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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
The Boston Herald gave twenty columns of publicity in one issue. Reporters excitedly measured the pipes of “the world’s greatest organ,” and exclaimed over the building’s forty-eight water closets, “so completely equipped for every necessity of nature.” More than 2,400 gas jets fed by 25,000 feet of specially laid pipe provided interior lighting. The city put down a six-inch water main to serve the sinks, water closets, and Cataract Hose Company Number Ten, which moved right into the building with two hose carriages, twelve firemen, and 1,600 feet of hose.
Ole Bull, the internationally famous Norwegian violinist, agreed to serve as guest conductor. Euphrosyne Parepa-Rosa, an amply built soprano who, despite her name, hailed from Britain, and who had been featured at the Handel festivals in London’s Crystal Palace, would be chief soloist. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote “A Hymn Of Peace” as the festival’s theme song, and President Grant, his cabinet, and most of the Washington upper brass announced that they would be on hand. The jubilee was now a sure-fire box-office success.
A city of tents and wooden shacks began to spread about the coliseum, offering lodging, entertainment, gingerbread, soft drinks, notions, and souvenirs. Great crowds assembled daily to listen to the thunderous rumbles as the great organ was tuned. A multitude greeted the mighty drum when it arrived on a flatcar at the railroad station. And a cough-drop manufacturer announced that he would present each singer with a box of Brown’s Bronchial Troches.
And so, on June 15, 1869, the National Peace Jubilee opened its doors to what the New York Times called “the largest, most eager throng that ever awaited admission to an American place of entertainment.” After some long-winded preliminaries, the great Gilmore appeared on the podium, his star-shaped studs gleaming, his frame quivering with excitement. He thanked his backers; then he turned to his massed singers and musicians and gave the downbeat.
Whereupon an overwhelming detonation of harmony smote the audience and shook the building as the giant orchestra, great organ, and full chorus let loose fortissimo with Martin Luther’s rousing chorale, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” As if to prove this declaration, the sun burst through the clouds and flooded the Temple with its rays just at the peak of the hymn’s crescendo. The effect was overpowering. One man rushed from the audience and telegraphed his wife: “Come immediately! Will sacrifice anything to have you here. Nothing like it in a lifetime!”
The whole show—all five days of it—was a resounding success as capacity houses listened to slices of popular classics, hymns, and patriotic selections, all rendered with astonishing energy, imagination, and co-ordination. The hit number, performed every day, was the Anvil Chorus, with its firemen, bells, and cannon. The jubilee drew a truly national audience—lumbermen from the Northwest; quality families from the South; New Englanders from farms, villages, and towns; and New Yorkers and Bostonians of high and low degree. The big moment of the jubilee came on its third day when President Grant and his cabinet strode down the center aisle while the orchestra played “See, the Conquering Hero Comes,” and, the New York Evening Post reported, “seething crowds … thirty deep at least, panted and struggled and stood for four mortal hours trying to listen to the music …” There were, to be sure, moments of musical confusion from time to time, but the decibel level was so high that they were hardly noticed. The New York Times summarized the reaction of the press: “In spite of a few unfortunate irregularities of the performers and certain errors in arrangements … the Peace Jubilee was one of the most remarkable successes ever accomplished in this or any country.”
The National Peace Jubilee was not only an emotional success; it actually made money. Total expenses were $283,388.29 (of which the coliseum cost $120,750.68). Total receipts were $290,270.33. The profit was thus $6,882.04. Delighted Bostonians rewarded Gilmore with a $40,000 purse, and he left for a vacation in Europe—where the Franco-Prussian War was soon to begin. Its conclusion provided him with the inspiration, three years later, to throw another musical wingding in Boston in praise of peace, this one billed as “twice the size” of the 1869 affair.
For this World Peace Jubilee, Gilmore secured as soloists such internationally famous European artists as Franz Abt, Arabella Goddard, and Franz Bendel; he also imported three of the world’s most distinguished bands. From London came the band of the Grenadier Guards in red, gold, and bearskins; from Paris the band of La Garde Républicaine. The Kaiser sent the band of the Kaiser Franz Regiment and his Own Household Cornet Quartet. But Gilmore’s greatest catch was Johann Strauss, composer of “The Blue Danube” and in 1872 probably the most popular musician in the world. Lured by Gilmore’s persuasive powers and a reported fee of $20,000, the Waltz King departed Vienna and made his only trip to America to conduct the immense orchestra in one of his waltzes on each of the jubilees eighteen days, as well as at a Grand Ball. Strauss later wrote: On the musicians’ tribune there were 20,000 singers; in front of them the 2,000 members of the orchestra. A hundred assistant conductors had been placed at my disposal. I was face-to-face with a public of 40,000 Americans. Suddenly a cannon shot rang out, a gentle hint for us … to start playing.