[John Watson] was by now a well-established violinist. His reputation was confirmed in 1875 with preparations for the celebration of a hundred years of American independence. The Centennial Exposition was to be held in Philadelphia, logically enough because that was where the Declaration of Independence had been signed. But New York refused to be left out. The New York Centennial Advisory Committee decided it was high time, as reported in the New York Times, to “awaken popular sentient on behalf of the national Centennial celebration.” The Committee organized a preview, scheduled for May 23rd, to spotlight New York’s elaborate involvement in the preparations.
The location: Steinway Hall, then the city’s premier site for noteworthy assemblies. Not quite a decade earlier, in 1866, Steinway & Sons had spent $200,000 to build the elegant building on 14th Street, then at the crossroads of New York commerce and culture. The hall always operated at a loss, but it did not need to make money; it served its purpose by showcasing Steinway pianos.
On the appointed date for the pre-Centennial bash, a select crowd packed Steinway Hall, abuzz with expectations. To be sure, there were competing attractions around town: “Macbeth” was playing at Booth’s Theater, “Twelve Temptations” at the Grand Opera House, “Lady of Lyons” at Wallack’s Theater, and the San Francisco Minstrels at the New Opera House. But Steinway Hall was the place to be that day, to prove that New Yorkers were unified in their patriotic fervor.
Hours later the New York partisans – civic leaders, cultural icons, merchant princes, representatives of the press – spilled out onto 14th Street, hailing hackney cabs, dodging lumbering drays and crowded omnibuses, chattering over plans for the year ahead. They were congratulating one another on how New York, the busiest and most prosperous city on the Eastern seaboard, would not be shy about playing a major role in the celebrations in Philadelphia. They were excited, too, over the music that had been a welcome counterpoint to all the speech-making.
The next morning the New York Times gave full coverage to the goings on at Steinway Hall the day before. The paper printed verbatim the florid speeches of the dignitaries called to the podium. The paper reported, too, on the entertainment that had thrilled the participants, a hint of what the city had in store for visitors in the coming year. “Several well-known artistes furnished the musical portion of the programme,” the Times trumpeted. The Adelphi Chorale Society raised its voices on high, and stirring numbers were performed by instrumental groups. Then the featured musical soloist, as reported by the Times, stepped to the footlights. “A violin solo by Prof. J. Jay Watson” hushed the audience, saluting the young country that had in a century triumphed over foreign empires, insurrections, and the challenges of taming a continent, and would welcome the future with unflagging optimism. As the final notes from John Watson’s violin vibrated through the hall, the challenge was clear: the observances to be mounted in Philadelphia had to be worthy of the grand Centennial. Gloucester’s violinist had sounded a rallying cry for New York and all the nation.
The New York Tribune reviewed the event in much the same tenor as the Times, adding that “the assemblage [in Steinway Hall] was very large.” The Tribune also reported that John was not the only member of the Watson household on stage. After the “Star Spangled Banner” was sung, “Miss Annie A. Watson, pianiste,” played a solo. Now twenty-five, Annie had achieved a level of piano artistry that earned her a place on one of Manhattan’s most prestigious concert stages.
For his part in the celebrations to be held a year later, John Watson composed a set of four “Centennial Waltzes,” the title sheet decorated with images of farmers, sailors, soldiers, gold miners, craftsmen, and supplicants from Africa and Asia at the feet of fair Columbia, offering their goods in trade. Certainly, the Centennial offered opportunities that would appeal to an enterprising musician like John Watson. But there was no opportunism here. John shared the pride of most Americans that the nation had come through its first century strong and healthy, confident that its best years lay ahead.