May Festival: For 150 years, a musical free-for-all   

In the beginning, there was the May Festival.

Before any of Cincinnati’s other major arts organizations came into existence, the May Festival was already there.

It was there before the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra were founded, before the Taft Museum and the Cincinnati Opera. The May Festival is older, even, than Music Hall, the venue that was built to serve as its home.

The Festival, said to be the longest-running choral festival in North America, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this month.

Advertisement for the Fourth May Music Festival, 1880
Illustration of early May Music Festival

Predictably, this milestone season will be filled with highlights, from world premieres by James MacMillan and James Lee II to R. Nathaniel Dett’s “The Ordering of Moses,” with appearances by guest conductors Marin Alsop and James Conlon, and performances of Bach’s “Magnificat” and a closing night performance of Mahler’s “Symphony No. 8” (Symphony of a Thousand).

But then, the May Festival musical history ( is filled with such highlights. You’d need a book to catalog the Festival’s many high points: the many world premieres, the noted guest conductors, the luminary singers, the music and chorus directors. Indeed, there is a book that accomplishes much of that as it explores the roots and history of Cincinnati’s passion for choral music;
“A City That Sings,” published in 2012 and edited by Catherine Roma, former music director of MUSE, Cincinnati’s Women’s Choir. 

Historical significance

These days, we are blessed with a far broader range of cultural options than we were in 1873, when the May Festival was founded. There are scores of choruses in the area, more than a few of them engaging in adventurous and challenging programming. So you might be forgiven if you downplayed the May Festival’s impact on Cincinnati’s current cultural life. After all, even this sesquicentennial season is made up of just five performances, most of them bunched into two weekends.

But looking at the Festival’s significance from a historical perspective is another matter. You can’t overestimate the importance of the May Festival taking that initial step that would, within 20 years, put Cincinnati on the map as a major cultural center.

“From the very beginning, Cincinnati’s May Festival was regarded as one of the greatest choral festivals that had ever existed in the country – perhaps in Western civilization,” said the late Elmer Thomas, who led the Festival chorus in the early 1970s.

Of course, Cincinnati was already highly regarded for its abundance of choral music. Thanks to the many German and English choral societies that existed in the area, Cincinnatians had grown accustomed to a rich selection of choral offerings. Especially notable were the massive Saengerfests that involved hundreds – sometimes thousands – of performers.

Maria Longworth-Storer, founder of May Festival

But things changed in 1871, when Cincinnati arts patron Maria Longworth Nichols traveled to England and, in the course of her travels, attended a performance at one of the country’s famed choral festivals. As it turned out, her husband was part of one of Cincinnati’s choral societies.

Always looking to make life in Cincinnati bigger and better, Nichols – who would go on to found Rookwood Pottery in 1880 – proposed to found a festival in her hometown. She got in touch with one of America’s best-known conductors, Theodore Thomas.

Thomas was a German-American conductor who had barnstormed the U.S., bringing top-notch classical music to audiences who were starved for fine music. He and his touring orchestra visited Cincinnati with great regularity.

Theodore Thomas, first may Festival conductor
Theodore Thomas

Cincinnati had appetite for classics 

In Cincinnati, he had found something quite different from the rest of the cities on his tours. There was already an appetite for classical music. So when he was offered a $5,000 guarantee if he came to Cincinnati to start a choral festival, he leapt at the chance.

“The new Festival was wildly popular,” said Thea Tjepkema, a historic preservationist and board member of the Friends of Music Hall. Originally, it was held in Exposition Hall, a large wooden structure with a dirt floor, used for industrial and business expositions. Legend has it that railroad baron Reuben Springer was so offended by the noise of the rain on the building’s tin roof that he launched the campaign to build a permanent concert hall.

“It wasn’t just the tin roof that bothered him,” Tjepkema said, eager to clarify that oft-repeated misconception. “You have to remember that the (Exposition Hall) was never intended to be a permanent structure. It was made of rough-hewn wood and had a dirt floor. When it rained for the first two festivals, you can only imagine what a mess it was. They threw sawdust on the floor to keep the mud down inside.”

Not the ideal setting for serious music. But the new Music Hall, as it came to be known, which opened in 1878, made all the difference. That, and Thomas’ programming, which managed to satisfy a taste for both fine and popular arts.


“From the beginning, it was clear that the May Festival was to be a festival for all sorts of people,” Tjepkema said. “There were huge banners on Music Hall. But it wasn’t just there. It didn’t matter what social level you were, everybody decorated for the May Festival. Everybody was excited about it. Even miles and miles out into the country, you’d find bunting and evergreen arches over the streets.”

Remarkably, the May Festival was able to sustain that enthusiasm and public support. It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely what combination of elements was responsible for it. Perhaps it was the growing awareness of the importance of cultural institutions that consumed the boomtown that was late 19th-century Cincinnati. Later, there would be the all-important influx of funding from the Fine Arts Fund – today’s ArtsWave. There was the support generated by the massive May Festival chorus, a community chorus that elicited widespread grassroots support. In time, the festival would involve huge choruses from Cincinnati’s public schools, which maintained robust music programs throughout much of the 20th century. And then, of course, there was the succession of music directors, most of whom emulated Theodore Thomas’ talent for programming music that satisfied a range of tastes.


A vast musical legacy

If you look through the May Festival’s vast musical repertory, you’ll find it filled with composers whose work audiences knew or came to love: Elgar, Fauré, Britten, Berlioz, Wagner, Verdi and, of course, Beethoven and Bach.

But much of the work was by composers who were, for brief periods, enormously popular and then faded into relative obscurity. May Festival audiences hear the works of Karl Goldmark six times between 1878 and 1896, but only twice in the 20th century. Giacomo Meyerbeer had his moment of fame, too, his music appearing nine times beginning in 1873, but unheard since 1890.

Children’s May Festival poster from the early 20th Century

Few music directors found the musical balance so well as James Conlon, who led the Festival from 1979 to 2016. He was just 29 years old when he was appointed and would go on to become one of classical music’s major stars, jet-setting around the globe to appear in front of the world’s greatest orchestras. Yet at the same time, he would devote more than half of his career to a two-week choral festival in Cincinnati.

Why? The Festival’s vaunted history, perhaps. But almost certainly, it offered him opportunities he could find in very few other places.

The May Festival was a place where he could lead the coronation scene from “Boris Godunov” and the “1812 Overture” one week, then follow it up with Benjamin Britten’s “Rejoice in the Lamb” the next. Or to program, in rapid succession, the Bach “Magnificat” and Kurt Weill’s “Seven Deadly Sins,” featuring Broadway star Patti Lupone.

William Warfield and Leontyne Price broke racial 
barriers when they performed excerpts from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” at the 1956 May Festival.
William Warfield and Leontyne Price broke racial barriers when they performed excerpts from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” at the 1956 May Festival.

It was, in the very best sense, a musical free-for-all, with everything performed at the very highest level. Indeed, it was what audiences came to expect.

When Juanjo Mena began his tenure as principal conductor in 2017, he shared some of the goals the Festival’s board had laid out for him.

“They told me that my first parameter was that I should take risks,” Mena said. “I had to respect the past. But I was to make something new in Cincinnati. And most important,” he added, reflecting the sentiments of Maestro Thomas back in 1873, “I had to make a Festival where all people will be welcome.”

* Images courtesy of Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library and Cincinnati Museum Center

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