10,000 Voices Resound: Boston's Woodstock, 150 Years On

The Grand Coliseum in Boston. Harpers Weekly, June 19, 1869, p. 389

Woodstock took place fifty years ago this summer. Hundreds of thousands of music lovers showed up to celebrate peace and music, causing traffic jams never before experienced in America. It was a badge of honor to have been there those three days. As the warm and lazy summer days approach, I read about the anticipation of recreating this historical event in August 2019. Those who were there want to relive what was arguably the greatest music event in history.

But one hundred years before Woodstock, Boston had already hosted its own gathering of the greatest bands: a gargantuan music event called the National Peace Jubilee was held between June 15 and 19 in 1869. It was held to celebrate the reunification of America after the Civil War.

Carpenters were solicited to build a Coliseum that could seat 30,000 audience members in the newly filled Back Bay. Advertisements in newspapers were sent out across the nation seeking musicians who would participate in the event. Railroad companies offered discounted tickets across the nation to enable travel to and participation in the jubilee. Hotels cleaned up their spare rooms to accommodate the overflow. Chefs were summoned at the Revere House Hotel–one of Boston's most distinguished–to prepare a special banquet with all of the modern finesse and trimmings of nineteenth-century cuisine for distinguished guests hosted by the Boston City Council.

The event was even more inclusive than Woodsotck. Amateurs sang along with professionals in making music to celebrate peace. The 10,000-person choir and a 1,000-piece orchestra formed one of the largest group of musicians ever gathered for a single event. Music performed included popular works of the day: Wagner's Taunhauser overture, Gounod's Ave Maria, Rossini's Stabat Mater, and selections from Mendelssohn's Elijah. But the work that brought most excitement, and was recalled to memory many decades later, was the performance of Verdi's Anvil Chorus with the full orchestra was accompanied by 100 anvils performed by enthusiastic members of the Boston Fire Department.

In his final report, Patrick Gilmore, the mastermind of this event, noted that he was able to put away $6,882 (over $120,000 today) in his trust for further charitable causes. Yet, the grand festival which Gilmore proposed early in 1869, had been originally met with great skepticism and turned down with great hostility by the Boston community. His own wife believed that he had lost his mind to think of such a thing.

Rarely if ever is the National Peace Jubilee mentioned in music textbooks today. Though occasionally appearing in scholarly literature as a historical reference point (often with raised eyebrows) the festivities which brought together a shattered and war-torn nation have been largely forgotten. This despite its original success and the fact that an even larger jubilee was held in 1872 to celebrate world peace at the end of the Franco-Prussian War. The International Peace Jubilee invited to Boston the Fisk Jubilee Singers (who were fund-raising for the newly established historically black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee), London's renowned pianist Arabella Goddard, and the Viennese waltz king Johann Strauss Jr., who composed a new waltz specifically for the occasion. Subsequent events followed to keep the spirit of the festivities alive, including an entire recreation of the first jubilee for the 20th anniversary in 1889.

Was it an insane idea? In many aspects, yes. But both the 1869 and 1872 peace jubilees brought people together, first locally, then from across the nation, and finally from around the world. Moreover, Gilmore's jubilees helped to shape Boston's musical scene in a way that perhaps no other event could have done.

And clearly, it was not the last festival of such scale.

150 years on, it seems fitting to at least pause and remember the event for what it was: a popular, extravagant, fun, and exciting musical week that brought together musicians, enthusiasts of music, and perhaps just a few curious bystanders who snuck in to hear the sound of 10,000 voices resounding in the timber structure of the largest building in town.