The Victorian's play Shea Stadium: The Crystal Palace Concerts


When the Beatles played the Shea Stadium concert on August 15 1965 it was hailed as being record breaking and one of the most famous concert events of its era -which it was. It set records for attendance and revenue generation. Promoter Sid Bernstein said, "Over 55,000 people saw the Beatles at Shea Stadium. We took $304,000, the greatest gross ever in the history of show business." It is considered a milestone in the development of performance history in that it demonstrated for the first time that outdoor concerts on a large scale could be successful and profitable.

However, upon seeing newsreel footage of the concert coupled with these grand statements, historians of the 19th century were all saying 'meh, the Victorians were doing that years ago', and in a fascinating way, they were right. At a place called the Crystal Palace (every town has a pub named after it) which today is, sadly, just a rather quiet park.

The Crystal Palace in 1854

The Crystal Palace was a huge cast-iron and glass building, originally built in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and was reconstructed in the London suburb of Sydenham in 1854. This popular attraction assumed a musical prominence in British culture when the ambitious conductor Augustus Manns established an orchestra there in 1855, and presented a series of Saturday Concerts until 1900.
Designed by Joseph Paxton, the massive Exhibition Hall (as the prefabricated building was originally called) required 550 tons of wrought iron, 3,500 tons of cast iron, and 400 tons of glass. The Exhibition Hall was intended as a temporary structure, but it proved so popular that, at the close of the exhibition, a consortium of businessmen purchased it for £70,000. (The secretary to the newly established Crystal Palace Company of 1852 was the civil engineer, biblical scholar, and musical enthusiast George Grove.) The owners’ plan was to reconstruct it in the London suburb of Sydenham, as a permanent “Palace of the People.” Its purpose, as defined in a prospectus for investors, was: “To provide refined recreation, calculated to elevate the intellect, instruct the mind, improve the hearts of, and welcome the millions who have no other incentives to pleasure but such as the gin-palace, the dancing saloon and the alehouse can afford them.” In keeping with the era’s penchant for large-scale undertakings, the Crystal Palace Company expanded the design of the original structure by about 50 percent. The new design also called for a permanent foundation, extensive landscaping and a network of water-fountains. Construction took two years, and the final cost of the Crystal Palace, at the time of completion in 1854, was £1,231,145. Situated on top of a hill, it stood as a monument to mid-Victorian achievement, until it was destroyed by fire in 1936.

Unlike the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was primarily a showcase for manufactured goods, the displays in the Crystal Palace emphasized art, science, and culture. There were rooms dedicated to the architecture of ancient civilizations: Egypt, Assyria, Greece, Rome, and Byzantium were represented, and there was a replica of a courtyard from the Alhambra. There was additionally a picture gallery, a library, a theatre, and a display of dinosaurs. And because the building was, in effect, a gigantic greenhouse, it was only logical that it should house a large collection of tropical plants. Thanks to these and other attractions, the Crystal Palace was an immediate success, drawing 1,322,000 visitors in its first year of operation.. It was grand enough for monarchs: Queen Victoria opened the building, and other royal guests included King Pedro V of Portugal and the Emperor Napoleon III of France. At the same time, a modest admission fee of just one shilling on Bank Holidays made a visit within reach of the working classes. However, the structure and its contents were most closely aligned with the bourgeoisie and reflected middle-class values of self-improvement and morality. This was no hedonistic pleasuredome: alcohol was not sold on the premises, and it was closed on Sundays.

At first it was not the intention of the Crystal Palace Company for music to play a significant role in the attractions. There was a grand choral performance at the opening ceremonies, on 10 June 1854, attended by about 40,000 people, but beyond that Paxton was content with concerts of light music played by a brass band. However, the company’s dissatisfaction with the original bandmaster (Henry Schallehn) led to the appointment in 1855 of a new conductor, Augustus Manns, whose musical ambitions extended well beyond marches, waltzes, and quadrilles. Within a year, he had reconfigured his band as an orchestra, offering the public symphonies, concertos, overtures, operatic arias, and other high-minded fare. He conducted daily performances and a Saturday concert series—as well as other musical events at the Crystal Palace, such as the massive Handel Festivals—until his retirement in 1900.

Wow! A concert in 1857
The comparisons with the 1960s can arguably run deeper (if you're in the mood) as all this was happening at the crest of something of a period of musical and cultural change called the English Musical Renaissance which is an informal term used to describe the dates between roughly 1840 to 1940, a defining era for classical music composition in the British Isles. A number of highly influential British composers were very significant contributors to classical music during this time, and were major figures in bridging the gaps between late Romantic music and 20th century Modernism.

From humble beginnings, the Crystal Palace Saturday Concerts grew in stature to become one of the foremost orchestral concert series in Britain. Europe’s leading virtuosi appeared with the Manns orchestra: Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann played piano concertos; violin virtuosi Joseph Joachim, Henri Vieuxtemps, and Ole Bull also appeared on the series. Established composers were well represented in programming: occasionally entire concerts were dedicated to Beethoven or Mendelssohn. But Manns’s programs also displayed his willingness to expand the repertoire. Under his baton, works by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Saint-Saëns, Glinka, Dvo?rák, and Tchaikovksy received their British premieres.

August Manns
Neither was British music neglected, in ensuing years, Manns programmed works by William Sterndale Bennett, Frederic Cowen, Ebenezer Prout, George Mac- Farren, Hamish McGunn, Hubert Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford, Alexander Mackenzie, Ethel Smyth, and many others. It is not apparent why Manns—a German, who was born in Prussia in 1825—became such a determined proponent of British music. (However, in pursuing this cause he collaborated with Grove, who had his own pro-British musical agenda.) Manns’s efforts were substantial: according to statistics compiled in 1895, of the 300 composers performed in the first four decades of the Saturday Concerts, eighty-two were British. Only Germans were more numerous (102), with the remaining composers identified as French, Italian, and "Other."
Manns was the first conductor to introduce Arthur Sullivan (best known for his collaboration with W.S. Gilbert) to the English public, when he conducted the young Sullivan's Tempest music in April 1862 at the Crystal Palace. Thirty years later, Sullivan wrote to him, "How much do I not owe to you, my dear old friend, for the helping hand you gave me to mount the first step on the ladder! I shall always think of you with gratitude and affection." Among contemporary continental composers, Brahms (in 1863), Raff (in 1870), and Dvorák (in 1879) also first became known in England through Manns's Crystal Palace concerts.

After 1890 the Crystal Palace concerts declined in importance. Orchestral music could be heard elsewhere in London, and the old popularity of the palace had died out. Manns conducted till the season of 1900–01, concluding on 24 April. The Musical Times estimated that he had conducted 12,000 orchestral concerts during his 42 years at the Crystal Palace, and that it was the Crystal Palace concerts which securely embeded classical music within British culture.

Very sadly on 30 November 1936 the entire palace was destroyed by fire: the glow was visible across eight counties. Even though 89 fire engines and over 400 firemen arrived they were unable to extinguish it. (The fire spread quickly in the high winds that night, because it could consume the dry old timber flooring, and the huge quantity of flammable materials in the building.) The head of the board of trustees of the Crystal Palace is quoted in the press as saying, “In a few hours we have seen the end of the Crystal Palace. Yet it will live in the memories not only of Englishmen, but the whole world”. 100,000 people came to Sydenham Hill to watch the blaze, among them Winston Churchill, who said, "This is the end of an age".
I think the Beatles would have liked playing at the Crystal Palace -thats a concept album name if ever I hear one.

The site of the Palace today, still looks better than the O2 if you ask me.