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  • "Every Evening at 8":The Rise of the Promenade Concerts in Late Nineteenth-Century Boston
  • Kenneth H. Marcus (bio)

"Every Evening at 8," the Boston Globe declared in preparation for a major event in the city's cultural life: the launching of the Promenade Concerts at Boston Music Hall on July 11, 1885. Patrons could expect a "Large Orchestra, Popular Programs, Attractive Floral Designs, Electric Lights, [and] Perfect Ventilation."1 Soon after their founding, the Promenade Concerts—or the "Pops," as Bostonians eventually called them—had become a social and cultural phenomenon by bridging the divide between "entertainment" and "art."2 What do these concerts—the longest continuous series of popular concerts in American history—tell us about arts, leisure, and class during the Gilded Age in Boston? And how does a study of the Promenade Concerts contribute to our understanding of cultural hierarchy in nineteenth-century urban America?3

One method that historians and musicologists have employed in answering these questions is to consider the role of music institutions in relation to the "sacralization of culture." The sociologist Paul DiMaggio in 1982 first put forward the idea, which cultural historian Lawrence Levine applied in his work on American cultural hierarchy, that a division between "high" and "low" culture emerged at the end of the nineteenth century in American arts institutions, especially in venues for opera, drama, and orchestral music.4 These scholars drew strongly, in [End Page 194] turn, on Pierre Bourdieu's notion of "cultural capital," or, as DiMaggio asserted, a "knowledge and familiarity with styles and genres that are socially valued and that confer prestige upon those who have mastered them."5 This acquisition of an informed knowledge of such cultural forms as symphonic music, opera, and Shakespearean theater, DiMaggio and Levine argued, accentuated a growing divide between what we could call the cultural "haves" and the "have-nots," or between those who aimed for social respectability by engaging with various forms of reputedly "high" art and those who did not.

Other scholars have disputed or sought to revise this view. Michael Broyles does not deny that sacralization, or what he calls a "cultivated tradition," took place but that it occurred earlier than either DiMaggio or Levine suggested; in his study of antebellum Boston, Broyles states that in musical circles, citizens in the nineteenth century witnessed no less than "a direct outgrowth of the subversion of republican vision."6 A cultivated tradition, Broyles asserts, thus contradicted the very goals that good republicans had in mind: a broadly democratic access to resources as well as the arts. Ralph Locke also criticizes DiMaggio's and Levine's interpretation, although on rather different grounds, seeing the very term "sacralization" as troublesome because it has multiple connotations and thus can be analytically vague. DiMaggio's and Levine's focus on Boston is further problematic, Locke argues, because its example of Gilded Age orchestral patronage "should not be taken to represent that of America's many cities," nor should one blithely summarize the efforts of such figures as the founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Major Henry Lee Higginson, as resulting from "snobbery and other less than admirable motives" by the "culture makers" of the era.7

Despite this impressive body of work, what has been largely missing is a serious appraisal of the Boston Promenade Concerts, or Boston Pops, as they came to be known. Both DiMaggio and Levine mention only in passing the rise of the Pops format, perhaps because it seemed marginal to the idea of a cultivated tradition that prominent philanthropists like Higginson upheld.8 Yet I would argue that the Boston Promenade Concerts were in fact central to the orchestra's history because they bridged barriers of class, gender, and age and so helped to make orchestral music in Boston more accessible to a wider public.

It is surprising that a serious consideration of the Boston Promenade Concerts remains yet to be written, despite its occasional mention by cultural historians and musicologists alike.9 Perhaps, as one scholar asserts, the traditional divide between "art" and "entertainment" has left such "musical institutions … on the periphery of musicological inquiry."10 To place these concerts within the context of Boston...


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pp. 194-221
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