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Collection Band Music from the Civil War Era

Band Instruments

The phenomenal rise of the brass band in mid-nineteenth-century America can be better understood if we trace its antecedents and some of the technical developments that produced the type of brasswind family from soprano to bass that was the staple of our bands in the Civil War era.

The aristocracy of colonial America supported the kind of ensemble for which Mozart and Haydn wrote their divertimenti, serenades, Feldparthien, and other open-air music under royal patronage. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wished to establish such an ensemble at Monticello for the entertainment of his household and suggested instrumentation to improve the U.S. Marine Band. Clarinets and oboes carried the melodic line; natural horns and bassoons gave harmonic support. The same kind of band provided military music during the American Revolution and for at least three decades afterward. Thus in one sense the wind band, once the privilege of the European aristocracy, was gradually acquired, unceremoniously but intact and in an orderly fashion, by the American people for whom it became a symbol of their newly acquired social and political status as well as a source of entertainment. A reminiscence of one of the last vestiges of this tradition in America appears in an anonymous article entitled "The Boston Band" in the Boston Musical Gazette of July 25, 1838:

Full well do I remember when I first heard the sound of a Clarinet, French Horn and Bassoon: it was at a regimental muster, where I went with my father, as a spectator. It was reported all around the country for weeks beforehand, that the Boston Band was to be at muster, being hired at great expense by Capt. Taylor, the liberal and noble-spirited commander of the new troop of Cavalry. This band was all the topic of conversation among the boys, and many a luckless urchin had to do penance for listening to the wonderful stories of its performances, instead of attending to his task. I recollect that I was sent to mill, two miles distance, a day or two before the parade. I went whistling the Rogue's March all the way, which a famous old revolutionary fifer in our neighborhood had learnt to me. The crusty miller took off my bags; but I kept on whistling. "What the deuse ails ye, John, heh?" said he. "Capt. Dusty, ye goin to muster to hear the moosic?" I replied, and kept on whistling. "Hang your music! go to grass with your whistling!" cried the miller, as he shouldered my meal bags and carried them to the hopper. . . .

At length the wished-for day arrived, and a glorious day it was, most clear and bright. . . . we saw a brilliant company of high-horse prancing over the plain. When they had arrived within half a mile of the parade ground, they slackened pace, and the music struck up Washington's March. . . . The march was continued until the company came in front of the public house, when it halted, and Capt. Taylor gave orders for Yankee Doodle. This fairly bewitched the crowd, and they rent the air with huzzas. . . .

Capt. Taylor directed the musicians to continue their music for some time, which they did, and gave us several different tunes, one of which I perfectly recollect was St. Patrick's Day in the Morning. This was very pleasant to every one; but there was one man in particular, in the very centre of a dense group, that, the very instant they commenced it, set to dancing like a Dandy Jack, and kept it up until the tune was ended, to the no small amusement of all around. I had a curiosity to get sight at him, and crowding into the ring, behold! it was none other than my old miller, who had scolded so much about my music a day or two before. Both this man's parents were natives of Sweet Erin, and brought him to this country while a nursing infant. Just by way of remembrance, I cried out to him,--"So Capt. Dusty, you like the moosic?" "Hah! young spalpeen!" he replied, and they ceased playing.

Taste in music, as well as in almost every thing else, will have a change. These men, who, in their day, were considered first rate performers, would now be called but indifferent. Their number was only four. Belsted upon the Hautboy, Granger, (father of the late violinist), upon the Clarinet; the famous Peter Schminch, the French Horn; and old Dr. Faegnol, the Bassoon. It was said that Belsted played a fine violin. The first and two last belonged to Burgoyne's band, and were taken with him at Saratoga. I believe these musicians found constant employ in their vocation. They have gratified their thousands; they have had their day, and have gone down with the generations. Such was once the Boston Band.21

"A Bugler." Pencil drawing. Alfred R. Waud, artist. Created between 1860 and 1865. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-15164.

