IN 1869 PATRICK GILMORE, the former Union army bandleader, who wrote the lyrics to "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," organized the National Peace Jubilee and Grand Music Festival on the model of "monster concerts" introduced in Europe 15 years earlier. (Think of it as a kind of postbellum Bonaroo.) Around 30,000 Bostonians — over a tenth of the city's population at the time — flocked to a makeshift coliseum for several days of concerts by a thousand-member orchestra and massive choral groups of up to 10 times that size. Three years later, the same city's "World Peace Jubilee" doubled the number of singers and musicians, and more than trebled the audience. For the later event, Gilmore imported Johann Strauss, no less, to conduct his own global hits. "Now just conceive of my position face to face with a public of four hundred thousand Americans," the Waltz King later wrote:
Suddenly, a cannon-shot rang out, a gentle hint for us twenty thousand to begin playing the Blue Danube. I gave the signal, my hundred assistant conductors followed me as quickly as they could, and then there broke out an unholy row such as I shall never forget.
The performance was more satisfying to Yankees like 15-year-old Helen Atkins, who reported in her diary that she "enjoyed it ever so much. Strauss played 'the Blue Danube' perfectly mag[nificient] — !!!!! All went off very finely."
The short-lived vogue for musical events on this scale is only one episode in Daniel Cavicchi's ear-opening Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum, which traces changes in how some Americans listened to music, and what their listening meant to their lives. Cavicchi, a scholar of American Studies at the Rhode Island School of Design who has previously written on Bruce Springsteen fandom, here escorts us from the Jacksonian era, when the entrepreneurial promotion of professional musical performance first became a regular feature of urban life, through the turn of the twentieth century, when the spread of player pianos and phonographs domesticated musical reception. While Cavicchi allows foreign observers like Strauss to say their piece — along with native commentators from Whitman and Twain to Margaret Fuller — his key sources are the private writings of uncelebrated Americans: easily pleased casual listeners like Atkins, striving clerks like Philadelphian Nathan Beekley (who overspends on "amusement" and turns to opera to avoid the "rowdies" at minstrel shows), and dedicated enthusiasts like Lucy Lowell, another Bostonian, who kept notes on acoustically favorable seats at the city's concert venues.
From pre-Revolutionary times until the early nineteenth-century, public music-making — and, thus, music-listening — in American life was primarily an accompaniment to religious, military, or other social activities. Amateur societies played for their own members, and professionally organized concerts were occasional and typically elite affairs, almost unknown outside of the largest cities. All this began to change in the 1830s and 40s, as urban concentration made regular touring by both concert artists and minstrel companies — tr...