American Orchestras in the Nineteenth Century

American Orchestras in the Nineteenth Century

by John Spitzer (Editor)


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Studies of concert life in nineteenth-century America have generally been limited to large orchestras and the programs we are familiar with today. But as this book reveals, audiences of that era enjoyed far more diverse musical experiences than this focus would suggest. To hear an orchestra, people were more likely to head to a beer garden, restaurant, or summer resort than to a concert hall. And what they heard weren’t just symphonic works—programs also included opera excerpts and arrangements, instrumental showpieces, comic numbers, and medleys of patriotic tunes.

This book brings together musicologists and historians to investigate the many orchestras and programs that developed in nineteenth-century America. In addition to reflecting on the music that orchestras played and the socioeconomic aspects of building and maintaining orchestras, the book considers a wide range of topics, including audiences, entrepreneurs, concert arrangements, tours, and musicians’ unions. The authors also show that the period saw a massive influx of immigrant performers, the increasing ability of orchestras to travel across the nation, and the rising influence of women as listeners, patrons, and players. Painting a rich and detailed picture of nineteenth-century concert life, this collection will greatly broaden our understanding of America’s musical history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226769769
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/09/2012
Pages: 488
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

John Spitzer teaches music history at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He is coauthor of The Birth of the Orchestra: History of an Institution, 1650-1815.

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American Orchestras in the Nineteenth Century

By John Spitzer

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-76976-9

Chapter One

The Ubiquity and Diversity of Nineteenth-Century American Orchestras


Orchestras, in the second half of the nineteenth century, were an essential ingredient of American urban life. Before the advent of amplification or recorded sound, an orchestra (or a band) was needed to fill a large indoor space with sound, to provide continuity for a performance, to drown out other urban noises, and to add visual and aural glamour to a public event. A visitor to a medium-sized city in the 1880s—say Cincinnati, St. Louis, or Washington, D.C.—would have heard orchestras giving concerts in auditoriums and theaters; playing for operas; playing between the acts in the "legitimate" theater as well as for vaudeville and burlesque; and performing in parks, at resorts on the outskirts of town, and at a variety of special events, public and private. In New York, America's largest city, with a population of more than a million in Manhattan alone, hundreds of orchestras played on a daily basis in theaters, restaurants and beer gardens, concert halls, circuses, and amusement parks.

The ubiquity of the orchestra in nineteenth-century American cities forms a striking contrast to the rather narrow range of venues to which twenty-first-century orchestras are confined. American orchestras today give concerts in large halls to audiences of subscribers and regular patrons; they accompany singers and dancers at the opera and the ballet; and they make recordings and occasionally appear on television. Amateur and school orchestras play for friends and families. But it is rare today to hear a full orchestra of live musicians in the theater, in a restaurant, at an exhibition, in a public park, or at a dance; they have been replaced in these venues by smaller, amplified ensembles and by recorded music. "Orchestra" has come to mean "symphony orchestra," a large ensemble that plays a repertory of classics and aspiring classics in a concert setting for an audience of music lovers. The American orchestra today occupies a far narrower cultural niche than it did in the nineteenth century.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, only a few American cities—New York, Philadelphia, and Boston—had enough resident musicians to put together orchestras of any significant size. The musicians of St. Louis organized the "Polyhymnia," an ensemble of thirty-five members in 1845, but with five clarinets, five flutes, and two each of violas, cellos, and basses, the orchestra was severely unbalanced. Some of the players were professional musicians, others amateurs. The first concert of the Chicago Philharmonic in 1851 advertised a "Grand double orchestra of TWENTY PERFORMERS" assembled from instrumentalists who played in the city's theaters and beer gardens. By the 1870s and 1880s fifteen or twenty cities had grown large enough to support a thriving entertainment industry and the orchestras that it required. Immigrant musicians, especially from Germany and, by the 1880s, from Italy, arrived to staff the theaters, beer gardens, dance halls, summer resorts, concert halls, and opera houses of Chicago, Cincinnati, Baltimore, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Detroit, San Francisco, and other cities. In addition, orchestras made up of New York musicians crisscrossed the country with opera companies, minstrel shows, and vaudeville troupes or set out on their own to give orchestral concerts, usually with instrumental and vocal soloists.

