The Great Chicago Piano War

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The World’sColumbian Exposition, celebrating the four-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America, opened its gates on May 1, 1893. The date did not imply doubt on the part of the city of Chicago that the famous landing had actually taken place in 1492. It was simply a case of not getting the 686 acres of fairground ready in time.

From the moment the first shovelful of earth was turned, labor disputes and fracases between the numerous exposition committees had increased and multiplied, while congressional appropriations, voted in the enthusiasm of the early planning stages, had dwindled pitifully by the time the actual day of reckoning came.

As the opening approached, a new set of last-minute, smaller-scale problems had to be settled by the fair’s administration: a group of zealous Sabbatarians was bringing suit in the Chicago courts to prevent the fair from being open on Sunday; the art director had aroused the scorn of Chicago art circles and East Coast newspapers by refusing to hang some nude drawings sent in by the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts; the plaster in most buildings was still so wet that even all-powerful Mrs. Potter Palmer could hardly hammer the gold-headed nail into the Women’s Building to signify its readiness.

But May 1 came as scheduled, and on it the great World’s Fair whirred into official existence as Grover Cleveland pushed the button that electrically raised a hundred flags, activated all the fountains in the park, and kicked the generator that started the machinery in the Industrial Hall. After an interminable program of greetings, speeches, poetry readings, and musical selections he then went to lunch in the Administration Building, while the cast of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show whooped around the rotunda in salute. “The scene that lay before the President as his carriage turned into the square,” said the local press, “was such as to cause the man who had been part of the most triumphant scenes in the last ten years of American history to flush with wonder and admiration.”

Although the fair was now officially open to the public (fifty cents entitled you to visit everything but the Esquimaux Village and the Colorado Cliff” Dwelling), one serious backstage crisis remained unsolved—a crisis that had been under the most extensive and acrimonious discussion for three months. Who would have thought that as civilized a matter as the opening concert in the fair’s Music Hall would have brought on the most ulcer-producing problem of the whole glorious World’s Columbian Exposition?

Music was a big item at the fair, a point of civic pride, since Chicago considered itself equal or superior to any city in the country in its musical sophistication. The Music Bureau, operating under the chairmanship of the exposition’s Liberal Arts Department, had released dazzling plans for filling the two separate concert halls built on the fairground. A huge festival chorus, a 250-piece orchestra, and guest artists from all over the world were scheduled to perform throughout the six months’ duration of the exposition. Biweekly symphony concerts and daily light-music concerts and organ recitals were regular features.

It was no wonder that the Music Bureau operated on so grand a scale. It was under the direction of a man of heroic proportions. Theodore Thomas, the great German conductor, had moved from New York three years earlier in response to a forthright offer from a Chicago businessman: “Would you come to Chicago if we gave you a permanent orchestra?”

“I would go to Hell if they gave me a permanent orchestra,” replied Thomas (all too prophetically, it must have seemed to him later), and thus the Chicago Symphony came into being. Thomas had already done more than any other single individual to raise the musical tastes of the East Coast concertgoer. Once established in Chicago, he employed his Teutonic, no-nonsense approach, by which audiences were frequently dragged kicking and screaming to a higher level of musical discernment. Inevitably he collected enemies.

Although the major explosions of the Great Chicago Piano War were detonated in Thomas’ Music Bureau, the fuse led from the seemingly unrelated area of the industrial and manufacturing exhibits so dear to the hearts of turn-of-the-century fairgoers. Among these displays of technological know-how few were as popular as the piano exhibits, for the piano of the 1890’s occupied a vastly different place in the American pattern of life than the piano of the 1970’s. Before the wheel, the screen, and the tube emerged to absorb the full time and attention of the American public, the piano stood unchallenged as the major source of home entertainment and the center of middleclass social activity. (A courtship without a piano to gather around seemed an impossibility.)

Hundreds of fiercely competitive manufacturers profitably supplied this enormous demand. Although the East Coast was still far ahead in production figures, Chicago had taken a clear lead in the expanding western market. And it was only natural that civic-minded fair officials, assigning prime locations in the display buildings, should keep the welfare of the local piano men uppermost in their minds. Then late in January of 1893, with rumbles of annoyance over exhibit space clearly audible to the East, the officials released the rules for the prize competition in which the gold and silver World’s Fair medals, so highly valued by piano manufacturers for advertising purposes, would be awarded. The reaction was both shocked and unanimous.