The earliest nineteenth-century orchestra concerts were very expensive, and so appealed only to the upper crust. A dance orchestra conductor looking for a way to keep working in the off season invented the less formal, less expensive promenade concert, which appealed to all levels of society. Louis Jullien, the man who first established successful promenade concerts in England, was widely known for his flashy showmanship and criticized as a humbug. But critics also recognized his superb musicianship and faithfulness to the classical music that he programmed.
Promenade concerts usually featured a mixture of symphonic music (including complete symphonies), operatic music (a kind of popular music at the time), dance music, and soloists on instruments that would never appear on symphony concerts. They usually featured a dance suite called a quadrille, where the showmanship went over the top. Jullien’s Fireman’s Quadrille included instruments imitating the sounds of fire engines, the hiss of steam, and the collapse of a house. It culminated in three companies of firemen dashing on stage to douse a fire that appeared to have broken out in the concert hall.
If Jullien had nothing more substantial to offer his public, no one would remember him, and he probably would not have maintained his popularity for long. When his orchestra played symphonies, they played them extraordinarily well. Other conductors of the time liked to “update” the works of the masters, adding new instruments that they had not used. Critics hated the practice. Jullien always ostentatiously put on special gloves and had a special jewel-encrusted baton brought to him when he conducted anything by Beethoven, but then the orchestra played what Beethoven had written, without “improvements.” Critics took grateful note. Jullien presented four complete Beethoven symphonies during his first season in England. Sometimes Jullien devoted an entire concert to the music of a single classical composer.
Jullien’s avowed intention was to blend “the most sublime works with those of a lighter school.” In a sense, today’s orchestras do the same. After all, operatic overtures used to count as popular, not classical music. Unfortunately, today’s orchestras play a mixture of serious symphonic music and the music that was considered lighter after the 1850s. Where is today’s popular music that blends well with classical masterpieces? It exists. It can be found in film scores among other places. Take away the gimmicks and empty showmanship, and modern orchestras could learn from Jullien how to appeal to a truly diverse audience. For more about Jullien and what modern orchestras could play to emulate his best qualities, see my longer articles Popular conductor Jullien: humbug or possible role model for today’s orchestras? and Building and audience for symphony orchestra concerts–with video games?