Filled Lecture Hall in the Smithsonian Institution Building, 1857, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 31, Folder 40.

Music in the Castle 1854–1862

As part of the Smithsonian Year of Music 2019, the Smithsonian Castle Collection curator chronicles music in the Castle during its early years.

The August 10, 1846 legislation, authorizing the creation of the Smithsonian, mandated that its mission include not only science related collections and research, but also the arts and humanities “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” During its early decades, however, the Smithsonian was most widely known for its scientific contributions to knowledge. Supporting the mandate to diffuse information, the Smithsonian’s first building, the Smithsonian Institution Building or the Castle, contained a lecture hall, the first of which was located in the east wing from 1849 until 1854 and held one thousand people. The lectures presented in that hall were predominately science-related, interspersed with popular lectures on literature, art, architecture, culture, and history. However, the Castle’s hall was not a venue for musical performances.

That changed late in 1854 when a new and much larger lecture hall was completed on the second floor of the building’s main central section. The new hall, which was also available for non-Smithsonian events, held up to two thousand people seated on semicircular pew-like benches arranged in tiers that surrounded a dais. There was a gallery above, accessible by stairs in the four corners of the room. Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry declared the hall the finest in the country because of its superb acoustics, which were based on principles he had developed. He described it as “somewhat fan-shaped, and the speaker is placed as it were in the mouth of an immense trumpet.” The first lecture in the new hall occurred on December 26, 1854, and musical performers took the stage just three days later.

Lecture Hall looking toward the stage. A man is demonstrating an experiment to an audience seated in

The “Concert of Sacred Music”, sponsored by the Union Choir Association with proceeds intended for the relief of the poor, featured choirs from six local Protestant congregations united as one. The performers numbered about two hundred and an estimated two thousand people attended. The Washington Sentinel raved about the new hall as being "…admirably adapted to concert purposes; everybody, no matter how remote from the stage, being enabled to hear the performances, however soft and depressed the sounds, with remarkable distinctness."

The layout of the Lecture Hall shows the seats arranged in a semi-circle around the stage and stairc

Over two dozen concerts took place in the hall during the next eight years. Benevolent societies sponsored some and the city’s public school children showcased their talents in others. Concerts ranged from operatic compositions of Rossini, Mozart, and Verdi performed by professional guest artists to vocal performances of glees, catches, echo songs, and cantatas sung by "the best amateur musical talent of the District and Baltimore." The performances were very popular and were often sold out to capacity. On several occasions, The National Music Convention convened in the Castle, concluding with grand concerts in the lecture hall. The conventions attracted participants from all over the country and consisted of instructional sessions over the course of a few days during which participants practiced “anthems, chants, duos, trios, solos, and glees.” In addition to these practices, leaders also offered courses in execution, style, delivery, vocalism, expression, and articulation.

The November 8, 1859, “Soiree Musicale” by the Baltimore Beethoven Sextette is especially notable for a musical piece, titled “Artists’ Excursion, dedicated to Mr. Smithson.” It was composed by Bernard Courlaender (ca. 1823-1898), professor of music at the Peabody Conservatory. The concert included compositions by Rossini and Verdi and concluded with a finale, “promiscuous and patriotic,” performed by the entire band and full chorus.

The program for the concert

In 1862, concert performances in the hall ended abruptly when Joseph Henry instituted a new policy limiting the use of the hall for Smithsonian-related purposes only. Subsequently, the hall was destroyed in the January 1865 fire and Henry decided not to rebuild it during the restoration, thus effectively ending both public lectures and musical events in the building.

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