Early Concert Life in Boston

Colonial Boston, as a thriving seaport, developed through the 18th and 19th centuries as a center of commerce and culture in New England. Among its imports was music—instruments, dancing masters, music teachers, and the public concert. As in Europe, secular social music pervaded American life, and, though it might have been condemned if emanating from the wrong venue (taverns, theaters), music was cultivated as a sign of gentility among the gentry and as a pastime throughout American society. Not only did New Englanders sing in their churches, they also played instruments—particularly keyboards, strings, flutes, and other winds—in private households, churches, dances, ceremonies, and, beginning at least in 1729, public concerts.


The earliest known concert notices in Boston (1729-1733) describe these concerts as taking place in a dancing school or a concertroom within a house. The mid-18th century saw the flourishing of private concerts in Boston with the prominent influence of Stephen and Gilbert Deblois, shopkeepers and importers of a variety of goods including musical instruments. The brothers petitioned for the use of Faneuil Hall as a concert venue soon after its opening in 1742, and later built Concert Hall at the intersection of Hanover and Queen Streets in 1754. These musical "assemblies" given by the Deblois and others were usually semi-private affairs open only to gentleman subscribers (members of the working class would not have been admitted).


After 1750 when the Act for Preventing Stage Plays was passed, citing the rowdy behavior of the lower classes at theatrical performances, most public Bostonians were able to hear an unprecedented quantity and variety of the latest music. The theater productions, consisting of English and American ballad operas, masques, and plays with musical interludes, sometimes included more "serious" instrumental music presented between the acts. These theaters also kept performances (including secular and instrumental music) which were discouraged. An exception to this prohibition were the sacred music concerts heard in the 1780s under the direction of the organist William Selby at King's Chapel (then called Stone Chapel due to anti-English sentiment). Selby chiefly presented choral works of Handel and many of his own choral and instrumental compositions.


The Act's slow demise under public pressure in the 1790s caused a resurgence of public performances and the opening of the Boston Theater in 1793 and the competing Haymarket Theater in 1796. In these and other prominent venues, resident orchestras provided steady employment for professional instrumentalists who could also be drawn upon for concerts. The existence of theaters in Boston proved to be an attraction for fine musicians who greatly influenced Boston's musical life.

The arrival in 1794 of the oboist and conductor Gottleib Graupner was significant in the development of Boston's musical culture. Graupner's activities in Boston included organizing many concerts, the founding with Francis Mallet and Filippo Trajetta of a conservatory (which unfortunately failed after two years), and the formation of a Philo-Harmonic Society which, in turn, helped provide an impetus for the founding of the Handel and Haydn Society in 1815.