Willow Grove Park - Concert Music in PT Barnum's Day
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Concert Music in Barnum's Day
The chapter "When America Was Musically Young" from "Music Comes to America"

By David Ewen

The era following the Civil War was one of great fulfillment and still greater promise. It was an age of expansion. New cities arose, industrialization spread, population increased, speculation became rampant, fortunes were made almost overnight. These and other symptoms pointed to the fact that a great country was undergoing growing pains America was sprawling out in new directions-into the Far West, for example, which was now being built up and populated. A country seeing growth and development in every phase of its activity required more breathing space.
But what of musical activity in America? Was this period of expansion and development, so rich in promise of every kind, bringing with it a new age for the musical life of the country as well? It was well known that famous European musicians came to this country to give concerts during the nineteenth century and returned to Europe with both well-filled purses and strange tales of America naiveté' in music. There could he no denying that America, in music above everything else, was innocent; she was awkward and ingenuous and misinformed as only the very young and uneducated can be. She was sublimely oblivious of any standards of artistic excellence. What concerned her most in music seemed to be the obvious, the meretricious the sensational. A recognition of values had not yet begun to enter in her musical calculations.
Up to the closing decades of the nineteenth century, Americans regarded concerts as but another form of popular entertainment in the class, say, of the minstrel show, the prize fight, and the circus. As matter of fact, there were many towns in the South and Midwest which believed that an announced concert would be just a novel variety of the minstrel show. It was the grumble of many who came to attend the orchestral concerts of Theodore Thomas (when that brave pioneer first explored regions formerly untouched by musical civilization) that the evening fell flat because there had been no end men and no jokes. They further lamented that the men of the orchestra had even been too lazy to blacken their faces. When Anton Rubinstein visited Memphis, Tennessee, for a recital, he who was generally considered the greatest pianist of the time was stopped backstage by a helpful stage assistant who advised him to hurry to blacken his face in time for his "show."
It is uniquely appropriate that, when Jenny Lind concertized in America in 1850 (she was the first great singer to tour this country extensively), she should have been under the managerial wing of Phineas Taylor Barnum. It was not for a moment considered bad taste for Barnum to exploit a great artist with the methods used for his circus attractions. He aroused the curiosity of the American public in Jenny Lind's personality by spreading strange and fabulous tales about her virtue and angelic goodness. He inspired awed comments by escorting her from the boat to her hotel with regal splendor: spirited white horses drew her sumptuous carriage. In the evenings he arranged for local singing societies, or firemen bands, to serenade her beneath her window. His flair for igniting the imagination and the enthusiasm of the public for his stellar attraction soon yielded incredible results. Jenny Lind became a vogue, a passion, a disease. Clothing, food, cafe' houses were named after her. Her photographs sold millions of copies. Young women imitated her hair dress and her clothing. Musical numbers were written to praise her charms. And the box office showed commensurate returns. Halls were overcrowded whenever she sang. The crowds came, not to hear a great artist, but to see with their own eyes an apotheosized personality.
Music at the time appealed to American audiences for the very reasons that circuses did. It exploited eccentric personalities. It introduced breath-taking extramusical features. It flaunted unexpected tricks. When it did none of these things, music held no fascination for most of the audiences of the time. Teresa Carreno was publicized throughout the country as "the greatest woman pianist in the world" in much the same manner as the "bearded lady" or the "fattest woman in the world" - not as an artist, but rather as a freak of nature. An infant prodigy of the time, who inspired no end of wonder, was a "Master Marsh" who, at the age of four, was able to play on two drums at one time. Hatton, a pianist highly favored in the middle of the nineteenth century, would appear on the concert stage with a string of sleigh bells fastened to his right leg. When he reached the proper moment in a composition describing a sleigh ride, he would shake his leg; then an assistant on the stage would use an instrument which imitated the cracking of a whip. "And this thing," reported Dwight's Journal of Music (December '8, 1852), "aroused a storm of applause which had no end until it was repeated several times da capo."
Volovski, a Polish pianist, toured America with advertisements in which he "guaranteed" to play four hundred notes in one measure; and the singer De Begnis offered the attraction of singing six hundred words and three hundred bars of music in four minutes. Leopold de Meyer announced that he could perform on the piano with fists and elbows, even with a cane. Ole Bull, Norway's greatest violinist, exploited the fact that he could play "miraculous" double-stops on a "flattened fiddle bridge" Some, like the pianist Henry Her, even tried to lure audiences into the concert hall by announcing some such irrelevant attraction as the fact that his auditorium would be lighted by a thousand candles! The famous bandleader, Patrick S. Gilmore (Sousa's celebrated forerunner), thrilled his public by performing musical compositions that called for hells, anvils, and even actual cannon. At the Peace Jubilee concerts of 1869, a performance of the Anvil Chorus by Verdi recruited the services of red-shirted firemen who contributed to the sonorities of the orchestra by striking on anvils. George William Curtis wrote that m 1862 the musical tastes of the time "reached an apogee" with The Battle of Prague) a cacophonous composition for tin pans written many years earlier.
No wonder, then, that in such a bizarre setting the eccentric French-English conductor, Jullien, should have scored a sensation in 1853. He was America's musician-of-the-hour. His antics delighted America's love for the strange and the unexpected. When he conducted, he had behind him an ornately decorated velvet chair resembling a throne; into this he would sometimes sink with exhaustion at the completion of a musical number. There seemed no limit to the extravagances of his ideas. When he conducted one of his own quadrilles, he would (at a dramatic moment) seize the concertmaster's violin and bow or, on other occasions, tear a piccolo from the breast pocket of his velvet jacket. Then, swaying elaborately and accompanying the ecstatic motions of his body with exaggerated grimaces of his face, he would play with the orchestra. Before he conducted music by Beethoven, he would have a pair of kid gloves brought to him ceremoniously on a gold platter. In front of the eyes of the audience, he would put on these gloves and with great dignity proceed to direct the music. For other important works he used a special jeweled baton.
