Thor Martin Johnson (1913-1975), Founding Music Director
Thor Johnson initially received national attention as the youngest American born and trained conductor of a major American orchestra—the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He later achieved international recognition and became known for his championing of contemporary music.
Thor was born in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin on June 10, 1913. His father was a Moravian minister, and young Thor grew up in a household steeped in the faith and traditions of the Moravian Church. When he was four years old, his father became the pastor of Friedberg Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, one of the largest Moravian settlements in the United States. The Moravian Church is well known for its music, and Thor immersed himself in it. His love of his church’s music informed much of his life. By the time he was in high school he played violin, viola, and French horn, and when only sophomore was made assistant conductor of the high school orchestra.
Thor received a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of North Carolina in 1934, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and the Order of the Golden Fleece, one of the university’s highest honors. In the fall of 1934 he entered the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor for graduate study. While there he came to the attention of Serge Koussevitzky, famed conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who recommended him for a grant from the Beebe Fund for American Musicians. He was awarded a full grant for a year of study in Europe, beginning in the summer of 1936. Living primarily in Leipzig and Prague, he studied with distinguished musicians, including Bruno Walter, attended concerts, and met many of the most important figures in the musical world.
Upon his return from Europe in the fall of 1937, he was appointed to a full-time faculty position at the University of Michigan. His title was “Instructor in Music Literature and Conductor of the University Symphony Orchestra.” It was during this period that he began speaking of the importance of encouraging American artists. This was an interest that stayed with him for the rest of his professional life.
In addition to his busy schedule at the University of Michigan, Thor took over as director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra—the beginning of his professional conducting career. In May 1941, during summer break, he was one of only six students (another was Leonard Bernstein) who studied conducting with Serge Koussevitszky.
The Second World War brought an end to Thor’s stay at the University of Michigan and involvement with the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra, as he enlisted in the U.S. Army in May, 1942. During his tour of duty, he directed various army bands and orchestras and had the opportunity to guest conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Upon his discharge in May of 1946, he joined the faculty of Julliard School of Music. It was a natural position for a conductor who delighted in teaching and mentoring young musicians.
In December of 1946, while at Julliard, Thor came to national attention when he was appointed musical director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. It was a prestigious position. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra had been led by some of the world’s great conductors, among them Leopold Stowkoski and Fritz Reiner.
Thor Johnson was only 33 years old at the time of his appointment, and quite a bit was made of his youth and the fact that he was both American born and essentially American trained. This was unusual in a time when most conductors were either foreign born or foreign trained or both. His new post gave him the opportunity to expand his interest in introducing new music to the public, particularly music of American composers. During his 11 years with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, he conducted the premieres of 120 American and European works, at least half of which he had commissioned. He enjoyed a high degree of success in Cincinnati and received numerous awards and honorary degrees. He remained with the Orchestra until 1958.
In the early 1950s Thor founded two music festivals that have become synonymous with his name and that continue to thrive. They are linked by Thor’s devotion to Moravian Music. The first, the Early American Moravian Music Festival, came about as a direct result of Thor’s love of Moravian music, particularly music that was not well known. He directed the first festival, held in 1950 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, home of the headquarters of the Moravian Church in America. The weeklong festival featured instrumental and choral works, some of which were discovered in the Moravian Archives. It was a resounding success and led for calls for an annual festival. However, it was discovered that the stored music was so badly in need of cataloging that further festivals needed to be postponed for a bit.
After three years of work on the archives, the second Early American Moravian Music Festival and Seminar was held in Bethlehem in 1954, and the third took place in Winston-Salem. The festivals were held every few years at a variety of locations, always with Thor directing. The last one he directed was in DePere, Wisconsin in 1974. The festivals have continued on an intermittent basis ever since. Besides presenting interesting and exciting music, they give Moravians and others a greater appreciation of their musical heritage—just what Thor wanted.
The second major festival founded by Thor is the Peninsula Music Festival in Door County, Wisconsin. Lorenz Heise, a businessman from Milwaukee and summer resident of Door County, traveled to Winston-Salem to hear the first Early American Moravian Music Festival. He was so moved and excited by what he heard that he approached Thor about coming to Door County to do something similar. Thor was enthused and told Heise to get it started and he’d come. Heise returned to Door County and spread the word. Meetings and fund raising followed, and by 1953 the Peninsula Music Festival, under Thor’s baton, played its first concert. It was a 35-40 piece chamber orchestra composed of outstanding musicians recruited by Thor. The budget that year was $10,000 for eight concerts performed in the space of three weeks. The first concert featured what would become Thor’s hallmark—the premiere of a work composed for the Peninsula Music Festival. Thor refused compensation for his services, although he was always given some token of appreciation.
Thor came to love Door County and built a summer home on the shore of Green Bay. He liked being a member of the local community and being involved in local activities. Despite performing in a school gymnasium, the Peninsula Music Festival enjoyed success from the beginning and always played new pieces, frequently from American composers. Its soloists were handpicked by Thor—rising stars whose fees were still affordable. Many went on to become internationally famous.
Over the years the Peninsula Music Festival has grown and thrived and now performs in a state-of-the-art auditorium, but Thor’s influence is apparent in the number of new and unfamiliar works presented each season.
In 1958 Thor left the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and accepted a position as full professor and Director of Orchestral Activities at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. His presence attracted many gifted students, drawn by his ability to inspire as well as to demand excellence. In addition, he accepted a great variety of national and international guest conducting assignments, including yearly appearances at the huge Mormon Tabernacle for the Salt Lake City Oratorio Society’s performance of the Messiah.
Thor’s interest in young musicians was instrumental in his acceptance of the job as Director of the Interlochen Arts Academy and conductor of its orchestra in 1964. He was well known for his ability to get gifted young musicians to reach their potential, and enrollment at the Academy climbed under his directorship. After three successful years at Interlochen, he left to become the musical director of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, where he conducted the Nashville Symphony in its regular concerts as well as in young people’s concerts. He also conducted the Nashville Youth Symphony. During his years at Nashville, he presented numerous well-known soloists, as well as rising young stars. He continued his tradition of premiering new music.
On January 16, 1975, Thor Johnson died as the result of complications from surgery to remove a brain tumor. He was 61 years old. The love and respect with which he was held were obvious from the memorial services held for him on January 26. At the same hour, simultaneous services to celebrate his life took place at Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem (where he was buried); Belle Meade United Methodist Church, Nashville; the Moravian Church, Ephraim (Door County), Wisconsin; First Congregational Church, Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Interlochen Arts Academy.
Over his lifetime Thor Johnson was the recipient of eight honorary degrees and uncounted standing ovations. But he is best remembered in the words of his biographer “…by the countless audiences who had been touched and blessed by his music, the thousands of orchestra members and choral singers whom he instructed and inspired to bring this music to life, and the hundreds of young musicians he encouraged, nurtured, and helped with unselfishness and joy.”
(from Thor Johnson, American Conductor by Louis Nicholas, The Music Festival Committee of the Peninsula Arts Association, 1982)