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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

In summer 1872, Boston Staged the Biggest Concert in History, with over 22,000 Musicians


In the summer of 1872, Boston staged the largest concert in history, featuring over 2,000 musicians and 20,000 singers, performing as soloists, in various ensembles and also en masse, to convey the joy, comfort and inspiration that music can bring.

The World Peace Jubilee and International Music Festival ran from June 17 through July 4, 1872, housed in a temporary coliseum that was built in what is now Copley Square in Boston’s Back Bay.  In addition to the 22,000 performers, the stadium held 60,000 spectators, and it was filled to capacity on many of the 18 days in which the Jubilee ran.

The Jubilee was created by Irish immigrant Patrick S. Gilmore, a talented cornet player, band leader and impresario who had become the best known musician in America.  Gilmore had been Band Master for the Union Army during the Civil War and is credited with penning the song, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, a war anthem still played today.  He had staged an earlier National Peace Jubilee in 1869 that featured 10,000 singers and 1,000 musicians. 

Among the highlights of the 1872 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 also composed a Jubilee Waltz especially for the occasion, dedicated to Gilmore. 

• 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. President Grant invited them to perform at the White House later that year, helping to launch a singing ensemble that still flourishes today. 

• The unlikely stars of the Jubilee were the 100 Boston firemen, dressed resplendent in red shirts and white suspenders, whose job it was to hammer onto 100 anvils as part of the chorus to Verdi’s Il Trovatore (The Troubadour). As the firemen hammered in unison, cannons outside the coliseum were firing and all of Boston’s church bells were ringing as the orchestra reached a crescendo.

The IrishMusic Center at Boston College's John J. Burns Library holds the Michael Cummings Collection of P.S. Gilmore Materials, donated by the late Gilmore scholar Michael Cummings

Learn more about Irish heritage in Boston by visiting  IrishHeritageTrail.com.  Or visit IrishBoston.org for year round details on Boston's Irish community. 

For more on the history of Boston's Irish community, read Irish Boston: A Colorful Look at Boston's Lively Irish Past, published by Globe Pequot Press.