The Wind Band in America - a personal view

Frederick Fennell


The history of the wind band at its beginnings before and during the American Revolution has been immaculately, accurately, and completely documented by America's premiere authority on the subject, Raoul Camus, in his book Military Music of the American Revolution, copyright 1976 by the University of North Carolina Press.


The whole story is here and to read it is to experience a sharp jolt in anybody's comprehension of these beginnings followed by the quick question: why did such a going start comparatively fall short of its promise to the development of civilian groups?

When General Washington braved the Delaware river's ice to attack the Hessian troops on the day after Christmas 1776, two of his prize captives were small bands, a total of nine players, probably akin to the instrumentation of the harmoniemuzik. I loved my boyhood romantic idea that the instruments were carried away after the battle and became part of a Continental Army Band; wrong, they stayed with their Hessian players who
appeared publicly in Philadelphia.

But the bands we have are where we came from, and as with all wind groups, wherever, its players and leaders awaited the continual development of the reed and brass instruments, the passing of the keyed bugle and the revolution of the valve, new systems for old instruments, and the arrival of Adolphe Sax. Brass bands with the snare drum, cymbals, and bass drum, the horns played with the bell over the shoulder were very present in
both the Union and Confederate armies.

Meanwhile, and earlier back in Europe, a Berlin violinist named Wilhelm Wieprecht (1802-1872) abandoned that career in favor of a military  appointment as a Prussian Bandmaster, exchanging clappers for valves and urging the development of the fore-runner of the modern tuba, hence creating today's wind band by way of his successful brass cavalry band. And the reeds finally found their perfectors at the hands of Boehm, Klose, and Buffet.

Back in the United States things were far from being united as the Confederate States of America and the United States were locked into our violent Civil War. While it raged, the male population of the old united country steadily decreased. Somehow, there had been enough brass band activity prior to 1861 to provide groups seen in photographs and listed with military unites of both armies. When the war ended, the inevitable desire to
meet with old comrades led to vast gatherings at which the spirit of the occasion was heightened by the presence and playing of many bands which had stayed together. Many also found a home as the town band all across the once-again-United States of America.

Gazebos and band stands prang up in the parks and town centers that quickly became gathering places where the people enjoyed the pleasure of listening to music and on a scale perhaps not available until there were musicians to play it. The recent war had also hastened the nation-wide creation of the great era of the American railroads. These shining highways to everywhere became home to traveling musicians in the orchestras and bands which spread the gospel of melodious entertainment wherever they played, presenting music in-the-flesh to countless people probably for the first time. Personalities became famous and the cause of music performance had come to America to stay. And it was a grand era for bands, for the companies which began the manufacture of band instruments and those who began the music publishing industry.

When the United States entered the First World War in 1917 and somebody in the army took a close look at the French Table of Organization that our army had adopted, that close look told that were totally unprepared to provide as many bands as that Table prescribed. Much of the instrumental material that was produced for those bands was not used when the war ended in 1918. But there had been this maximum effort in publishing and manufacture.

At this same time, dedicated and talented music leaders who sought approval from governing Associations for the teaching of instrumental music during the hours of school finally won this approval, creating with this effort the beginning of America's Public Music Education program.
America's military bands began with the organization 202 years ago of the United States Marine Band, an ensemble that has functioned uninterruptively to today, always presenting music of highest quality. Joined in this same dedication is the U.S. Navy Band, the Army Band, the Air Force Band, and finally the United States Coast Guard Band; all represent the ultimate in performance of all music and superb presentations of their military duties. These bands and other similarly attached units spread throughout the Republic are at the top of performance, representing the best in American Band presentation.

Music's happy partner in the arts has always been the theater. All that has been stated here about bands, gazebos, and railroads had its counterpart in the opera house, music theater, choral societies, chamber music, and ballrooms for dancing. The American symphony orchestra began to stir from its complacency, and a few conservatories for the serious study of music as an art form were started by those who cared. The motion picture theater projected a new art form as well as films the people clamored to see; and when the film began to speak above its music, there followed the first employment crisis for the player; it was pictured in those empty theater pits once filled with musicians.

But it wasn't all that bad for all the violin-playing leaders and conductors who worked until vaudeville died; before that, many pit musicians had secured a proper document attesting to their education and experience as professional musicians which they believed qualified them to teach music in the public schools. School orchestras preceded bands. But the impact on the public of all those shining instruments and attractive uniforms together with that infectious music played as they marched down the street hastened the development on a gigantic scale of he sit-down school band, soon to have its own room for rehearsal complete with trophy cases emblematic of the band's prowess. Some of the most effective organizers, promoters, and conductors of these groups had led life – until recently, in the theater pit.

All of this led quickly to the inevitable competition, a period between the middle twenties through the thirties during which every aspect of band activity saw the rise of a factory and publishing house to satisfy its needs. Personalities emerged along with men possessed with the gift of teaching the youth of America about instrumental performance and music as an art which they were capable of expressing. As band activity continued
to spread, many of its conductors began to seek the example of music groups that had existed long before the schools had their band. They found the shining example not in New York City or Chicago, but deep in the middle of the corn fields of the state of Illinois. Here at the University of Champaign-Urbana, there had existed since 1905, Albert Austin Harding's master program for bands at the University of Illinois.
Here was the example: music of high quality and challenge, performances to match that, organization found within the personnel, reward for presence, quality instruction from full-time section leaders, imaginative and inspiring conducting, pride in musicianship.

One more time our country would be drawn into warfare; this time it was an international conflict, and when that was settled the collegiate scene would explode! Normal bands became Universities, graduate schools sprung up everywhere to accommodate men who survived the service, were considerably more mature and ready for a school free of financial worries, thanks to the "G.I. Bill".

All of this had a profound and positive effect on behalf of band development. The returning G.I. had "played and replayed it all", some for as long as three years, frequently expressing their preference to play chamber or brass ensemble music. Band leadership at the collegiate level became organized nationally seeking solution to some of its fresh questions. Among the many there would be the growing absence of interest in the band – by whatever name as a creative ensemble by the composer, worldwide, a condition reaching back as far as the inception of the band itself. As the years sped by this issue grew in importance ahead of all of he wind band's challenges.

As the millennium arrived it finally had found its place on the writing desk of composers everywhere, and as the colleges and universities had contributed in a variety of significant ways to that achievement. At midtwentieth century the Eastman School of Music's Wind Ensemble began to offer a fresh view of instrumental concepts, a wide look at repertory, and a total commitment to professional standards of performance. This was
offered in its first decade through 22 long-play recordings – a gift to the band from the world of technology performed by professional students; the work goes on. Entering year 2000 this glance back to where we began affords us the healthy feeling of the much there is still to be done in a future that is truly bright, thanks to all who have made it possible.