began the custom of giving annual Christmas performances of Handel’s Messiah, pioneered the presentation of the first chamber music series in the city, and conducted the freelance Orchestra for some of soprano Jenny Lind’s concerts.

Quickly, the musical decision-making power for the Philharmonic became consolidated in Eisfeld, a man of Germanic birth, and for the next 50 years, Germans would hold the principal conductor position. In the first decade of the Orchestra’s development, programming choices frequently reflected the international backgrounds of the conductors who shared in its leadership; with Eisfeld came a pronounced leaning toward the Germanic masters. New York audiences also admired Eisfeld as a composer of virtuosic pieces, such as his Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra, which the Orchestra performed several times.

In September 1858 on a return trip from a visit to Europe, Eisfeld was one of the few survivors of the burning of the steamship SS Austria, an episode in which he was lashed to a platform and left for two days and nights drifting in the mid-Atlantic. Surmounting the trauma, Eisfeld successfully conducted almost two-thirds of the Orchestra’s concerts in the next six seasons, including what was to be his final program, the 1865 memorial concert following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The Orchestra performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and Eisfeld controversially removed the final movement (Ode to Joy) as being inappropriate for the somber occasion. In 1865, Eisfeld resigned and was added to the Philharmonic’s permanent list of honorary members. Returning to Germany in 1866, he remained there until his death in Wiesbaden at the age of 66.

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