A Brief Historical Perspective of the Wind Band

Jeffrey Renshaw


The wind instruments of the 17th century were no more standardized in their use or construction than had been the string family with numerous round and flat backed examples. Giovanni Gabrieli (1557-1612), a leading member of the Venetian school of composers, published a collection of sixty-three works in a 1597 publication titled Sacre Symphoniae. The first of these compositions, Sonata pian e forte, is scored for two choirs of instruments independent of any vocal line including 2 alto trombones, 3 tenor trombones, bass trombone, cornett, and viola.


Scarlatti (1659-1725) established for all time the division of the string choir into a basic four-voice ensemble. His wind instruments included flutes, oboes, bassoons and trumpets and, for the first time, the horn. The first infantry bands were created for the regiments of Louis XIV consisting of massed double reed instruments. In Germany by the time of J. S. Bach, stadtmusikers or civil musicians provided music for solemn civic and academic occasions, festival seasons, weddings, births and funerals.


The wind section of George Frederick Handel’s (1685-1759) orchestra consisted of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns and trumpets. Christoph Gluck (1714-1787) admitted piccolo, clarinet, bass drum, triangle and cymbals to the orchestra for the first time. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) is the most important composer in the development of wind music between the death of Monteverdi and the first production of Wagner’s Ring of the Nebelung. Mozart scored the wind instruments differently than his predecessors. He selected each wind instrument with great care for its true musical identity and tone color. It was Mozart who gave us the true course for which music for concerted reed and brass instruments can be developed.


It was with Beethoven (1770-1827), Berlioz (1802-1869) and Wagner (1813-1883) that the modern wind band found its origins. With Beethoven the piccolo and contra-bassoon became standard instruments, the trombone began to appear with considerable frequency and the horn section was expanded to four parts. Berlioz’s Grand Treatise on Instrumentation (1844) served as a catalyst for expanding the wind sections of orchestras for a generation of composers including Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastic (1830) included 37 wind and percussion parts. Wagner’s orchestra at Bayreuth consisted of 16 reeds and 17 brass instruments.


The next step in the evolution of the windband came from the compositions of Richard Strauss (1864-1949), Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Individual tone colors of wind instruments became an intricate element in composition. The wind ensemble was often scored without the strings and even entire compositions were written for winds alone.


The first significant work for the windband in the twentieth century was by Gustav Holst (1874-1934). Holst’s First Suite for Band in E-flat was written the same year as Stravinsky’s Firebird. Works by Ralph Vaughan Williams and others soon followed and the modern band was concretely established. 


By the time John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) had left the United States Marine Band and established his own professional band the American concert band movement was in full swing. Sousa’s band of 75 wind, brass and percussion players established a sonority and performance practice that is still evident today.


With the First World War came the Renaissance in American instrumental music. Instrumental lessons began to be taught in the public schools. Colleges and Universities and Schools of Music offered further training. With these institutions came the bands. The University of Illinois Concert Band of 1938 placed 124 players on stage performing mostly orchestral transcriptions and the few original works composed for that medium.