The History of the Festival

Travel through a pictorial timeline of Festival historical highlights.

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Since the 1830s, throngs of Chicagoans and tourists from around the world have gathered in Grant Park. Among the park’s great treasures, the Grant Park Music Festival has been a beloved summer tradition, from its origins in the 1930s to its 21st century starring role in Millennium Park.

The fascinating transformation of Chicago’s lakefront is mirrored in the epic history of the city’s beloved downtown, open-air classical music tradition: the Grant Park Music Festival.

The Festival Begins

Since its inception in 1935, the Festival has been a treasured part of Chicago’s cultural landscape, presenting inventive music programs performed by its resident Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus as well as a wide array of world-class guest artists.

How did it all begin? The seeds were sown by foresighted Chicagoans who, over the course of the city’s first 100 years, protected the lakefront and engineered the civic marvel we now know as Grant Park. The creation and celebration of Chicago’s “front yard” was a key step in the march toward a civic center that could host large cultural celebrations.

In 1931, the Chicago Band Association offered to form a band to play free concerts— provided Chicago’s South Park Commissioners built them a band shell. This original venue was built in Grant Park in 1931, during the tenure of Mayor Anton Cermak.

The Festival was born, however, when the Great Depression put many Americans out of work, including musicians. Labor organizer James C. Petrillo, leader of the Chicago chapter of the Federation of Musicians, saw an opportunity to put unemployed musicians to work in the context of a public works program that had a widespread cultural impact. The Festival, then known as the Grant Park Concerts, debuted in 1935.

Rich Cultural Legacy

The Festival’s rich history and the cultural context with which it intersected include the great Chicago fire, the creation and development of Grant Park, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the turmoil of the 1960s, the revival of downtown, and the creation of Chicago’s twenty-first century landmark, Millennium Park. These fascinating intersections are fully explored in Sounds of Chicago’s Lakefront, a 248-page book authored by Tony Macaluso, Julia S. Bachrach, and Neal Samors. The book features interviews with more than fifty musicians, conductors, composers, architects, and cultural leaders and hundreds of never before published photographs.

Over the past 75+ seasons, the Festival brought many world-class guest artists to play with the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus. The most famous concerts include the appearances of Lily Pons in 1937 and 1939 and Van Cliburn in 1958 and 1994. But there were many other major events that brought out huge and appreciate crowds, including performances by Mario Lanza, Rudy Vallee, Jascha Heifetz, Paul Robeson, Aaron Copland, Mitch Miller, Alfred Brendel, Marian Anderson, Leonard Bernstein, Kathleen Battle, the Joffrey Ballet, Pinchas Zukerman, Krzysztof Penderecki, and the Paris Opera Ballet.

A New Millennium

In 2004, Millennium Park opened and the Grant Park Music Festival moved in to the state-of-the-art Jay Pritzker Pavilion designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry.

Over the past decade, under the leadership of Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Carlos Kalmar and Chorus Director Christopher Bell, the Grant Park Music Festival has established a reputation for providing adventurous programming at world-class standards, in an environment welcoming and accessible to all.

The Festival operates today as a unique collaboration among the Grant Park Orchestral Association, the Chicago Park District and the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.