The Concert Circuit
By the middle of the 1800s, traveling virtuosos of every ilk and hue began to crisscross the nation with all the hype and fervor of modern rock stars. The posters and newspaper ads may have been slower to move around the country, and there were no instantaneous mass television saturation techniques, but otherwise all the ingredients of the modern stadium concert mentality were in place.
There were conductors, instrumentalists, singers, and groups of many different sizes and mixtures. They delivered a broad variety of folk, pop, and semi-classical music. A few names out of the many dozens at large will serve to convey the spirit and style of the entertainment genre.
Frenchman Louis A. Jullien (1812-1860) arrived in the United States in 1853, and he exerted enormous influence on the entertainment scene with his series of spectacular concerts. With a trunk full of special arrangements, he would pull into town, recruit and rehearse an orchestra of anywhere from forty to one hundred local professionals, and then put on a concert of classics, popular airs, and novelty numbers. With his combination of outrageous showmanship and brilliant musicianship, he stirred the nation to a heightened interest in all kinds of music.
"He conducted Beethoven in white kid gloves, and for important works he used a jeweled baton." Sometimes he would seize the concertmaster's violin, or take a piccolo from his velvet coat, to finish out a musical piece with the orchestra. His most famous offering was "The Fireman's Quadrille", near the end of which local firemen came through the hall with hoses to put out real flames on stage (Gleason 1955, 66). He abandoned that part of his program after a theater burned down in Boston.
Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore (1829-1892) came from Ireland, via Canada, and organized the Gilmore Band in 1859. While serving as a bandmaster in the Union Army in 1863, he wrote "When Johnny Comes Marching Home". Taking his cue from Jullien, Gilmore began to stage big concerts, starting in New Orleans with an inaugural celebration for the federal governor of Louisiana, where he conducted a chorus of five thousand and a band of five hundred. They performed "Hail Columbia", accompanied by the firing of several cannons on the beat of the drums and the ringing of all the church bells in the vicinity.
He then assembled another group for the National Peace Jubilee in Boston in 1869, with an orchestra of one thousand and a chorus of ten thousand. In addition, there were cannons, a powerful pipe organ, and one hundred firemen pounding anvils during the "Anvil Chorus" from Verdi's Il Trovatore. Finally, he topped it all at the World's Peace Jubilee, again in Boston, this time in 1872, with an orchestra of two thousand and a chorus of twenty thousand. Johann Strauss came from Europe to conduct his "Blue Danube Waltz", aided by one hundred assistant conductors on giant step ladders. Strauss later described the event to friends as an "unholy row".
Francis Johnson (1792-1844), described by diarist Robert Waln as "a descendent of Africa possessing a most respectable share of musical talents," was one of America's first black musical celebrities. Frank Johnson's Colored Band, made up of many woodwinds and a few brass and percussion, performed up and down the Atlantic seaboard, then played for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. Deleting a few winds and adding strings, Johnson was highly successful as a dance band leader, playing for many high society formal balls. For both concert and dance, Johnson wrote much of the music, and had a high skill in improvising. He was, perhaps, America's first jazz musician, although the term does not come into common language for another fifty years.
Among the many flamboyant superstars, pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) stands high. Born into an affluent New Orleans family, Gottschalk had all the privileges of material comfort. His English-Jewish father and Creole mother nurtured his musical gifts. They sent him to Paris to study piano and composition, after which he toured France, Switzerland, and Spain, leaving behind a trail of musical triumphs and adoring females.
In addition to the great master piano works, he played his own special brand of extravagant tone paintings, patriotic airs, and sentimental ballads. He performed brilliantly on the then new Chickering piano. To avoid a sex scandal involving the daughter of a wealthy San Francisco family, Gottschalk moved to South America where he staged massive concerts of his own works. He died at age forty in Rio de Janeiro in 1869.
From Norway, Ole Bull (1810-1880) made five successful tours of America in the middle 1800s, playing a dazzling array of his own compositions and special arrangements of standard works. With a nearly level bridge and a flat fingerboard, he could play all four violin strings at the same time. One number was a "Quartette, composed for four instruments, but performed on one, by Ole Bull". His bizarre style attracted an enthusiastic public (Gleason 1955, 63). He was doing exactly what Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840) had done a few years earlier in Europe, and he generated the same kind of hero worship.
Thomas Bethune (1849-1908), born blind to Colonel Bethune's household slave, Charity Wiggins, astonished everyone when he played difficult exercises at the piano after hearing them only once. By age nine, the "Negro Boy Pianist" was on a touring circuit where his remarkable memory and prodigious technical skill with Bach, Chopin, and Beethoven became the talk of the nation. Among his repertoire of seven hundred compositions were piano "imitations" of waterfalls, rainstorms, and earthquakes, along with complex feats like playing "Yankee Doodle" with one hand, a brilliant hornpipe in a different key with his other hand, while singing "Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!" in yet another key.
Jenny Lind (1820-1887), the "Swedish Nightingale", made her opera debut at age eighteen and went on to world fame before age twenty. Her American manager, the colorful P. T. Barnum, presented her right along with his circus attractions. He guaranteed her $10,000 per show, and she drew huge audiences with various classical and popular works. She sang a wide variety of solos, trios with two flutists, and similar crowd pleasers, then often concluded her show with a ravishing treatment of everyone's favorite of the day, "Home, Sweet Home". Audiences wept with joy.
African-American soprano Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (1809-1876) was called "The Black Swan" by the music critics for her beauty and for her "remarkably sweet tones and wide vocal compass." She made her debut in 1851, and went on tour shortly thereafter, finally appearing in a command performance in England for Queen Victoria (Southern 1971, 112). After her concert career, she opened a voice studio in Philadelphia.
The Hutchinson Family, one of the most successful collective careers in American music, "thrilled audiences for over fifty years." From Milford, New Hampshire, the eleven sons and two daughters gave their first public concert at a local Baptist Church in 1839. Their concert programs consisted of sentimental ballads, dramatic tunes, religious pieces, and a strong brand of political anti-slavery songs.
The famous Frederick Douglass went with them when they toured England in 1846. As the sons and daughters married, they trained their offspring in the family music traditions, and at one time there were three authentic Hutchinson Family groups touring simultaneously in the United States (Jablonski 1981, 80-81).
An African American family became almost as famous as the Hutchinsons. Alexander Luca (b. 1805), his wife, and three sons first performed in 1853, and later toured the nation to great acclaim. They teamed up with the Hutchinsons for some concerts in Ohio in 1859, and were generally well received. The youngest Luca son, Cleveland (b. 1838), was the pianist for the family and eventually was hired by the country of Liberia to teach music there. The middle son, John (b. 1832), went on to a distinguished solo career.
While the brilliant shows of the superstar performers brought joy and delight to America's new concert audiences, composers were diligently turning out songs for any and all occasions. With the public's insatiable appetite for music, composers rose to a high level of prestige and financial security. Not all, of course, but a good many of them managed to prosper in the rapid development of America's new music industry.
It is a strange fact but true, that long after the performers are forgotten, the composers of the songs are remembered. Even more strange, of course, is the fact that long after the composers are forgotten, the songs themselves live on, in a kind of independent world of their own, a world of dreams and desires, the world of pop music.