Although symphony orchestras playing public concerts were an important component of urban musical life in the nineteenth century, this was only one ingredient in an extensive and complex network of orchestral activities. The personnel of orchestras in different venues overlapped extensively, so the same violinist or clarinetist might play in the pit at the spoken theater one night, in the opera orchestra the next, for a dance the next (hiring a substitute to take his place in the theater), back in the theater on Saturday evening, and then "sacred concert" on Sunday. When a touring opera or a vaudeville company arrived in town, both the violinist and clarinetist might be hired to fill out the skeleton ensemble that traveled with the company. They might also organize and lead their own orchestra to play for a party, an excursion, or a dance. Repertory overlapped just as much as personnel. Opera overtures were played between the acts in the spoken theater; opera tunes were arranged for dancing; dance music was played at orchestral concerts; and movements of symphonies entertained patrons at the beer gardens.

Symphony concerts were usually organized by the musicians themselves, who wanted to play symphonic repertory. The New York Philharmonic, a succession of "Chicago Philharmonics," and a series of orchestras that called themselves the Cincinnati Orchestra were all initiated by groups of musicians, often organized as profit-sharing cooperatives. Sometimes amateurs took the lead, organizing concerts by professional musicians, as the Harvard Musical Association did, or forming an amateur orchestra reinforced with professionals, such as the Georgetown Amateur Orchestra in Washington, D.C. In other cases a conductor would organize a concert series as an entrepreneurial venture, hiring an orchestra that he paid with the proceeds from subscriptions and ticket sales. Hans Balatka's concerts in Chicago in the 1860s and Leopold Damrosch's 1877–78 series in New York provide examples of this kind of conductor-organized orchestral concert series.

A symphony orchestra, however it was organized, needed to create an audience for the kind of music it wanted to play. By the mid-nineteenth century, American audiences had become familiar with theater music and operatic repertory, but for most listeners, "serious" orchestral music was still exotic. To recruit and keep audiences, orchestra musicians, conductors, and promoters offered a heterogeneous repertory: symphonies, tone poems, and concertos along with vocal numbers from operas, solo turns for members of the orchestra, and sometimes popular dance and novelty numbers as well. At the same time, the musicians tried to "educate" their audiences to appreciate and patronize symphonic music. In New York Theodore Thomas at his Terrace Garden concerts in 1867 advertised that on Tuesday and Friday evenings "the Second Part of the Programme will consist of compositions of a higher order, such as Movements of Symphonies, Classical Overtures, etc." A few orchestras—for example, the New York Philharmonic and the Harvard Musical Association—programmed entire series of concerts consisting exclusively of "compositions of a higher order." The majority of American orchestral concerts, however, continued to offer audiences a more or less mixed repertory until the late nineteenth century.

Although concerts of symphonic music constituted only a fraction of the activities of nineteenth-century American orchestras, such concerts were the highest-profile activity that an orchestra could undertake, and they became increasingly popular and successful over the second half of the century. Tours by the Germania Musical Society from 1848 to 1854, by Louis Antoine Jullien's orchestra in 1853–54 and by the Theodore Thomas Orchestra from 1869 onward stimulated interest in orchestral repertory, raised standards of orchestral performance, and established orchestral concerts as a commercially viable form of entertainment. Series of subscription concerts, which had been established in New York and Boston already in the 1840s, spread across the country after the Civil War. Cincinnati, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., initiated yearly concert series with orchestras whose personnel remained substantially stable from year to year. In a typical scenario, a philharmonic society or concert series would be formed with high hopes, musicians would be recruited, the enterprise would flourish for a few years, and then it would collapse in the face of economic hard times or internal disagreements. A few years later the orchestra would reconstitute itself with largely the same personnel, announce a new series, and try all over again. This scenario has been presented as a story of repeated failure to found "permanent" orchestras, but it also demonstrates the robustness of public demand for orchestral concerts in America's larger cities. And in some cities—New York, Cincinnati, and Chicago—the market was large enough by the 1880s and 1890s that two or more orchestras (oft en with overlapping personnel) offered competing concert series.

