Composers Datebook®

Wagner's American Centennial commission


On today's date in 1876, America was celebrating its Centennial, and the place to be was in Philadelphia, where a Centennial Exhibition was in progress. Officially known as "The International Exhibition of Arts, Manufacturers and Products of the Soil and Mine," this was the first World's Fair to be held in the United States. It drew 9 million visitors—this at a time when the entire population of the U.S. was only 46 million.

The Exhibition had opened in May with a concert attended by President and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant. After "Hail to the Chief," the orchestra premiered a specially commissioned "Centennial March" by the famous German opera composer Richard Wagner. Wagner was paid $5000 for the commission, an astronomically high fee in those days. Wagner did not bother to attend the Philadelphia premiere, and privately told friends back in Germany: "Between you and me, the best thing about the march was the $5000 they paid me."

The following month, the French composer Jacques Offenbach arrived in Philadelphia to conduct his music at a specially constructed open-air pavilion. "They asked my permission to call it 'Offenbach Gardens,'" the composer later wrote. "How could I refuse?" The concertmaster of Offenbach's orchestra, by the way, was a 21-year old violinist from Washington, D.C. by the name of John Philip Sousa, who would go on to write some festive music of his own.

Music Played in Today's Program

Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883) American Centennial March Philip Jones Ensemble; Elgar Howarth, cond. London 414 149

On This Day


  • 1694 - French composer and organist, Louis Claude Daquin, in Paris

  • 1826 - American song composer Stephen Collins Foster, in Lawrenceville, Pa.

  • 1903 - Belgian composer and organist and teacher Flor Peeters, in Thielen


  • 1623 - English composer William Byrd, aged c. 80 (the exact date of his birth is not known) in Stondon, Essex


  • 1831 - The patriot hymn "America" (to the tune of the British patriotic song "God Save the King/Queen" with new words supplied by Samuel Francis Smith) sung by a children's choir at a Fourth of July service at the Park Street Church in Boston; This premiere performance is commonly (but incorrectly) listed as 1832

  • 1900 - final version of Sibelius: Symphony No. 1, in Stockholm by the Helsinki Philharmonic on tour, with Robert Kajanus conducting; An earlier version of the symphony had been premiered in Helsinki on April 26, 1899, with the same orchestra conducted by the composer

  • 1923 - R. Vaughan Williams: "English Folk Song Suite," in London, by the band of the Royal Military School of Music

  • 1964 - Piston: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire

  • 1983 - David Amram: "Honor Song for Sitting Bull" for cello and orchestra, by the Long Island Philharmonic, Christopher Keene conducting, and William Da Rosa the soloist


  • 1827 - Opening of "Niblo's Gardens," an important 19th century American concert venue, at Broadway and Prince Street in New York City

  • 1828 - The U.S. Marine Band first performed "Hail to the Chief" for a living President at the ground-breaking ceremony for the excavation of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal attended by President John Quincy Adams

  • 1986 - Amid fireworks and celebration, the Marine Band performed in New York City for the rededication of the Statue of Liberty, recreating the band's performance under John Philip Sousa for the original dedication ceremonies 100 years earlier

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®