For our first post, let’s go all the way back to the beginning. The first May Festival was held May 6-10, 1873, under the directorship of conductor and impresario Theodore Thomas. A permanent “May Festival Chorus” did not yet exist; instead, several local and regional singing societies constituted the chorus. The singers performed alongside six principal soloists and the Theodore Thomas Orchestra. Additionally, a chorus of children “from the public schools” appeared on a matinee performance with the “Cincinnati Orchestra” (a pre-cursor to our modern-day Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra), and their conductor, one M. Brand.
Eight concerts were offered in five days, including four evening concerts, three matinees, and one “open-air concert” on Saturday afternoon, May 10; a page in the program book announces that “Notice of the locality where the Open Air Concert is to take place, will be given at the Festival.”
One apparently novel feature of the May Festival was intermission. The program book explains: “In each performance there will be an Intermission of from half an hour to an hour. During this time the audience will have an opportunity for promenade and refreshment in Fine Art Hall, Horticulture Hall, and other parts of the Building…” These intermissions were “so great an attraction” that they were continued at the 1875 Festival – and well beyond!
The May Festival’s expansive performance history began with a U. S. premiere: Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum was the first work performed on a May Festival concert. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and “The Heavens Are Telling” from Haydn’s The Creation followed. In addition, the Festival included major works by Mozart, Gluck, Mendelssohn, Wagner (then still living), and Schumann, among others. Music from composers less well-known to us today, such as Alberto Randegger and John Parry, appeared as well.
As it often has in its 147-year history, the Festival (at least the indoor portion!) concluded with the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The program book notes that “The listener at the May Festival will rarely if ever have heard the “Hallelujah Chorus” sung with grander effect.”
Thanks to our friends at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, you can view the program book from 1873 online – enjoy!