Many of the orchestras that endured and became the ancestors of today's American symphony orchestras were founded between 1890 and the First World War, among them the Chicago Symphony (1891), the St. Louis Symphony (1893), the Cincinnati Symphony (1894), the Philadelphia Orchestra (1900), the Minnesota Orchestra (1903), the San Francisco Symphony (1911), and the Detroit Symphony (1914). In each of these cities (as in New York and Boston somewhat earlier) the "permanent" orchestra immediately became the most prestigious of the city's ubiquitous and diverse orchestras. It hired the best players (oft en importing them from New York or even from Europe); it programmed the greatest number of "compositions of a higher order"; and it was patronized by the city's social elites. Nevertheless, at the turn of the century, America's symphony orchestras were still connected by multiple bonds to other ensembles and orchestral activities. Because most symphonic seasons were short, many of the musicians continued to play in theater and opera orchestras and in touring ensembles. Because most of the orchestras did not yet have halls of their own, they tended to share venues (oft en theaters) with other kinds of entertainment. As well as their subscription seasons, most of the orchestras played popular concerts, where ticket prices were low, repertory was mixed, and food and drink were served along with the music. The categorical separation of American symphony orchestras from the mainstream of American entertainment did not begin in earnest until the advent of recorded sound, amplification, talking pictures, radio, and the other great transformations of American musical life in the twentieth century.

[1.1] Building the American Symphony Orchestra

The Nineteenth-Century Roots of a Twenty-First-Century Musical Institution


At Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) concerts during the 2007–8 season, listeners enjoyed the artistry of approximately one hundred musicians, yet the number of players on stage represented less than 1 percent of the persons involved. Founded in 1890, almost a year prior to the ensemble's first performance, the Orchestral Association has administered the orchestra for more than a century. In 2007 the association was managed by seven executive officers supported in turn by 141 trustees along with 441 governing members and 174 members of the Women's Association. It employed 140 full-time staffers who worked in thirty-eight separate departments ranging from Artistic Planning to Public Relations and Education to Archives. Donors included 153 corporate sponsors, 94 foundations and government agencies, and more than 15,000 individual contributors. In sum, 756 community leaders employed 140 staff members to support an orchestra of 101 players, revealing that for the 2007–8 season, each musician required the support of 1.5 administrators, 7.5 community leaders, and at least 150 individual donors.

By contrast, when the Chicago Orchestra, as the CSO was originally known, played its first concert in 1891, its eighty-six musicians were led by conductor Theodore Thomas with the administrative support of Charles Norman Fay, de facto leader of the Orchestral Association's five-member executive board, plus a manager, a program book editor, and two librarians. Financial backing was provided by fifty-one businessmen known as trustees or "guarantors" who each pledged to pay for up to $1,000 of the orchestra's potential deficit. So, in comparing the Orchestral Association of 1891 to its 2007 counterpart, we can immediately see that the institution has grown exponentially over the course of some 117 seasons, but disproportionately so in favor of leadership, staff , and, most dramatically, its donor base. In terms of human resources, the ensemble itself has increased by just 15 players, or only about 17 percent, while the staff has increased by 3,500 percent, from a handful to 140, and the donor base has expanded 30,000 percent.

The groundwork for this extraordinary growth and the subsequent success of the Chicago Orchestral Association's corporate model for the American orchestra can be traced to the nineteenth-century struggle to establish the orchestra as an American concert institution, a challenge that was particularly acute in Chicago. A history of this struggle offers a survey of organizational structures and tactics used by nineteenth-century arts leaders to establish musical institutions throughout the United States, as well as a richer appreciation of the social and personal dynamics that ignited these initiatives. The value of this history today lies in its ability to clarify the patterns and practices that characterize the contemporary American orchestral scene. Consequences of the choices made more than a century ago continue to influence the American orchestra's mission, leadership, and relationship to its community. By better understanding this history, its mythology and characteristics, arts advocates might better understand how these legacies both propel and burden the American orchestral scene today.

