Before the Civil War, at a time when the United States boasted only one financially stable concert orchestra and few native composers and solo performers of “classical” music, what taste there was for it had to be supplied by foreign visitors. In 1853 the conductor Jullien brought forty members of his London orchestra to the United States and hired sixty Americans to supplement them.
Jullien had come at the invitation of P. T. Barnum, who had talents for promotion and marketing rivaling Jullien’s own. During the year, his orchestra gave 214 concerts.
At least some of them were the “monster concerts,” for which he was famous in London. According to advertisements, they included 20 soloists among 1,200 total performers! As one critic wrote, “The music is magnificent, and so is the humbug.”
When Jullien presented his Fireman’s Quadrille at New York’s Crystal Palace, he warned the audience that something unusual “might happen.” On cue, three companies of firemen invaded the palace with their firehouses to combat real flames.
Ushers had to deal with fainting women and other minor panic, even though Jullien had as much told the audience to expect something of the kind. But the firemen all left on cue, too. The quadrille ended with the doxology, and the audience sang along. During the whole thing, of course, the orchestra kept playing, totally undisturbed.
For all of his showmanship, Jullien was an excellent musician who trained his orchestra very thoroughly. When he played the music of the masters, he would limit his antics to before a piece and after it.
He ostentatiously put on special gloves to conduct Beethoven, or selected a jeweled baton. When a piece was finished, he sometimes sank into his ubiquitous velvet chair, exhausted by his hard work. He was all business during the performance.
After a little less than a year, he returned to England, leaving a remarkable legacy:
Although the New York Philharmonic virtually ignored American composers, Jullien performed the music of such composers as William Henry Fry and George Bristow. He performed some of these pieces several times back in England, giving American concert music its first international audience.
He set higher standards of ensemble discipline and musicianship than American orchestras and bands had yet achieved. Thus, he inspired them to improve their own standards.
Patrick Gilmore, who founded the first of America’s professional touring military-style bands, adopted the concept of monster concerts and other aspects of Jullien’s showmanship.
Jullien’s influence probably explains why Gilmore arranged to have firemen pounding on anvils during a performance of Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus,” and why he even used an actual canon in another piece.
American bands and orchestras played the Fireman’s Quadrille for years, complete with uniformed firemen tramping across the stage (although probably not with fire hoses to put out a real fire).
Jullien also had members of his orchestra put down their instruments from time to time and sing. That practice can still be found in American pops concerts. Jazz bands adopted it, too.