For 18 days in the summer of 1872, Patrick S. Gilmore, an Irish-born impresario, led the largest concert in history.
Some 20,000 singers and 2,000 musicians from around the world descended on Boston to participate in the World Peace Jubilee and International Music Festival, which ran from Bunker Hill Day to the Fourth of July, 1872. They performed in various ensembles and also en masse, to convey the joy, solace and inspiration that music brings, and to express a profound relief, even if temporary, that there was peace in the world.
The man behind the festival was Patrick S. Gilmore, a gifted cornetist, bandleader and impresario who had devoted his life to the audacious dream that music had the power to change the world; that it could be used as an instrument of peace.
Gilmore was born in Ballygar, Galway on December 25, 1829 and learned music from military bands stationed in Athlone. He immigrated to Boston in 1849 and was a successful bandleader through the 1850s. He was a band master in the Union Army during the Civil War, and learned firsthand the transformative power of music, playing for the troops on both sides of the conflict.
In fact, Gilmore had already organized monster concerts to celebrate peace in the nation: in New Orleans in 1865 and Boston’s National Peace Jubilee in 1869.
So in 1871, with the ending of Europe’s bloody and bitter Franco-Prussian War, Gilmore was inspired to stage a world peace jubilee. He visited Europe’s capital cities and royal courts, imploring presidents and kings to send their finest musicians to Boston. Gilmore described his event as “a union of all nations in harmony, to sing, as never before, the hymn of the angels: peace on earth, and good will towards all men.”
Ever persuasive and earnest, Gilmore prevailed upon Europe’s ancient adversaries. Britain agreed to send the Grenadier Guards and France the La Garde Republicaine. From Germany, King Wilhelm I sent the Kaiser Franz Regiment. In America, the U.S. Marine Band, along with local choral groups, opera companies, and town brass bands from seventeen states eagerly signed up to perform at the Jubilee.
In spring 1872, Boston contractors began building a massive, temporary coliseum in the Back Bay, Boston’s fledgling new neighborhood. It was built on vacant railroad land, close to where the Back Bay Train Station and Copley Square stand today. The coliseum, described as a steel-workers masterpiece, was 550 x 350 feet, larger than a football field, made to hold 60,000 spectators and 22,000 musicians. Inside, the stage was fashioned as an amphitheater, with balconies 75 feet deep.
Boston was abuzz as opening day approached. Seven hundred painters, roofers and carpenters put finishing touches on the coliseum, nicknamed the Temple of Peace. Marching bands paraded on Boston Common. Musicians dashed around town with their sheet music, while school children practiced in classrooms and church halls. Visitors began pouring into the city by train, boat and horse carriage from across the nation. Hotels were filled, restaurants were bustling. Offices shut down to join the celebration.
President Ulysses S. Grant, who had been at the 1869 Jubilee, announced he was attending, causing his presidential opponent Horace Greeley to also show up. Dozens of senators, congressmen, governors from as far away as Kansas descended upon Boston, along with ministers from Turkey, Ecuador and the Netherlands. And finally the big day arrived.
“The sun was bright and the sky was blue. The parks and cemeteries studding the place were robed in richest green, and the streets teemed with a population in holiday attire and brimming with holiday sentiments,” a newspaper reported about opening day. Even the weather had cooperated.
In the end, it was the music that had people talking. Gilmore’s practice as a bandleader was to mix classical and popular music at his concerts, to democratize the enjoyment of music for American audiences. So Bach, Mendelsohn, Mozart and Handel were featured, with sacred hymns like “Hallelujah” from The Messiah, “To God on High” and “Gloria.” Irish songs like “The Last Rose of Summer” received hearty encores and so did Gilmore’s own song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” “The Star Spangled Banner” was played daily along with popular hymns like “Rock of Ages” and the Festival’s unofficial anthem, “Angel of Peace,” with words by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Most of the audience loved it, even the skeptical New York press. “Old men, forgetful of rheumatism, rose to their feet and stamped up and down in wild frenzy,” the New York Herald reported after opening day. Not everyone was so enthused – certain Bostonians considered it crass and loud. The Jubilee was, after all, the largest gathering of musicians in recorded history.
But Gilmore was praised throughout the land, and he spent the final twenty years of his life touring with the Gilmore Band, throughout Europe and across the United States. He died in 1892 while on tour in St. Louis, and is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York.
Decades later, people still talked about three high points of the World Peace Jubilee:
• Johann Strauss, the Austrian waltz king, made his American debut at the Jubilee, having met Gilmore in Vienna the previous summer. Strauss conducted his famous waltz, “The Beautiful Blue Danube,” to thunderous applause, and composed a Jubilee Waltz for the occasion. So popular was Strauss that his wife reportedly sold locks of his hair as souvenirs to female fans.
• The Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group of black college students from Fisk University in Nashville, performed at the Jubilee, “sending the audience into a rapture of boisterous enthusiasm” for its rendition of “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord.” An impressed President Grant invited them to perform at the White House later that year, helping to launch a singing ensemble that flourishes today.
• The unlikely stars of the Jubilee were 100 men from the Boston Fire Department, resplendent in red shirts and white suspenders, who were enlisted to pound 100 anvils to accompany the singers of The Anvil Chorus from Verdi’s Il Trovatore. As the firemen clanged their hammers in unison, cannons outside the coliseum were firing and all of Boston’s church bells were ringing as the orchestra of 2,000 reached a crescendo unheard of in the world.
The World Peace Jubilee was significant for another reason: for one brief shining moment in human history, an army of musicians had prevailed.