He would frequently perform excellent music: movements from symphonies by Beethoven, Mozart, and even Mendelssohn. But what took America by storm was a rendition of a piece called The Fireman's Quadrille. The composition began serenely enough with the strings. Suddenly, from off the stage, the clang of fire bells was heard. An ingenious stage effect simulated fire. Firemen in full regulation attire rushed on the stage with fire hose, pouring actual water on the stage fire. Then, when the fire was extinguished, the firemen ceremoniously left the stage. The music, which had been proceeding undisturbed throughout the entire exhibition, now reached a feverish climax which, sometimes literally, threw the audience into a frenzy. For many years thereafter orchestras and bands throughout the country attempted to emulate Jullien's success by performing The Fireman's Quadrille, not quite so elaborately as Jullien, but nevertheless with firemen in full uniform parading up and down the stage.
Sometimes accident helped to provide American concert audiences with unexpected thrills. At one of the concerts of the celebrated Hungarian violinist Remenyi (American audiences were particularly partial to Remenyi because of his fiddle acrobatics) he amazed his audience by apparently drawing a clear note in crescendo from his violin at the same time that he was going through the intricacies of a solo violin transcription of the funeral music from Handel's Saul. How he could draw this pure, clear tone uninterrupted, while his hands were involved in technical intricacies, was a mystery to fascinate a nineteenth-century audience in America. At the end of the performance the audience deliriously acclaimed the violinist. It might be added that this feat bewildered even Remenyi himself until, going backstage, he discovered that during the performance someone had gone to the pipe organ and had maliciously sounded the single sustained note throughout his entire performance.
Besides revealing an insatiable appetite for the sensational, American music audiences also disclosed a particular weakness for musical entertainment built on grandiose lines. The bigger the musical project, the better it was appreciated. Recitals by a single artist did not go well. Americans liked variety; they enjoyed a program that featured numerous artists. A concert of sixteen pianists on eight pianos was more likely to appeal than a concert by a single pianist, even if the pianist happened to be a world-famous artist. Concerts featuring a varied group of artists, supplemented frequently by a chorus and an orchestra, were preferred by Americans to an evening of chamber music. Often these concerts, which enlisted the services of a variety of artists, featured strange collaborations. At one concert, for example, Henri Vieuxtemps, Belgium's greatest violinist, appeared on the same program with a concertina artist who delighted his public by crushing his instrument on his nose or forehead.
Americans particularly liked concerts by mammoth orchestras and Gargantuan choruses. A favored entertainment of the time would be, say, a combination of Sousa's band with a major symphony orchestra in the performance of some well-known orchestral piece. The fact that each could have given a better account of itself independently did not disturb the listeners, who were more interested in size, and in massive size, than in the quality of the performance. Thus they went in for festivals with zest-not because these festivals featured unusual choral, and symphonic music but, more especially, because they utilized forces of tremendous size. There were such established festivals as those in Worcester, Oberlin, and Cincinnati which, at regular intervals (either annually or bi-annually), presented a cycle of grand-scale performances of symphonies and oratorios. In many western sections of the country all the musical activity would find its annual culmination in festival performances recruiting the orchestras and choruses of several different localities. Sometimes musicians would draw the limelight of attention upon themselves by arranging special festivals, as Gilmore did when he created the "Great Beethoven Centennial Jubilee" and as Theodore Thomas and Leopold Damrosch did after him. Sometimes special occasions brought forth the creation of festive musical celebrations, as the Peace Jubilees in Boston in 1869 and 1872 and the Chicago World's Fair, dedicated musically on October 22, 1892.
These festivals invariably called for unwieldy forces. At the Chicago World's Fair the fact that Theodore Thomas was to conduct "the largest orchestra ever to assemble on one stage" was the magnet used to draw in the audiences. At the Peace Jubilee of 1869 a chorus of 10,000 voices was joined by an orchestra of 1,000. Johann Strauss II, coming to this country for the first time to assist at the Jubilee of 1872, was an attraction not only because his waltzes were known in practically every American household, but more especially because-catering to the tastes of the time-he conducted a fabulous army of singers and orchestra players. His own description of the affair is enlightening:

"On the musicians' tribune there were twenty thousand singers; in front of them the members of the orchestra-and these were the people I was to conduct. A hundred assistant conductors had been placed at my disposal to control these gigantic masses, but I was only able to recognize those nearest to me, and though we had rehearsals there was no possibility of giving an artistic performance, a proper production. . . . Now just conceive of my position face to face with a public of four hundred thousand Americans. There I stood at the raised desk, high above all the others. How would the business start, how would it end? Suddenly a cannon-shot rang out, a gentle hint for us twenty thousand to begin playing The Blue Danube. I gave the signal, my hundred assistant conductors followed me as quickly and as well as they could and then there broke out an unholy row such as I shall never forget. As we had begun more or less simultaneously, I concentrated my whole attention on seeing that we should finish together too! Thank Heaven, I managed even that. It was all that was humanly possible. The hundred thousand mouths in the audience roared applause and I breathed a sigh of relief when I found myself in fresh air again and felt the firm ground beneath my feet."

Such festivals, developed along prodigious outlines, dramatized music for Americans through means they could best understand and appreciate: display, and the impressiveness of sheer size.

Article from: The Music Lover's Handbook, edited by Elie Siegmeister, Willliam Morrow and Co. New York – 1943 p.736

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