- Historic Sites
Big Boom In Boston
“Come immediately … Nothing like it in a lifetime!” an exalted customer telegrapheds wife after hearing the opening number of the National Peace Jubilee in 1869
October 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 6
What must have been the most starting outburst of sound in the history of harmonics was rendition of the Anvil Chorus from Verdi’s Il Trovalore that split the air of Boston, Massachusetts, one hundred years ago last June 15. Featured were one hundred Boston firemen wearing blue trousers, red shirts with double rows of brass buttons, and gleaming brass helmets, smashing away with blacksmith’s hammers upon as many anvils, amid showers of sparks. Against this organized cacophony a chorus of ten thousand roared out, in four-part harmony, specially written words that transformed this high point of an Italian opera into an even greater showstopper as an American patriotic hymn. Behind them, a one-thousand-piece orchestra puffed and pounded. “The largest pipe organ in the world” rumbled and thundered, and “the world’s biggest bass drum,” twenty-five feet in circumsference, gave forth with resonant booms. Bells from every church tower in Boston chimed in somewhat haphazardly. A battery of cannon outside the building, electrically fired by push buttons located on the conductor’s music stand, shook the ground for miles around as the chorus soared to its crashing climax.
And the throbbing audience of forty thousand jumped up and down, madly waving programs, flags, fans, handkerehiefs. Some reported later that they thought they had “gone to Heaven,” and a Mrs. Dunlap from Chicago actually did die in the balcony, either from sheer excitement or consternation. Whether she went to heaven is not known.
The occasion was the National Peace Jubilee, a monster musical explosion that continued for five days in a vast, bunting-draped, indoor coliseum—a temporary wooden structure, seating fifty thousand, named the Temple of Peace. (The new Madison Square Garden in New York seats 20,234.) The excuse for this gigantic caterwaul was to celebrate “the restoration of peace,” more than four years after Appomattox.
Actually, the jubilee was in part a promotional scheme for Boston business houses. More than that, however, it was the expression of a grandiose dream of Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, the first great American bandmaster and one of the world’s most flamboyant musical showmen. And it is even possible that the jubilee may have hit a few significant licks for culture.
Pat Gilmore, who conceived, promoted, organized, and directed the event, was a winsome character—part Barnum, part great conductor, part pixie, and part Professor Harold Hill, the itinerant horn salesman recently immortalized on stage and screen as the Music Man. Of medium height and looks, Gilmore was blessed with abounding good nature, quick Irish wit, and, evidently, an ear for perfect pitch, sales as well as musical.
Gilmore was humbly born at Ballygar, in County Galway, on Christmas Day, 1829. Sixteen years later he was playing B-flat cornet in the town band at Athlone, where he had a job in a brewery. In 1848 Pat emigrated to Boston, then America’s musical capital, and in a half dozen years he was leading New England’s best band.
During the Civil War Gilmore went to New Orleans to organize a suitable celebration for the inauguration of the new carpetbag governor of Louisiana, Michael “Beast” Hahn. He recruited five thousand singing youngsters from New Orleans schools, and some three hundred military bandsmen. Their concert in Lafayette Square reached a climax with “Hail Columbia!” in which the singers and musicians were backed up by cannon salvos and pealing church bells.
The National Peace Jubilee, a mammoth version of the New Orleans doings, came to our hero in a vision one June day in 1867 while he was walking along the street in New York City. “A vast structure rose before me,” wrote Gilmore, who loved soaring rhetoric almost as much as band music and cannonading, “through whose lofty arches a chorus of ten thousand voices and the harmony of one thousand instruments rolled their sea of sound, accompanied by the chiming of bells and the booming of cannon … all pouring forth … loud hosannahs with all the majesty and grandeur of which music seemed capable.” As Gilmore conceived the event, the President of the United States and practically everybody else important in this country and abroad would be there.
But when Gilmore got home to Boston and revealed his vision to his wife, she reacted as follows: “Why, are you crazy? Have you lost your senses?” Fat then broached his idea to friends among local business and civic leaders; they viewed the project pretty much as Mrs. Gilmore had. Next, he offered the jubilee to politicians in Washington; then to city fathers in New York. At least one of the latter thought he must be dangerously insane.
Concluding that New York was a nice place for visions but a poor site for a jubilee, Pat resolved to stage his show in Boston as originally conceived, although nobody seemed to be for it except a few dreamy musicians. Leading local businessmen and bankers did meet and consider the project but reported, “We are not interested.” In his vision in June, 1867, Gilmore had seen his jubilee happening in almost exactly two years, but when New Year’s Day, 1869, arrived—his target date not six months away —he had not a penny in the jubilee treasury.