Thursday, June 19, 2014

This Day in Irish-American History (Peace Jubilee Conducted by Civil War Composer)

June 19, 1869— Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, an emigrant from the Irish Potato Famine who achieved renown in the Civil War as an army bandleader and composer of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” concluded a five-day music festival in Boston that he himself had organized to celebrate the return of peace to the nation and to benefit the widows and orphans of the conflict.

Gilmore is not so well remembered today, but it was another story in his time. Musicologist Frank J. Cipolla has written of the bandleader’s “quick wit, flamboyant personality and grandiose musical projects.” It is hard to conceive of musicians such as John Philip Sousa, Arthur Fiedler or Guy Lombardo without thinking of how Gilmore paved the way for them. Moreover, in a time still rife with anti-Catholic sentiment, Gilmore’s ebullience and patriotism enabled many to see his ethnic group as potential contributors to American life.

The Great National Peace Jubilee was built on an epic scale, complete with a band and orchestra of about 1,000 musicians plus soloists and members from 103 choral groups totaling over 10,000 singers. It was, in a way, a kind of hammock event swinging between past and present, illustrative of the manner in which Gilmore sought not just to equal or even surpass a past event, but go 100% beyond it—and use it as the baseline for his next monster moment.

It was also the kind of event made to order for Ulysses S. Grant, who had made the centerpiece of his successful campaign for President the prior year the slogan, “Let us have peace.” The Union hero’s musical tastes were not unlike his writing style: utterly straightforward. Asked about his favorite music, Grant responded: “The cannons!”

Gilmore knew the President (who came for the opening ceremonies only) was onto something. In his prior major public musical event, the March 1864 inauguration of Louisiana's new governor, Gilmore had used cannons in a performance for the first time. Now, for the Boston show, he proposed to use cannons even more prominently throughout the performance, along with double the number of musicians and singers used in his New Orleans gala.

Today, people who pass through Boston’s Back Bay and notice the Copley Plaza Hotel and Hancock Towers never realize than 145 years ago, Gilmore had constructed on the site the the largest structure of its kind in the city. The building was cavernous. It had to be, in order to hold all those musicians and singers, along with seating for seating for 30,000 audience members, not to mention 100 Boston firemen striking anvils, a battery of cannon, chimes, church bells, a bass drum 8 feet in diameter, and a gigantic organ built for the occasion.

Six years before, after the Battle of Gettysburg, Gilmore had adapted “Johnnie, I Hardly Knew Ye,” a mordant Irish ballad, into the rousing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” During the war, he would train, equip and dispatch 20 bands from his state to accompany troops on their missions. Now, he proposed to play music not to rouse men’s martial spirits but to foster reconciliation and understanding—and he was not done yet.

In 1872, Gilmore organized a World Peace Jubilee and International Music Festival to celebrate the end of the Franco-Prussian War. The pattern he set was familiar: twice the number of musicians and singers than had appeared at the National Jubilee, and a festival lasting more than three times longer. Gilmore wasn’t even fazed by the collapse of the new coliseum meant to house all of this—he had another built and opened just in time, for a program featuring the likes of Johann Strauss and his orchestra from Austria, the Grenadier Guards Band of England, the Garde Republicaine of France, and the Prussian band of Kaiser Franz Grenadiers.

A more important contribution by Gilmore on this occasion was introducing American audiences to emerging talent from a completely unexpected source. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, formed only the year before to raise urgently needed funds for that new African-American college, received major national exposure for one of the first times on this occasion. So did the Hyers Sisters, two African-American musical prodigies from California, who impressed Gilmore greatly at a private audition in Boston with their rendition of opera arias. Seldom if ever had African-Americans been featured in such a large-scale American musical extravaganza.

Annual Fourth of July concerts that Gilmore offered on the Boston Common predated, by more than half a century, the similar Independence Day musical extravaganza that Arthur Fiedler began offering on the banks of the Charles River, a tradition that the Boston Pops orchestra continues to this day.

When he was done with Boston after two decades, Gilmore moved to New York, where he began the tradition of ringing in the new year in Times Square. The rather tame doings of Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians, however, paled next to the highlight of Gilmore’s show: the bandleader firing two pistols into the air at the stroke of midnight. (How times have changed: nowadays, those sounds, of course, would precipitate a massive police action.)

Throughout his career, Gilmore never forgot where he came from. It started with charity work, for such causes as Famine Relief, Clan na Gael, the Annual Emerald Ball for Orphans and the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. But he also endorsed the work of Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt and promoted Home Rule and the value of the boycott as a means of economic redress for the Irish people.

Gilmore’s death from a heart ailment in 1892 brought about a kind of passing of the musical torch. On the night of his funeral, 37-year-old John Philip Sousa, not yet the lionized creator of the “Washington Post March” and “Stars and Stripes Forever,” dedicated his performance in memory of the County Galway native he rightly termed “The Father Of the American Band.” In fact, 19 musicians from Gilmore's troupe would shortly provide the backbone of Sousa's newly formed "Sousa's New Marine Band."

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