Monster concerts

This little blog post has been prompted by a find in the miscellaneous London venues boxes of concert programmes here at the UL. Whilst searching to see if there were any Exeter Hall programmes for concerts conducted by Berlioz (there weren’t), I came across a programme for one of Louis Jullien’s Concerts Monstres.

Louis Jullien (public domain)

Louis Jullien (1812 – 1860) was an extraordinary figure: showman-conductor, music publisher, impresario, founder of the Promenade Concerts and all-round extrovert, he was a household name in nineteenth-century musical life. (For more, read our earlier blog post).

He arrived in London in 1840 and for the next two decades he and his Band were a regular fixture on the concert platform in England, with Bals masqués and Concerts d’Été featuring the enormously popular dance music which he published.

Alongside these events was something on a far grander scale: the Concerts Monstres. Monster by name and monster by nature, they involved huge ensembles and lengthy programmes lasting well into the evening.

The first of these was on 20 June 1845 at the Surrey Zoological Gardens on a specially-built platform opposite the giraffe house, with an orchestra of 300 and an audience of 12,000.  The concert was a celebration of the Accession of Queen Victoria and used the forces to best effect, including Suoni la Tromba from I Puritani performed by 100 mixed brass, ophicleide and serpent…the mind boggles and one’s sympathies are with the giraffes.  The evening was rounded off with the National Anthem including obbligato cannon-fire in every bar.  Ear-splitting. The Illustrated London News (June 28, 1845; pg. 413; Issue 165) review reported:

“The programme was very judiciously selected so as to please all tastes; but we must confess, however admirably the classical pieces were executed, that the Post Horn Gallops, the English Quadrilles, and Bohemian Polkas carried off the greatest share of the applause.”

Surrey Gardens New Orchestra 1848 (public domain)

The second followed on 12 July and included the overture to William Tell, Beethoven’s fifth and Battle symphonies (with full effects, naturally, including a monster bass drum), plus a repeat of the I Puritani quintet. Poor giraffes.

Others followed in similar vein in subsequent years and in the last week of July 1848 there was a monster concert every evening (thankfully on a new stage by the lake away from the giraffes).

Concert Monstre programme 1849

In a break with tradition, two of the monster concerts for 1849 (described this season as Concerts Monstres and Congrès Musicales) were held in the Exeter Hall, and the UL has a copy of the programme for the 1 June event. With a 400-strong orchestra, three military bands, three choirs and soloists, the concert began at 7.30pm and finished at midnight. It included Félicien David’s Ode Symphony Le Désert, Mendelssohn’s Scottish symphony, a Bach organ fugue, a cornucopia of selections from opera including the Huntsmen’s chorus from Freischütz with 16 horns, and ending with selections from Les Hugenots.  There was, however, no dance music as it was not deemed suitable for the Exeter Hall (home of the Sacred Harmonic Society).

The unflattering review in the Illustrated London News (June 09, 1849; pg. 394; Issue 375) describes the David Ode as “a miserable caricature of the classic ode symphony”, the Mendelssohn as “wanting light and shade” and revealing that the audience flagged considerably:

“The National Anthem was thundered forth with an accumulated climax of sound, conducted by Jullien with his well-known energetic pantomime [ouch], but the audience had thinned amazingly before the third part had been completed.”

Exeter Hall (public domain)

The third and final of the monster concerts that year was back in the Surrey Gardens, where Jullien was much more at home and could bring back any number of Polkas, Quadrilles and Gallops.

Jullien continued to give regular concerts for another decade and, as Adam Carse says on page 65 of his biography of the impresario: “Jullien’s concerts had become a feature of London life, so to speak, one of the sights of London, in a way that could not be claimed by any other musical institution”.


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