Sacramento’s Musical Past


Sacramento’s live-music scene is in a crescendo phase. Local bands rattle the walls at nightclubs, the Sacramento Philharmonic soothes cultured ears in the Community Center Theater and later this month, the city erupts with its biggest annual musical bash: the Jazz Jubilee.

We have come a long way since April 16, 1850, when European pianist Henri Herz prepared to give the first musical concert in the Gold Rush town’s history.

As the hour approached for the concert, the tickets were sold, the house was crowded, the artist was at his post, and everything (was) in readiness except the piano, (which) had not yet arrived, the San Francisco Chronicle recounted a couple of years later. Herz looked at his rough and bearded auditory with trepidation.

What if the gold-digging dilettanti should take it into their heads to give him a taste of revolver or bowie knife, by the way of filling up the time? Heavy drops of perspiration stood on the frightened pianist’s brow, and he began to wish himself in China, or anywhere but California.

Finally, a grand piano was brought into New Hall at Front and M streets and placed before Herz, who, without a proper piano bench, was forced to sit on an empty whiskey barrel. With a flourish, he banged the keys to begin. No sound emerged. Turns out, the box that had contained the piano for its journey from San Francisco had at various times been floated and became waterlogged. No one had thought to drain the piano before it was placed on stage.

News did not travel fast in those days, which might explain why a few other European stars agreed to perform here in the 1850s, including opera singer Madame Anna Bishop and Norwegian violinist Ole Bornemann Bull.

The town’s first music store opened in 1853 at 155 J St. A year later, German and Swiss immigrants formed a singing society, the Turner Harmonie, that performs to this day. And the Sacramento Union Brass Band formed in 1857. They are at all times prepared to furnish music, either brass or string, for balls, parties, processions, excursions, festivals, etc., proclaimed an advertisement for the band in The Sacramento Bee.

Irish mezzo-soprano Catherine Hayes gave the town’s most famous early concert on Feb. 8, 1853, at the Orleans Hotel, where the right to choose the first seat was auctioned for $1,200 to Sutter Rifles (an all-volunteer military company) and presented to John A. Sutter himself. The setting left something to be desired, however, according to a Sacramento Union report the next day. It is not only miserably adapted for sound, but it is inconvenient, ill-shaped, and the floor covered with fine particles of dust, which, on the slightest movement, rises in a thick cloud, to the great annoyance of all present, besides embarrassing very greatly the artist.