Six Models for the American Concert Orchestra

The corporate structure of Chicago's Orchestral Association, although a significant expansion on past models, was not a radical or new idea but represented a recombination and extension of nineteenth-century efforts. Six organizational models summarize early attempts to bring symphonic concert music to Chicago and move it toward a professional basis (see table I.1.1)—the club model, the cooperative model, the entrepreneurial model, the conservatory model, the concert society model, and, finally, the corporate model.

The club model offered music making for nonprofessional musicians who paid membership fees, potentially including an initiation fee and regular dues, to participate. Members had other, usually nonmusical, employment, and any club earnings were reinvested in the organization. Administrative duties were undertaken by volunteers, although the full membership might be involved in decision making. A club's conductor might be paid, and especially prosperous clubs might hire professional musicians for principal chairs. Club ensembles played a limited set of concerts, but were primarily organized for the pleasure and artistic growth of participating members. Today's volunteer community orchestras follow the club model.


Excerpted from American Orchestras in the Nineteenth Century by John Spitzer Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: Toward a History of American Orchestras in the Nineteenth Century
Deane L. Root

I. Ubiquity and Diversity
The Ubiquity and Diversity of Nineteenth-Century American Orchestras
John Spitzer
I.1. Building the American Symphony Orchestra: The Nineteenth-Century Roots of a Twenty-First-Century Musical Institution
Mark Clague
I.2. Modeling Music: Early Organizational Structures of American Women’s Orchestras
Anna-Lise P. Santella
I.3. American Orchestras and Their Unions in the Nineteenth Century
John Spitzer

II. The Orchestra and the American City
Orchestras: Local versus National
John Spitzer
II.1. Invisible Instruments: Theater Orchestras in New York, 1850–1900
John Graziano
II.2. Beethoven and Beer: Orchestral Music in German Beer Gardens in Nineteenth-Century New York City
John Koegel and Jonas Westover
II.3. Performances to “Permanence”: Orchestra Building in Late Nineteenth-Century Cincinnati
Karen Ahlquist
II.4. Critic and Conductor in 1860s Chicago: George P. Upton, Hans Balatka, and Cultural Capitalism
James Deaville
II.5. Amateur and Professional, Permanent and Transient: Orchestras in the District of Columbia, 1877–1905
 Patrick Warfield

III. Conductors, Promoters, Patrons
Marketing the American Orchestra
John Spitzer
III.1. Bernard Ullman and the Business of Orchestras in Mid-Nineteenth-Century New York
Bethany S. Goldberg
III.2. John Sullivan Dwight and the Harvard Musical Association Orchestra: A Help or a Hindrance?
Mary Wallace Davidson
III.3. The Leopold Damrosch Orchestra, 1877–78: Background, Instrumentation, Programming, and Critical Reception
Ora Frishberg Saloman
III.4. Gender and the Germanians: “Art-Loving Ladies” in Nineteenth-Century Concert Life
Nancy Newman

IV. America and Europe
Orchestras: American and European
John Spitzer
IV.1. “A Concentration of Talent on Our Musical Horizon”: The 1853–54 American Tour by Jullien’s Extraordinary Orchestra
Katherine K. Preston
IV.2. Ureli Corelli Hill: His European Travels and the Creation of the New York Philharmonic
Barbara Haws

V. Orchestral Repertory
Orchestral Repertory: Highbrow and Lowbrow
John Spitzer
V.1.Orchestral Programs in Boston, 1842–55, in European Perspective
William Weber
V.2. Theodore Thomas and the Cultivation of American Music
Brenda Nelson-Strauss
V.3. Thinking about Serious Music in New York, 1842–82
Adrienne Fried Block

Afterword: Coming of Age
Ronald G. Walters


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