Though the Boston Pops Orchestra was founded on April 30, 1885, it didn’t come into its own until Arthur Fiedler became its conductor in 1930. People didn’t even know it as the Pops wasn’t even the Pops at first: The orchestra played “Promenade Concerts” until 1900.
Henry Lee Higginson founded the Boston Pops four years after founding the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A wealthy Boston philanthropist, he also gave 31 acres of land to Harvard known as Soldiers Field in honor of his friends killed in the Civil War: Robert Gould Shaw, Charles Russell Lowell and James Jackson Lowell.
Higginson’s father was a well-to-do stockbroker who didn’t own his own house or horse until a few years before his death. Henry dropped out of Harvard because of eye fatigue and became a clerk in a small shipping company. Six years later he joined the Union Army and was wounded at the Battle of Aldie. He tried several careers but ultimately gave up and joined his father’s firm, Lee, Higginson & Co. By 1881 he was rich enough to hire an orchestra as good as any in Europe.
Arthur Fiedler Arrives
Higginson wrote of his desire to present “concerts of a lighter kind of music.” The Pops got started, but it didn’t thrive. It had 17 conductors until Arthur Fiedler came along.
Fiedler made the Boston Pops into a world-famous institution. He invented the free outdoor concert and a unique format that alternated light classics and popular music. His showmanship and sense of fun brought twirling double basses and inflatable sharks to the concert stage. He became Boston’s most famous resident, beloved by the city but not by the musicians.
Fiedler wanted to broaden the appeal of classical music and insisted the orchestra play popular tunes. He also introduced novelty numbers like Sleigh Ride by Leroy Anderson.
Below is a photograph of the 2008 Fourth of July concert on the Charles River Esplanade.
This story updated in 2022.