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Far from being a book about the origins of the American symphony orchestras which we know today, this collection of essays is a wonderfully comprehensive survey of orchestras of all kinds. As the blurb tells us, ‘American orchestras in the nineteenth century were more diverse and more thoroughly integrated into public culture than the orchestras of today’. Orchestras could be heard in theatres, beer gardens, ballrooms, restaurants, and summer resorts. Twenty musicologists and historians have contributed to this 490-page volume, examining how these numerous orchestras were financed and managed, the range of music they played, and the types of audience they attracted.

In the introduction, Deane L Root claims that this book is ‘the first to focus its attention on the period before the formation of permanent orchestras in the 1890’s’. The various essays in Parts 1 and 2 cover such topics as musicians’ unions, American women’s orchestras (the book includes much of interest regarding gender studies), theatre orchestras in New York, and orchestral music in German beer gardens. The German community in New York’s Lower East Side was large enough to merit the name ‘Klein Deutschland’. In Orchestras in the District of Columbia we read of the important contribution made by musicians of the Marine Band, and the problems arising. In Part 3 – Conductors, Promoters, Patrons – we learn that ‘Nineteenth-century American orchestras supported themselves almost entirely at the box office’, and there follows a discussion of marketing strategies.

Much as we may dislike many aspects of today’s cult of the conductor, it has to be admitted that one of the most significant essays here (found in Part Four – America and Europe) concerns Louis Antoine Jullien, one of the ‘entrepreneur-conductors’ who also raised capital, hired musicians and organised the schedules. As well as being an extremely charismatic and theatrical personality, he did much ‘to elevate and refine the standard of musical taste’. His extensive US tour (1853/4) with his outstanding orchestra was vastly influential, raising the bar considerably.

Though of specialised appeal, this is a tremendously informative and superbly produced book.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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