Written by Ashley Finke, Digital Services Assistant, Downtown Main Library
On the first Thursday of each month, our Genealogy & Local History Department "throws back" to a time in Cincinnati's history that is featured in our Library's wide-ranging collection of more than 9 million materials.
The Cincinnati May Festival, opens a new window has a long-standing tradition of celebrating orchestral and choral music talent from all over the world.
Singing societies and festivals have been popular as forms of entertainment for centuries. Originating from the German word Sängerfest, meaning singer festival, these European festivals traditionally host a large parade followed by other celebratory events. It is no surprise that Cincinnati with its strong German roots swiftly adopted this tradition.
Origins of the May Festival
In 1873 Maria Longworth, granddaughter of Nicholas Longworth, traveled to England and attended a large choral festival. This inspired her to bring the tradition back to Cincinnati. Already being a member of the local choral scene, Longworth, along with her husband George Nichols, approached Theodore Thomas to direct an annual chorus festival that would later be known as the May Festival.
Theodore Thomas was born in Esens, Germany in 1835. Interested in violin from a very young age, by age 10 he was the primary source of income for his family. In 1845, his family emigrated to the United States seeking a better life and more opportunities. Along with being a talented violinist, he would later become a conductor and orchestrator. Thomas is considered the first celebrated American orchestral conductor. His work with the Cincinnati May Festival propelled his career forward and he founded and directed the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The first May Festival was held in 1873 in Exposition Hall. Exposition Hall was a large wooden building measuring at 250 feet long, 100 feet wide, and 80 feet tall. Located where Music Hall stands today, originally Exposition Hall was Ohio’s first psychiatric hospital. In 1832 it was converted into an orphanage and later used to house patients suffering from the cholera outbreak. Beginning in 1870, Exposition Hall was used for industrial expositions, horticulture displays, and performances. The first May Festival performance overwhelmingly featured German works by Handel, Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart.
With bad weather in the forecast, the May Festival of 1875 featured the American premieres of Bach’s Magnificent and Brahm’s Triumphlied. However, the weather proved to be more cumbersome than people anticipated. The roof of the Exposition Hall (also known as Sängerfest Hall) was tin and as the rain began to fall, the sound of the rain on the roof was deafening. The roof also leaked and between the leaks and the sound of rain, it brought the performance to a halt. In addition to the bad weather, it was seasonably hot and the building was beyond capacity with spectators. People spilled out in the streets to get some relief from the oppressive heat and it was reported that people also busted out windows to create airflow. This experience inspired Reuben Springer to fund a more permanent structure for Cincinnati. That permanent structure became Music Hall.
The 1878 May Festival was the perfect opportunity to debut the new Music Hall. The cost of admission was $2 a seat, $1 for standing room, and $10 for all seven concerts. For perspective, today’s admission to the 1878 May Festival would cost $54 a seat, $27 for standing room, and $268 for all seven concerts. The May Festival has been held in Music Hall ever since.
Music in Cincinnati Schools
The original festivals in 1873 and 1875 featured teacher and student choirs, but after the 1875 festival the presence of school choruses was slim to none. In 1882, student choral ensembles began to become a regular part of the May Festival. By 1897, music was more incorporated into the regular curriculum of Cincinnati Schools. Over 2,000 students from city schools participated in the Children’s May Festival in 1897.
Noteworthy Performances Evolution of the May Festival
- 1931— Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 with a chorus of 900, a large orchestra and eight soloists.
- 1937 — Black composer Robert Nathaniel Dett’s oratorio The Ordering of Moses.
- 1942 — During World War II the performers of the May Festival donated their time and all the proceeds went to the Cincinnati War Chest.
- 1946 — World War II victory concert was held with a notable performance of Handel’s Hallelujah.
- 1956 — Black people were allowed to perform in the May Festival.
- 1986 — May Festival Youth Chorus forms.
- 1989 — All volunteer May Festival Chorus.
- 2006 — Adolphus Hailstork created Earthwise, a double chorus and symphony piece to promote healing from the Cincinnati race riots in 2000. The performance featured an all-Black and all-white chorus separated in the beginning. As the performance goes on, the two separate choruses slowly intermingle to create a visual metaphor of healing.
To see more about the May Festival including official programs, visit our Digital Library.
Chorus music of the Cincinnati May Festival:
Chorus music of the Cincinnati May Festival, 1873. (1873). John Church Company.
Cincinnati Exposition Hall:
Ohio Federal Writers’ Project. (2010, March 17). Cincinnati Exposition Hall. Ohio Memory Connection.
Cincinnati School Children. (1908). Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library’s Digital Library.
Cincinnati Prints. (n.d.). Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library’s Digital Library.
May Festival — Cincinnati’s Chorus. (n.d.). May Festival History. Retrieved April 20, 2021.
Memoirs of Theodore Thomas:
Thomas, R. F. T. (1911). Memoirs of Theodore Thomas. Moffat, Yard and Company.
Souvenir from the opening of the Cincinnati Music Hall:
Souvenir from the opening of the Cincinnati Music Hall and the third biennial musical festival May 1878. (1878). D.H. Baldwin Company.
Cincinnati May Festival. (n.d.). Wikipedia. Retrieved April 20, 2021.