Before radio the sounds most often heard and applauded were those of the wind bands. Often labeled “military bands” due to their smart dress uniforms, their traditional association with the martial music of warfare, and the relationship some had with actual militia or regimental companies, these ensembles could be found in all but the smallest of hamlets performing at public ceremonies and militia musters, in parades, and for civic gatherings. The more adept were often semi-professional, seeking jobs at local festivals, dances, rural outings, political rallies, and offering their services for private parties and serenades. With business backing some, able to secure the finest players here and abroad, became full-time concert bands of fifty to sixty-five pieces undertaking tours, attracting prestigious invitations to well-publicized fairs and expositions, and enjoying lucrative engagements at fashionable summer resorts.
At their height of popularity, between 1890 and 1920, they essayed transcribed overtures and symphonic or operatic excerpts, featured soprano and instrumental solos, light descriptive, character, and novelty pieces, medleys from operettas and musical shows, marches, waltzes, two-steps, ragtime numbers (These more rhythmic selections often became big hits, setting audiences dancing and humming, whistling, or singing their strains), and arrangements of pop songs. The latter were cast as fantasies or rendered in a simple and straightforward but full-bodied style. John Philip Sousa made a sensation at the 1893 Columbian Exposition and bolstered the popularity of his new band by performing After the Ball and other current ‘Tin-Pan-Alley’ favorites. Later his concerts would include ragtime and sing-along medleys of the latest hits. Arthur Pryor and Patrick Conway, leaders who achieved similar success, programmed an even greater proportion of popular music and novelties.
Many bandmasters, Sousa, Pryor, David Wallis Reeves, and Charles William Bennett among them, created their own material, setting the style of their organizations, and some cultivated writing talent within them. From the 1880s and 1890s bands were able to draw on an increasing supply of published music, but the most successful kept their libraries fresh by commissioning special scores from a number of established professional composer-arrangers. Harry Prendiville, Louis-Philippe Laurendeau, Theodore Moses Tobani, Thomas Rollinson, Herman Bellstedt, Vincent Safranek, Frank Losey, William Christopher O’Hare and later Harry Alford, Mayhew Lake, Karl King, Peter Buys, and Erik Leidzen are some of the men who made reputations writing for specific ensembles or for publishers catering to the wind band trade. And from England Dan Godfrey, from Germany Franz Von Blon, and James Ord Hume of Scotland contributed substantially to the literature.
The military band developed in 17th century Germany and France, and small groups of oboes, clarinets, horns, bassoons, and sometimes trumpets, flutes, or a serpent arrived in the colonial United States after 1750 with British officer corps, playing concerts for entertainment and providing dance music for balls in addition to regular regimental music duties. The American Revolution stimulated the organization of native military ensembles and it is known that some continued to perform after the war. From 1806 civilian bands were formed in towns and cities of the northeast and populous southern areas where appropriate tutelage was available. The European invention of keyed brass instruments in sets greatly extended their range and flexibility and facilitated instruction, leading to a widespread vogue, from the 1830s, for exclusively brass bands. Consisting of five to sixteen musicians playing marches, hymns, popular and operatic airs(often given a theme and variations treatment to feature a particular soloist), waltzes, polkas, and quicksteps, by mid-century they had become vital to the civic and social functioning of urban areas and numerous smaller communities. At the onset of military hostilities in 1861 many enlisted as units and received assignments with local divisions. Civil War service brought together bandsmen of different states and various heritages, allowing them to swap scores, trade tips on technique, and absorb one another’s musical traditions. Bands emerged from the conflict as living symbols of American patriotism, democracy, national unity, and close-knit fraternalism. Soon they were everywhere – town bands of up to twenty-five pieces, itinerant circus bands of sometimes greater size, smaller factory bands, lodge bands, ethnic bands, family bands, sodality bands, ladies bands – all took their place with the military bands and the large ‘name’ concert outfits in the fifty years following the war. It is estimated that by 1910 there were over eighteen thousand wind bands in this country.
The earlier ensembles played from manuscript arrangements by their leaders. There was little printed band music available before the Civil War, and what could be brought in from England or Europe was guarded and cherished. Music was transmitted and shared when members of one band were allowed to hand-copy the parts of another. The more able and ambitious organizations, such as the Dodworth’s of New York City, made transcriptions of sections of symphonies and operas and added them to their lighter and more popular fare. Claudio Grafulla, conductor of another New York unit, was perhaps the first to arrange regularly for other bands as well. After the war it became quite common for a single bandmaster to train, conduct, and write for three or four simultaneously.
Patrick Gilmore painstakingly assembled an international collection of the finest scores for his band. Drawing on this, with a knowledge of and fascination with the practices of the best continental bands, an insistence on fine musicianship, a love of great music, a taste for showmanship and spectacle, and the largesse of officers with the New York militia’s Twenty-Second Regiment, Gilmore first re-settled the woodwind section as an integral part of the brass ensemble, then established the wind band as a serious concert-giving organization, proved its worth as a full-time commercial proposition, and ordained it as a successful touring attraction both in the U.S. and in Europe. His book remained unequalled and unsurpassed until the great 20th century libraries of Sousa, Pryor, and Edwin Franko Goldman. The influential and wide-ranging performances of these and other ‘name’ outfits fired the aspirations of lesser units that fueled the foundation and growth of publishing houses specializing in band literature. John Stratton, A.E. Squire, Lyon and Healy, Carl Fischer, Fillmore Brothers, Frankenfield, Rudolf Wurlitzer, C.L. Barnhouse, Church, Cundy, Southwell, Bovaco, and other firms issued marches, dances, instruction manuals, then, from the 1880s, longer transcriptions of standard overtures, opera excerpts, movements from symphonies, accompanied solos, next character and novelty intermezzos, musical show medleys, and finally, well into the 20th century, original concert works, graded educational pieces, and pop tune arrangements.
The wind band provided the ground for the development of ragtime and jazz, but by the 1920s its popularity was in decline. One by one its great touring organizations ceased operation as the public increasingly turned to records, radio, movies, and the new dance orchestras for musical entertainment. With that decade however came its enshrinement in the American educational system as public schools instituted formal instrumental music programs. From these would emerge the men and women who would staff the many fine dance bands of the swing era and after.
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