Theophil Otto Frederick Charles Wendt was born on the 22nd August 1874 in a London suburb; died 5 February 1951 in Johannesburg. Conductor, composer.
The son of German emigrants to England, Theo Wendt’s father was not completely happy about British education and sent his son to one of the Moravian Church Schools (probably Klein Welka) in Germany. There the discipline was strict, the academic standards high, and the boy could indulge his musical inclinations by beating the drum in the cadet band and by having pianoforte lessons. By the time he had turned fourteen he was determined on a career as a musician and after he had been tested by Carl Reinecke, the Director of the Leipzig Conservatoire, he returned to England for piano lessons under Robert Ernst, before entering the Conservatoire in Cologne in 1891. During his two student years in Germany he became saturated with the late German romanticism of Wagner, and returned to England for further study at the RAM. There the Academy Orchestra offered the possibility of nurturing his rapidly growing love of orchestral direction. He played the viola, at times also the timpani and other percussion instruments, and had sufficient opportunity for exercising his conducting talent. Exempted from examination, he was elected an Associate in the year in which he left England (1896).
He came to South Africa, provisionally to teach pianoforte and harmony at the Diocesan School for Girls in Grahamstown. He taught for 29 hours a week, but he also had a select private practice and was appointed to the management of a new branch of the music dealers, Jackson Bros. In time he also took up the teaching of pianoforte at St Andrew’s College. He became prominent at concerts at which he featured in the company of Percy Ould, a violinist whom he assisted in organizing music for the Grahamstown Exhibition of Arts and Crafts (end of 1898 – beginning of 1899). Wendt composed an Ode for chorus and orchestra to mark the beginning of the Exhibition and also spent some time playing on the pianos exhibited by Jackson’s. Shortly after his arrival, and towards the end of 1899, he presented pianoforte recitals at which a few of his own compositions featured on the programmes. But the opportunities for a first-rate musician were too limited and in 1901 he left the town to take up for a short while the management of a new musical branch of Darter’s in East London and then to visit Durban for a year.
Wendt embarked on a tour of South Africa in July/August 1914 (despite war clouds) and gave over 50 successful concerts at Kimberley, Klerksdorp, Potchefstroom, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban (when the War broke out), Grahamstown (to revive old memories?) and Port Elizabeth. They returned to Cape Town by sea. The tours were resumed after the War and became an annual event, inspiring Durban and eventually Johannesburg to emulate them.
Amid the rather dreary round of recreational and social concerts, the Thursday evening concerts devoted to the symphonic repertoire formed an almost charmed circle and extreme measures had to be adopted after the War when they were endangered by financial considerations. A voluntary Thursday Evening Subscriber’s Society saved the situation by guaranteeing a few thousand pounds each year for their continuation. Without these concerts Wendt would have had no cause to stay on in Cape Town. In 1921 the reluctance of the Council to concede his artistic aims led him to the brink of resignation. He was approached by the Vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand to consider an appointment to the chair of Music in their projected Music Department. When Cape Town required to know the conditions under which he would continue as conductor, he demanded that the Council be relieved of the responsibility of the orchestra; this meant that an outside body would have to accept its management. The Cape Peninsula Publicity Association took up the burden and a new arrangement was reached which relieved the conductor of perennial financial worries. But after three happy years with the orchestra, there was trouble over the reinstatement of a previous reduction of 5% to the players, and when Wendt indignantly took up the cudgels, he was threatened with a reduction of R600.00 in his salary to meet the additional costs. In April 1924, on the eve of the orchestra’s sixth tour of the Union of South Africa, Wendt resigned and became Musical Director and Studio Manager of South Africa’s first broadcasting station in Johannesburg. His first association with radio lasted two-and-a-half years and was ended when the broadcasting licence was awarded to Mr Schlesinger, a step which led to the creation of an African Broadcasting Company and the reconsideration of all aspects of broadcasting.
Wendt was responsible for supplying seven hours of listening entertainment each day. This included talks for women and children, operatic excerpts, plays, orchestral and chamber music concerts, as well as light music.
At the end of 1926 he departed from South Africa to establish himself in the United States of America. The American part of his career can be summarized. During the first six years of his stay he was mainly a lecturer in harmony and counterpoint at a college of music, but soon he had a variety of other occupations. He had some standing with Metro Goldwyn Mayer, for whom he composed original music and orchestrated existing music; on Sundays he travelled to Boston to conduct the Boston People’s Symphony Orchestra of 90 players; during the difficult times of the Great Depression he organized and conducted 90 orchestral players at Carnegie Hall and as a result was engaged by the National Broadcasting Corporation to conduct a series of symphony concerts. By 1933 he was established in American music circles and achieved an appointment as permanent conductor of the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra in Western New York State. Three years later he left America to visit Germany with his third wife, a Wagnerian soprano, presumably for the furtherance of their respective careers. While in Germany he had the opportunity of conducting the Berlin Radio Orchestra and was invited to London by the BBC to conduct his Six South African songs for a radio broadcast.
Barely a year after his arrival in Germany he was contacted in Munich by Rene Caprara, the first Director General of the SABC, to join Jeremy Schulman and Arnold Fulton in conducting the new SABC Orchestra. He accepted this proposition and landed in South Africa for the third time in February 1938, this time to conduct a body of players which, in combination with the semi-professional City Orchestra of John Connell, had at times a complement of 80. This arrangement lasted until 1944 when the SABC appointed him their official orchestrator and arranger. During these years he also returned to Cape Town as a guest conductor of the Symphony Orchestra he had established. The University of Cape Town awarded him an honorary Doctorate in Music on 10 December 1948.
Source: South African Music Encyclopaedia and Cape Times.