Approximately one-third of the archival holdings is housed at the Archie K Davis Center, 457 S. Church St., Winston-Salem, NC; two-thirds of the archival holdings reside in the Moravian Archives, Northern Province, 41 W. Locust St., Bethlehem, PA.
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 Johnson’s Legacy
Champion of Moravian and American Music
Thor was born in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin on June 10, 1913. His father was a Moravian minister, and when he was four years old, his father became the pastor of the Friedberg Moravian congregation south of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, one of the largest Moravian settlements in the United States. Thor immersed himself in Moravian music. 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 studied at the University of North Carolina (1934) and 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, and 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.
In the fall of 1937, he was appointed to a full-time faculty position at the University of Michigan and began speaking of the importance of encouraging American artists. While at Michigan, Thor took over as director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra.
During World War II, Thor enlisted in the U.S. Army and directed various army bands and orchestras and had the opportunity to guest conduct the Philadelphia and the Chicago Symphony Orchestras. Upon his discharge in May of 1946, he joined the faculty of Julliard School of Music. In December of 1946, while at Julliard, Thor came to national attention when he was appointed musical director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, at age 33, following a list of great conductors like Leopold Stowkoski and Fritz Reiner.
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 & Seminar in 1950 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, following several years of research and discovered treasures in the Moravian Archives. The last one he directed was in DePere, Wisconsin in 1974. The festivals cater to church musicians but also expose Moravian music to a wider audience.
The second major festival founded by Thor is the Peninsula Music Festival in Door County, Wisconsin helped along by Lorenz Heise, a businessman from Milwaukee and summer resident of Door County. The first concert featured what would become Thor’s hallmark—the premiere of an original work composed for the Peninsula Music Festival. Thor came to love Door County and built a summer home on the shore of Green Bay.
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.
Thor accepted the job as Director of the Interlochen Arts Academy and conductor of its orchestra in 1964. After three successful years at Interlochen, he left to become the musical director of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and continued his tradition of premiering new music.
On January 16, 1975, at 61 years of age, Thor Johnson died as the result of complications from surgery to remove a brain tumor.
In the words of his biographer …
Historical Timeline of the Moravian Music Foundation