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Signatures from the Boston Musicians Union constitution.
Signatures from the Boston Musicians Union constitution.Boston Public Library

Monday is Labor Day, first celebrated in New York City in 1882, subsequently made a federal holiday in 1894. The nationalization of Labor Day paralleled the evolution of labor unions from local into national organizations. Music followed suit: The 1890s were when musicians’ unions went national, too. But, as with other unions, the groundwork was laid on the local level — including in Boston.

The Boston Musicians Union was founded in October 1863 (a few months after the birth of the country’s first such organization, New York’s Mutual Musical Protection Service). The group’s handwritten constitution, preserved in the Boston Public Library, declared its mission: “to unite the Musicians of Boston and vicinity for the better protection of their professional interests.”

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Their objectives were twofold. There was a Relief Fund, benefitting any member “incapable (by sickness or accident) of attending to his business” (provided the incapacitation did not “arise from immoral or disreputable conduct”); and a Price List, setting rates for performance. The standard was $5 for one rehearsal and performance — $6 if tickets were more than 50 cents apiece. Special situations had their own stipulated pay. (A Christmas Eve gig, for instance, was set at $10, later raised to $12.) John Sullivan Dwight, the city’s leading music critic, lauded the fund but found “the dictation of uniform prices for the services alike of good and bad musicians” to be “more questionable.” But Dwight viewed music as a sacred calling. The men who formed the union were working freelancers, with more worldly concerns.

Benefit concerts for the Relief Fund put the union before the public. The first, in March 1865, featured Carl Zerrahn (longtime conductor of the Handel and Haydn Society) leading an orchestra of 90-plus players — an enormous ensemble at the time. If the repertoire epitomized Brahmin taste (Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was the program’s inevitable anchor), the players’ experience ran the gamut: theater pit bands, concert orchestras, chamber-music groups, brass bands. Dwight disdained Zerrahn’s decision to boost the finale of the Fifth with six trombones and three ophicleides, but that cohort reflected the city’s (and the union’s) musical demographics.

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At least one more gala benefit followed, but the union struggled throughout the 1870s. The Price List, in practice, was often compromised, partially due to non-union competition, partially to the fact that players themselves often doubled as hiring managers — an omnipresent conflict of interest. And the union’s administrative limits were exposed, indirectly, by two of the century’s largest musical events: the 1869 and 1872 Peace Jubilee festivals in Boston, organized by Patrick Gilmore, famous as a Civil War bandmaster for the 24th Massachusetts Regiment (who was also the first to sign the union’s constitution). Faced with an influx of out-of-town musicians — orchestras of hundreds and choruses of thousands were Jubilee trademarks — the Boston union, rather than attempt to coordinate with the patchwork of unions across the country, simply suspended activity during the festivals. (It was framed as a good-will gesture.)

It foreshadowed how the Boston Musicians Union — and local collectives like it — necessarily gave way to national organizations; the American Federation of Musicians (founded in 1896) eventually emerged as the standard-bearer, growing to be the largest musicians’ union in the world. (Nationalization didn’t always run smooth — in 1904, for example, Boston Symphony Orchestra members resigned from the union en masse in the face of BSO founder Henry Lee Higginson’s disapproval; the BSO would not fully unionize until 1942.) But those musicians in 1863 at least provided a start. After all, they would have known better than most, as their constitution put it, “that a number of individuals striving for the accomplishment of the same purpose are more likely to succeed when united together and acting in concert.”

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Matthew Guerrieri


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.