In the fall of 1866, young Arthur Sullivan (he was just 24) got one of his first big breaks: The chance to show off his orchestra-conducting skills as the guest conductor in place of Herr August Manns at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham on September 17, 1866.
Sullivan excitedly wrote, “I am to conduct the Ballad Concert on behalf of Manns—it may lead to greater things.”
The Crystal Palace began its existence as The Great Exhibition of 1851, featuring a wide variety of exhibits of art, crafts, manufacturing, and novelty items from around the globe.
Presided over by Prince Albert, the Great Exhibition was originally built in Hyde Park where it was open for 6 months. It was such a success there that a new, permanent building was built in London’s Sydenham area, south of the Thames. The permanent building opened in 1854.
The Crystal Palace was a breathtaking combination of museum, trade show, and entertainment venue, complete with refreshment courts and – a special innovation in those days – public toilets.
An old-time printer marvels at the wonders of the Crystal Palace in this educational YouTube video.
It was the Place to Be from its opening in 1854 until the 1890s, when it began to fall into decline. The impressive iron-and-glass structure burned to the ground in 1936.
There were Egyptian, Roman, Renaissance, Greek and Pompeiian art exhibits. Giant dinosaur sculptures, displays of tropical fruit, handicrafts, and steam engines all could be found within the immense glass walls. Special events included a circus – the famous tightrope walker Blondin did a high-wire act inside the Crystal Palace that included him cooking an omelet 180 feet in the air above the crowd – the Shakespeare Tercentenary Festival, Christmas pantomimes, and weekly concerts at the 4,000-seat concert hall equipped with a complete concert orchestra and a 4,500-pipe Great Organ.
Here is a terrific collection of drawings, colored images and paintings of the exhibits (9 mins):
Beginning in 1855, Herr Manns took over the musical program at the Crystal Palace and stayed there until 1901. He expanded the orchestra from a small wind ensemble with an additional four string players into a full 34-person concert orchestra.
Manns was a mentor and friend to Sullivan for decades. He was the first to introduce Sullivan’s concert music to the English public, when he conducted Sullivan’s Tempest music – Sullivan’s first major work, consisting of incidental music designed to be played during Shakespeare’s The Tempest – in 1862.
The BBC radio show “In Our Time” has a 41-minute radio program on the Crystal Palace