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Thomas Baker

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Biography

Thomas Baker (ca. 1820 - 1888) was a violinist, theatre musical director, composer, and arranger.

A violin prodigy, Baker studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He became leader (concertmaster) of Louis Antoine Jullien's orchestra, which originated the summer Promenade Concerts that are still popular events in London. Baker also arranged popular dance music for the orchestra. After the Jullien orchestra toured the United States in 1853-54, Baker decided to remain in New York.

Baker began his American career as the musical director for English operas at Niblo's Garden, a major Broadway theatre. From 1855 through 1863 he was musical director for Laura Keene, an English actress and producer. That post established his reputation as one of New York's elite composers and directors of music for the theatre.

Baker is best known as the composer and musical director of The Black Crook, which opened at Niblo's Garden in 1866. A five-hour extravaganza combining melodrama, songs, dances, special effects, and scantily-clad chorus girls, The Black Crook is often cited in history books as the first Broadway musical. It really wasn't the first Broadway musical, but it was a huge hit. The original production ran for an unprecedented 474 performances, followed by multiple revivals in New York and London. Versions of the show toured the country for the rest of the nineteenth century. Then it disappeared into the history books.

In addition to accompanying singers and playing dance music, 19th-century theatre orchestras underscored non-musical dramas and comedies with incidental music, much as a film score does today. The first violinist traditionally led the orchestra (which is why the concertmaster of a British orchestra is still called the "leader"). But Baker's incidental music was so complex and sophisticated that he could not adequately lead his orchestra while playing violin. Baker thus became the first theatre musical director in the United States to conduct from a podium.

Baker was also a prolific composer and arranger of popular piano music.


Works for Winds

Black Crook Galop (arr. Marcus)

References

Spitzer, John (Ed.) (2012). American Orchestras in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Pisano, Michael V. (2014). Music for the Melodramatic Theatre in Nineteenth-Century London and New York. Iowa City:University of Iowa Press