Sibelius’ Second Symphony and Chicago’s “Great Sadness”

Chicago Tribune, January 3, 1904

During the Chicago Orchestra’s last full season at the Auditorium Theatre, first music director Theodore Thomas had programmed the U.S. premiere of Sibelius’ Second Symphony for January 1 and 2, 1904, during the ninth subscription week.

On November 23, 1903, the 1,600-seat Iroquois Theatre (located on the north side of West Randolph Street, between State and Dearborn) opened its doors with a production of Mr. Blue Beard starring Eddie Foy. Barely a month later, the December 30 matinee of the popular musical had a standing-room audience of well over 2,000, mostly women and children on holiday break. An additional 300 actors, technicians, and stagehands were backstage.

Just after the beginning of the second act, sparks from a stage light set fire to a muslin curtain and began to spread to the fly space. Very quickly, sections of burning curtains and set pieces began to fall to the stage, and even though Foy attempted to calm the audience, panic ensued (Foy’s account of the event is here). Patrons rushed to the exits — none of which were identified by illuminated signage and some were even hidden behind curtains — only to find that many opened inwardly or had been locked to prevent gatecrashers.

Over 600 people lost their lives — more than twice as many casualties as the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 — in this, the deadliest single-building fire in U.S. history.*

Program page for the January 1, 1904, concert

“Had Mr. Thomas known some six weeks ago of the great sadness that was to rest like a pall over the city of Chicago on New Year’s Day he could scarcely have arranged a program better suited to the occasion than was that which he and the Chicago Orchestra offered yesterday afternoon at the Auditorium,” wrote the critic in the Chicago Tribune on January 2, referring also to the Funeral March from Elgar’s Grania and Diarmid as well as the Transformation Scene and Glorification from Wagner’s Parsifal.

“The new symphony of Sibelius — [no. 2] in D major, and which yes­terday was played for the first time in America — proved a composition heavy with the mournful melancholy of the northern land whence its writer comes. . . . Mr. Thomas and his men threw themselves with exceptional enthusiasm and vigor into the perfor­mance of the new composition, which is of uncommon difficulty in many places, and the result was a rendition technically com­plete and interpretatively powerful.”

The Saturday evening concert on January 2 was canceled, as Mayor Carter Harrison had ordered all the­aters closed for mandatory inspection. The Orchestra’s next concerts were given on January 15 and 16, since the Auditorium Theatre only needed minor modifica­tions to meet the regulations. The January 2 concert was rescheduled for Monday, January 18, and Sibelius’s Symphony no. 2 received its second performance. The program was revised (likely because the piano soloist, George Proctor, was no longer in town) as follows:

WAGNER Huldigungsmarsch
SIBELIUS Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43
BEETHOVEN Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72b
ELGAR Incidental Music and Funeral March from Grania and Diarmid
WAGNER Good Friday Spell and Transformation Scene and Glorification from Parsifal

Program insert itemizing schedule for postponed concerts

In spite of the tragedy, the trustees of the Orchestral Association continued with plans for the construction of Orchestra Hall — ground was broken on May 1 and the hall opened on December 14, 1904. The Iroquois reopened as the Colonial Theatre in October 1905, but in 1924 it was torn down to make way for the Oriental, which opened in 1926. It was renamed the Nederlander in 2019.

*The tragedy at the Iroquois Theatre was a catalyst for the implementation of increased safety standards and ordinances for public buildings, including clearly marked exits, doors of egress that open outward and doors equipped with “crash” or “panic” bars.

A version of this article appears in the program book for the December 1, 2, 3 and 6, 2022, concerts.