Every year at this time, more than a hundred well-behaved volunteers troop onto scores of risers at the back of the stage at Music Hall, stand quietly behind the professional musicians of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and wait for the signal from conductor James Conlon—which, when it comes, is their cue to blow the socks off what is usually a full house of 3,500 music lovers at the oldest choral festival in the United States. Whether the work being sung was written by Mendelssohn or McCartney, the result is invariably stunning. Because there’s no match in the wide world of music for the sound of massed human voices pouring straight into the ear, unmodulated by amps, mikes, or engineers. And that sound is something that is done particularly well here.
For first timers at the May Festival, particularly those raised in the modern tradition of teeny voices and big circuitry, the sound streaming from the throats of this collection of school teachers, accountants, salesclerks, mechanics, secretaries, and executives is startling, sometimes hair-raising, and stunningly immediate. It is, as they say, a revelation. For return customers, that gorgeous pile-up of words and music from as many singers and musicians as the generous Music Hall stage will hold is what keeps them coming back.
How did we get so lucky? How did it happen that our little Rust Belt buckle became home to one of the richest traditions in American music? Who properly gets the thanks for the May Festival? Credit often and frustratingly goes to the great benefactor of Music Hall, Reuben Springer. But the true founders of this long-lived songfest were Maria Longworth Nichols Storer—she of the art pottery, ashtrays, and fireplace surrounds—and Martin Luther, one of the main instigators of the Protestant Reformation. Not together, of course.
When he wasn’t busy disrupting things for the church of the 16th century, Martin Luther was a music lover. “Next to the word of God, music deserves the highest praise,” he said. “I always love music; who so has skill in this art is of a good temperament, fitted for all things. We must teach music in schools; a schoolmaster ought to have skill in music, or I would not regard him.” (Take that, tax-slashers!)
Prior to the Protestant Reformation, church music was very much in the hands of the clergy. Luther had other ideas. Not only did he encourage clergy to compose simple, psalm-based hymns for their congregants to learn and sing together, he sat down and wrote some pretty great songs himself, e.g., “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” a hymn that eventually even worked its way into the Roman Catholic repertoire.
Luther’s musical reformation found rich soil in the German states where the experience of communal singing in church became a national tradition of singing in choirs and choruses—a tradition that persisted into the 19th century and the relocation of thousands of full-throated Germans from the banks of the Rhine to the banks of the Ohio. Those immigrants established dozens of Lutheran, Evangelical Reformed, Baptist, and Methodist congregations, steeples of which still characterize the old German quarter in Over-the-Rhine, congregations whose members sang often and with great gusto. They also established dozens of singing clubs, enough that the city became the site of recurring Saengerfests, competitions among those singing clubs that eventually became a big enough deal to require a block-long wooden festival house at 14th and Elm streets. It was the din of rain on the tin roof of that festival house that is thought to have inspired the deep-pocketed Kentucky-born grocer and industrialist Reuben Springer to pony up $125,000 as opening bid in a fund to build what would become the present-day Music Hall.
So when rich, cultured, well-traveled Cincinnatienne Maria Longworth Nichols Storer turned to visiting German-born conductor Theodore Thomas in 1872 and said, in so many words, “We really need to put all this talent and organization to work in something along the lines of—say—that nice Lower Rhenish festival that’s been running since 1818 in Elberfeld, Aachen, and Cologne,” the foundations for the May Festival had been well and truly laid. Maestro Thomas became the first conductor of the May Festival, opening in the proto-Music Hall with 800 singers and a pre-fire-marshal audience of 5,000, and a program of Handel, Haydn, and Beethoven. (Thomas went on to organize, with help from Maria Longworth’s husband, the Cincinnati College of Music, which lives on at the University of Cincinnati, as well as the Chicago Symphony.)
Since 1873 the German congregations have moved from the shadow of Music Hall to the surrounding suburbs and townships, much church music has succumbed to the lure of electronics and easy-listening pop tinklings, singing clubs have largely disbanded, Mullers have become Millers, and Schmidts have become Smiths. But the May Festival lives on, bringing year after year of the greatest choral music ever written, performed by the irreplaceable May Festival Chorus along with some of the finest soloists and conductors in the world.
And even as the German traditions were fading, being absorbed into the American mainstream, two other strong choral traditions came into the city, both from the South: African-American and Appalachian. Sometimes singing in storefronts and sometimes in the church buildings left behind by the German congregations, the two great waves of immigration brought two distinct choral styles and repertoires. Just as importantly, they brought fresh waves of people who were accustomed to singing loud, clear, and together.
What Cincinnatians who love choirs are waiting to see is if the May Festival—with its long tradition of High Art and its well-deserved reputation for choral excellence and innovation—will be infused this year with new energy by the World Choir Games. How spectacular it would be if the May movers, shakers, singers, and musicians would decide to permanently honor the democratic foundations of the festival—the choirs, singing clubs, and choral competitions of the 19th century—with the inclusion of competition among today’s different but dedicated local choirs as part of the pleasures of spring.
Maria Longworth and Martin Luther would approve.
Photo by Ryan Kurtz
Originally published in the May 2012 issue.