Music in the Queen City

Cincinnati Music Hall & Exposition, 1890. Via the Ohio Guide Collection on Ohio Memory.
Cincinnati Music Hall & Exposition, 1890, via the Ohio Guide Collection on Ohio Memory.
Cover of  Musical life in early Cincinnati : and the origin of the May Festival.
From the State Library of Ohio Rare Books Collection on Ohio Memory.

Cincinnati, Ohio, has a long musical tradition. Although the current incarnation of its symphony was not established until 1895, there was plenty of musical activity in the early 1800s. An essay by Leonie C. Frank, Musical Life in Early Cincinnati and the Origin of the May Festival, is new to Ohio Memory and gives a history of the early musical events in the city. It outlines accounts of early music teachers and music stores, and references a number of early singing societies.

There were some church groups, such as the Episcopal Singing Society, but many of these early singing groups had names that indicated they were established more for the simple, non-denominational love of music. Some early examples include the Haydn Society (founded 1819) and the Apollonian Society, which was founded for “the cultivation of vocal and instrumental music,” according to Frank. Illustrated Cincinnati: A Pictorial Handbook of the Queen City by D.J. Kenny, which is also on Ohio Memory, includes a chapter on the musical history of Cincinnati and names many of the same early singing societies.

Guide of the Golden Jubilee Saengerfest, from the State Library of Ohio Rare Books Collection on Ohio Memory.
Guide of the Golden Jubilee Saengerfest, from the State Library of Ohio Rare Books Collection on Ohio Memory.


Many of these singing groups were immigrant populations. German singing groups in particular were very popular in the early- and mid-1800s, and their presence in Cincinnati led to it being chosen as the site of the first North American Sängerfest in 1849. Cincinnati has hosted Sängerfest seven times, including in 1899 when the Guide of the Golden Jubilee Saengerfest of the North American Saengerbund was published. This pamphlet, now in Ohio Memory, is a guide to the festival in English and German. It lists participants and board members, and gives schedules, directions, and instructions for the singing groups and others who wanted to experience the festival. It also features poetry from each member of the board and advertisements for local businesses. This pamphlet is “compliment von Cafe Cincinnatus, 1220-1222 Vine St.,” which is currently the location of a pizza restaurant. According to Digging Cincinnati History, this site has functioned at various points as a brewery, saloon, restaurant, and/or concert hall.

Frank says it was the success of the Sängerfests that led to the foundation of the May Festival in Cincinnati in 1873, and the third of these festivals in 1878 prompted the construction of the Cincinnati Music Hall. Kenny also attributes the construction of the Music Hall to the German singing groups, and mentions that, if not for the Sängerfest, many of the buildings used for the Festival would not have been built. Today, German-American singing groups in Cincinnati still attend the North American Sängerfest, the May Festival is still an annual musical event, and Cincinnati is home to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Cincinnati Opera, and countless smaller music and theater productions.


Thank you to Elizabeth Allenfor this week’s post! Elizabeth is a graduate student in the Kent State School of Library and Information Science who is completingher practicum with the State Library of Ohio.

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