On April 13, 1857 the Philharmonic Society of Brooklyn was formed by a group of wealthy Brooklynites.
Brooklyn’s population had grown to such an extent (266,000 by 1860) that it had become the third largest city in the country — large enough to have its own season of serious music.
Prior to the establishment of the Philharmonic, the earliest concert on record in Brooklyn took place in St. Ann’s Church, on Sands Street, in 1810, and was given under the auspices of the vestry for the benefit of the leader of the choir. Shortly afterward a musical society was organized called the “Panharmonic,” which after three performances passed into Brooklyn history.
Various prominent musicians visited the Heights at intervals up to the founding of the Philharmonic. After the Athenaeum was opened, recitals were given there by some noted musicians.
At the beginning, the new Philharmonic Society presented its concerts in the Athenaeum at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Clinton Street. This building had been constructed in the early 1850s to house a library, museum, reading room, lecture hall and “other means of promoting moral and intellectual improvement” for young men of comfortable means.
The following is a description of the Philharmonic’s first performance by James H. Callender in his book Yesterdays on Brooklyn Heights:
The first concert of the Philharmonic Society was given at the Athenaeum on November 14, 1857, with an orchestra of forty excellent musicians, the conductor being Theodore Eisfeld. The house was crowded and the concert was pronounced a perfect success. Theodore Thomas was for years its conductor and on rare occasions used to entrance the young generation leaving for a moment those heights on which his musical soul dwelt, playing the ‘Blue Danube,’ ‘After the Ball,’ and other compositions which were then accounted somewhat frivolous.
It was soon realized that the Athenaeum was too small and crowded, and in 1859 the group obtained a charter for a new organization, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and began to raise funds for construction of a concert hall. The site chosen was on Montague Street between Court and Clinton streets and it was there that the new 2,250 seat Academy was built and remained until it was destroyed by fire in 1903.
When the Philharmonic moved to the Academy of Music, its first concert there was given on Jan. 19, 1861, and among its enthusiastic audience, occupying one of the boxes, were Mrs. Abraham Lincoln and her two sons.