Marching Bands

views updated

Marching Bands

From regimental bands parading with and accompanying soldiers into battle during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, to the half-time spectacles of today's televised football games seen by millions, pulse-pounding march music rendered by colorful marching bands has been a part of America's heritage since the country's earliest days. Indeed, bands, parades, and Sousa's famous march, "The Stars and Stripes Forever," have come to symbolize freedom, democracy, and the good old United States of America itself.

The word "band" derives from the Latin bandum meaning "banner," and also "company" and "crowd." In popular usage "band" has come to mean any group of instruments, from jug to rock, but its specific meaning derives from the medieval musical ensemble of louder instruments, primarily brass, reeds, and percussion, geared for performance out-of-doors; this is in contrast to the "orchestra" of softer instruments, strings and woodwinds, performing in interior settings.

The New Grove Dictionary of American Music comments: "As with other areas of musical culture, European customs and traditions of band music were brought to America in the 17th century by the colonists. The snare drum was an important and necessary part of colonial life. It served not only to set the cadence for marching men but also to bear orders, warnings, and signals for both military and civilian activities. Whenever possible a fife, bagpipe, or other instrument was used to add melodic interest. These instruments, referred to as the 'field music,' were used primarily for functional purposes." Other precursors of the modern marching band were military/regi-mental bands, and the wind ensembles which performed mid-eighteenth-century court and household music throughout Europe.

Over several centuries, the band expanded from a small ensemble of reed instruments to its larger modern counterpart. An interest in Turkish (or janissary) music at the end of the eighteenth century added exotic percussion to the band's instrumentation, of which only the bass drum and cymbals (and sometimes a kettledrum) survive today. As existing instruments were refined, and new ones invented (such as Adolph Sax's saxophones in the mid-1800s), the band eventually grew to the grandiose ensembles of the late nineteenth century. The first all-brass band is thought to be the Boston Brass Band, first led by Edward Kendall in 1835. Key figures in the development of the modern band were Patrick S. Gilmore and John Philip Sousa, the latter dubbed America's "March King" and composer of the country's—and the world's—most famous marches. Sousa assumed leadership of the United States Marine Band in 1890, and formed his own world-famous "Sousa's Band" in 1892.

With the rise of jazz in the 1920s, public interest in traditional bands came to an end. But band music, along with such field music/militaristic traditions as color guards and precision/formation marching, not to mention majorettes and virtuoso baton twirling, soon found a home on America's campuses. Football half-time shows evolved into elaborate spectacles in which colleges vied to create the most unusual, exotic, and fantastic presentations; in a salute to pornography the Stanford University formation band spelled out "SMUT" in huge block letters at the 1972 Rose Bowl! With a few modern touches (such as lightweight, fiberglass sousaphones, and sometimes throngs of "extras" and perhaps even a celebrity "guest star" added for half-time), the marching band has again secured a traditional and apparently permanent place within the schools and universities of America.

Marching bands, parades, stirring marches, and their attendant symbolism have played a recurrent role in signifying America's traditions, patriotism, and exuberant emotions in many venues of serious and popular culture. Composer Charles Ives evoked a noisy holiday in his native New England when he scored different and overlapping tempi and rhythms to be played simultaneously, to create the effect of marching bands passing each other on the village green, in his innovative 1914 composition Three Places in New England. Other modern composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Samuel Barber have composed works specifically for concert band, and Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Symphonic Wind Ensemble popularized concert band music with their Mercury "Living Presence" high fidelity recording in the 1950s. In 1952 Clifton Web starred as Sousa in Stars and Stripes Forever, a film with one of the most unlikely Hollywood subplots ever: the story of invention of the sousaphone, a huge, tuba-like band instrument named after the maestro.

George Gershwin's late 1920s musical, Strike Up The Band, was revamped as a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musical in 1940, but other than the spirited title song, little else from the satiric Broadway original made it into the screen version. On 1950s Broadway Meredith Willson's hit, The Music Man, told the story of a personable con man fraudulently peddling musical instruments in the mid-west by convincing small towns that what they really needed to keep their young boys wholesome is a marching band. The hyperbolic imagery of the hit song, "Seventy-Six Trombones," the hustler's musical pitchline, was literalized in the finale of the 1962 film version. Parades as a symbol of all that is thrilling and meaningful in life, and even of the fatalistic progression of life itself, is a motif of several other Broadway songs: Funny Girl's "Don't Rain On My Parade," Sweet Charity's "I'm A Brass Band," and Hello, Dolly!'s "Before The Parade Passes By." In the 1969 film of Hello, Dolly! it took a marching band to accomplish what many film critics had previously deemed impossible: in one of the last and most spectacular production numbers ever staged for a Hollywood studio musical, a mightily expanded marching band, converging down a backlot version of New York's 14th Street, even managed to upstage Barbra Streisand!

—Ross Care

Further Reading:

Hitchcock, H. Wiley, and Stanley Sadie, editors. The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. London, Macmillian Press Ltd., New York, Grove's Dictionaries of Music, Inc., 1986

Scuro, Vincent. Presenting the Marching Band. New York, Dodd, Mead & Company. 1974.

About this article

Marching Bands

Updated About content Print Article