Between 1867 and 1900 Theodore Thomas orchestrated twenty-two pieces for inclusion in his programs. These works were integral to his popularity with American audiences, yet they are among the most overlooked factors contributing to Thomas's unprecedented success touring America throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. They have been overlooked in part because of Thomas's efforts to emphasize the significance of other aspects of his career over these orchestrations.
These transcriptions were so successful with Thomas's audiences because of the dual purpose they served on his programs. They entertained the populace while validating the concert's high-art status through the names of Europe's most venerable composers. American audiences in the latter half of the nineteenth century were eager to establish their cultural sophistication alongside that of Europe but not at the sacrifice of accessibility in the music that they attended. Through these orchestrations Thomas found a formula by which he could entertain his audiences while nevertheless encouraging their aspiration toward high culture. He was able to understand the needs of American audiences, because in many ways he represented their insecurities, lacking the formal education and life experiences to earn European validation as an orchestral conductor. The similarities in his struggles and those of his public prepared him for his role performing throughout America.
Almost all the orchestrations were of works originally for the piano or for voice and piano. By choosing these works for transcription, Thomas capitalized on the considerable increase in domestic music performance during his career. A few of these orchestrations, such as Chopin's Polonaise, op. 53, and the second movement from Beethoven's "Kreutzer Sonata" allowed Thomas to promote his orchestra as a virtuoso ensemble, garnering nearly the same name recognition for his ensemble as the most popular virtuosi in the country.
Thomas succeeded with his public because he managed to entertain them while promoting himself as an educator. These transcriptions were light, accessible works, but they escaped the altogether low classification of popular music. Although these were reputable works, they did not advance Thomas's image as an educator as well as did the masterworks of composers such as Handel, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn. For this reason, Thomas used the orchestrations continuously throughout his career to accommodate his public's expectations, but he drew attention to those masterworks that carried a greater perception of cultural sophistication. Careful compromises such as these nuance the traditional image of Thomas as the unyielding champion of high art music and instead reveal an enterprising and astute populist conductor, willing to accommodate different ideals for the success of his ensemble.