Following the complete success of the June 1870 festival, Cincinnati’s First Lady, Maria Longworth Nichols embarked on a campaign to stage a May Festival of orchestral and choral music. Nichols represented the combined best of Cincinnati and New York City, in that she was the granddaughter of the city’s richest man, millionaire real estate magnate Joseph Longworth, and had married the art critic for the New York Evening Post, George Ward Nichols, whom her father had initially brought to Cincinnati to catalog his vast art collection.  She had modeled her plans for a May Festival after the famous Triennial Music Festivals in Birmingham, England, and more than likely was inspired by Boston’s famous Handel and Hayden Society triennial festivals initiated to celebrate its Golden Jubilee in 1865.  It was decided after the success of the Jubilee to repeat the festival in May 1868, and it was once again scheduled for May 1871. In the meanwhile, Boston had also celebrated the end of the Civil War with its recent National Peace Jubilee of June 1-19, 1869, housed in the temporary Temple of Peace, the largest building in the country, erected on Copley Square that held 50,000 and had featured over 11,000 performers. Nichols needed a big name to put her festival on the national map and determined to offer New York’s maestro Theodore Thomas, America’s leading orchestra conductor, the position as the Festival’s Music Director.  

Pavilion for the 1869 Boston National Peace Jubilee, June 15, 1869.


German-born Thomas, who had founded his own personal orchestra in New York City in 1862 (that competed with the New York Philharmonic Society that had been founded in 1842). In order to keep his orchestra together during the “off-season” to maintain their performing consistency as well as for their economic survival for he had yet to cultivate a demand for his music on a year-round basis in any city, including New York, he had decided to take his orchestra on tour that winter (1869-70) around the “great musical highway” of cities starting with Boston and traveling west to Chicago, and then return to New York for his summer concerts via the southern line of cities starting with St. Louis and Cincinnati. 

Prior to Thomas’ first performance in Chicago in 1869, Moravian-born Hans Balatka had led the Chicago’s Philharmonic Society’s orchestral series since their inception in 1860, but the opening of Crosby’s Opera House in 1865 and its ability to present a complete performance had changed the fickle tastes of Chicago’s illuminati to favor opera over orchestral music.  The last Philharmonic Society concert had been given on April 3, 1868, to a sparse audience in Metropolitan Hall.  

Jason Gurley, Metropolitan Hall, northwest corner of Randolph and La Salle, 1855. Printer’s Row is in the right foreground. (Gilbert, Chicago)

A year and a half later in the fall of 1869, Thomas had brought his orchestra to Chicago, but had failed to reignite local interest in orchestral music, “when a few hundred listeners coldly heard his matchless band.”  During its second annual tour of 1871-2, the Thomas Orchestra was booked for an unprecedented two-week series in Chicago set to open on the evening of Monday, October 9, 1871, in Crosby’s Opera House for which Uranus Crosby had sunk another large amount of his personal fortune in updating his auditorium.  All was ready by Saturday, October 7, and at dusk on Sunday evening, October 8, the house gas lights were lit for the first time since the theater had been under renovation to see how the new house would look on opening night.

W.W. Boyington, Crosby’s Opera House, Chicago, 1865. (Jevni & Almini)

Unfortunately for both Crosby and Thomas, as Thomas’ train approached Chicago early on October 9, 1871, word reached him that the city was engulfed in flames.  The fire was the final nail in Crosby’s finances, as he had sunk every penny he had into the remodeling, hoping against hope without any apparent insurance, that Thomas’ series would finally push his cultural endeavor into the black.  Thus ended the final act in the seven-year tragedy of Uranus Crosby and his Opera House.  The fire also proved to be a significant financial setback for Thomas as well, as his contract allowed the promoter to avoid paying him due to an act of God, leaving Thomas with no option but to pay his orchestra out of his own pocket for the two-week “practice session” held in Joliet, waiting for their next appearance scheduled for St. Louis.  Thomas had suffered a major financial setback with the cancellation of his two-week run in Crosby’s remodeled Opera House.


It was on Thomas’ return trip to New York, following the two-week waylay in Joliet, that brought him to Cincinnati when Nichols offered him the post of Musical Director for her planned May Festival that must have seemed a godsend that he eagerly accepted.  Nichols’ precedent, Boston’s Handel and Hayden Society, had only recently completed its Third Triennial Festival in May 5-9, 1871, and with the end of the Franco-Prussian War some three weeks later on May 28, Boston was planning to hold in 1872 an even larger World’s Peace Jubilee and International Musical Festival than its 1869 National Peace Jubilation. 

William G. Preston, “Temple of Peace” (Boston Coliseum) for the 1872 World’s Peace Jubilee and International Musical Festival, Boston, 1872. (Online)

Boston had built a huge “Temple of Peace,” designed by local architect William G. Preston, in the Back Bay area, in Copley Square, the exact site slated to eventually receive the Museum of Fine Arts, that dwarfed any previous American building, even Cincinnati’s Saengerfest-Halle.  It was 550’ long and 350’ wide and could hold 60,000 spectators and 22,000 musicians that participated in the two-week long festival that ran from Bunker Hill Day (June 17) to the Fourth of July. 

Preston, “Temple of Peace” (Boston Coliseum), Interior. (Online)

This was a hard act for Nichols and Thomas to compete with, but ten months later On May 6, 1873, Maestro Theodore Thomas stood in front of his 108-piece orchestra and a chorus of 800 singers in Cincinnati’s Saengerfest-Halle and gave the downbeat for Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum that opened the first Cincinnati May Festival.  The Festival was a smashing success, leading the Cincinnati Commercial to ask: “There has been glory in it, and, unexpectedly, money also. (Why not construct a grand hall as a site for the festival?)  With such a Hall, Cincinnati, the center of the Nation as to population would be not only the music and art capital, but the City of National Conventions, political and religious.”  The seeds for an even grander facility had been sown that would guarantee that at least for the next sixteen years, the Queen City would be exactly that.

“The first Cincinnati Festival followed a few days after that of New York was over [a financial flop for Thomas], and marked the beginning of one of the most important labors of Thomas’s life – important not only to himself, but to the musical history of America.  The [Cincinnati May] festivals were intended, from the start, to be of the highest standard.  The matter of expense never entered into the calculation of the Board of Directors to any appreciable extent in planning their details, as the whole idea was to give a series of performances which should conform to the standards of similar festivals in Europe.  In the end the Cincinnati Musical Festival standards far surpassed those of Europe, and they became the most perfect concerts of their class in the world.”


Cropsey, Eugene H. Crosby’s Opera House: Symbol of Chicago’s Cultural Awakening. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1999.

Thomas, Rose Fay. Memoirs of Theodore Thomas. New York: Moffat, Yard, and Co., 1911.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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