The Music of the Gilded Age, c. 1870-1910

This essay first appeared in the March 2021 issue of Choice (volume 58 | issue 7).


It was called the Gilded Age, that period in United States history between the Civil War and the First World War. Business was booming, at least in the North. Immigrants were flooding in by the tens of thousands and changing the balance of urban and agrarian populations. By 1869, railroads had connected the North American continent through the states and territories, coast to coast. The first known oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859. Gigantic steel refineries in Pittsburgh and other mill cities worked around the clock to supply rails for the railroads, girders for skyscrapers in cities such as Chicago and New York, and components for large bridges across wide rivers. Electric lights had largely supplanted gas lights to help keep households, businesses, and theaters active after dark. The photographic capturing of movement on film was not far off.

Individual musicians were in many ways the beneficiaries of the technological boom of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Great opera houses in large cities became more professionally oriented as well-known singers were lured away from Europe to bedazzle US audiences. Symphony orchestras, chamber music groups, and choral ensembles were founded for the enjoyment and edification of the more sophisticated and experienced concertgoers. Travel by rail became commonplace, and world-renowned performers went on tours to both large urban centers and small towns. Bands, those much-beloved wind ensembles that were the backbone of a parade, sprang up across the country and could be found in towns and cities of all sizes. A network of booking agencies kept track of a plethora of performance events, and telegraphic communications carried the many messages about when and where performances were to be held and who the performers would be.

About the Author:

John E. Druesedow, Jr. retired from Duke University as director of the Music Library and adjunct associate professor of music. His main research and teaching interests have included the music of the Civil War, the Gilded Age, and World War I.