The melodic dependency of the band on the reed instruments was gradually undermined after 1810 when a Dubliner named Joseph Halliday introduced his keyed bugle. Like the earlier development of the chromatic woodwinds, in which the length of the bore, and hence the fundamental with its possible harmonics, could be instantly changed by opening or closing one or more keys, Halliday's invention was nothing new in principle. The keyed trumpet, for example, was already known. Halliday simply cut holes in the side of a bugle and provided lever-operated padded keys for opening and closing them to get a full chromatic scale.22 Without having any special claims to originality, he had produced a good instrument at the right time which found an immediate market. It was only a matter of time before a full family of such instruments was developed: the ophicleides.23

In America the chromatic horns had gained at least an equal footing with the woodwinds as principal instruments as far as bands were concerned by 1835; we now generally consider that year, in which the first all-brass bands are known to have been established, as the beginning of the so-called brass band era.

Of course, not everyone greeted this development with enthusiasm. As the brasswinds became more homogeneous in sound, the loss of a band with highly individualized members was, as we have learned from reading Dwight, lamented by some. This is made more evident in the following excerpt from an 1893 article by William R. Bayley in the Philadelphia Evening Star. Bayley, who was an active bandsman from 1833 to the 1890s, recalls:

The average bands [during the 1840s] consisted of fifteen pieces--two E-flat bugles, 1st and 2nd French horns (without valves), the post horn, and E-flat trumpet. We had the brilliant tone of the slide B-flat trombone and F-bass trombone for bass, ophecleide [sic] (brass), and the serpent (a wooden instrument with keys), cymbals, snare and bass drums.

At the risk of being considered old fashioned I have protested against the summary banishment of many of these instruments. I have contended that all change is not improvement. These instruments, differing in the principle of their construction, had a different quality of tone, and therein is the strength of my plea. Band instruments of today are much better made and easier to learn, but from the E-flat cornet to the E-flat bass they are all constructed on the same principle, and have therefore the same kind of tone, only deeper, of course, as they descend.24

The fact that Bayley, writing in 1893, speaks of the homogeneous brasswind instrumentation indicates that the brass band was still predominant, at least in his mind.

In the 1840s a Frenchman, Adolphe Sax, inventor of the familiar saxophone, was one of several makers who developed a family of chromatic valved bugles--eventually called saxhorns--that combined the qualities of even timbre throughout their range, accurate intonation, effectiveness as ensemble instruments, and a degree of facility that made them playable without extraordinary technical ability while, at the same time, having the capability of satisfying the demands of a virtuoso. Sax was by no means the first to work on a chromatic horn. Inventors in Europe and the British Isles had been working with varying degrees of success in key- and valve-system chromatic brasswinds before the beginning of the nineteenth century. But Sax's success was remarkably complete, owing in no small part to the fact that he produced a good set of instruments at just the right time.

Set of over-the-shoulder saxhorns from the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, Division of Musical Instruments. From left to right: E-flat soprano saxhorn, B-flat contralto saxhorn, E-flat tenor horn, B-flat bass (baritone), and E-flat bass (tuba).
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As well as being a good inventor, Sax was an equally good promoter of his own interests. If he had been able, he would probably have banished all but wind instruments from the orchestras of the Western world--preferably, all but those he invented. An amusing article by Sax found its way into Dwight's Journal by way of the London Musical Times. Originally printed in La France Musicale, it offers some of the following useful information under the headline "How Wind Instruments affect the Health."

Persons who practice wind instruments, are, in general, distinguished--and anybody can verify the statement--by a broad chest and shoulders, an unequivocal sign of vigor. In the travelling bands that pass through our cities, who has not seen women playing the horn, the cornet, the trumpet, and even the trombone and ophicleide, and noticed that they all enjoyed perfect health, and exhibited a considerable development of the thorax? In an orchestra a curious circumstance can be noticed; and that is the corpulence, the strength which the players of wind instruments exhibit, and the spare frames of the disciples of Paganini. The same may be said, with more reason, of pianists.25

There were other factors as well that favored the acceptance of the new chromatic brasswinds. For one, there was already a demand for them not so much among orchestral musicians as among military bandsmen and a large number of aspiring amateurs. Valve horns in the soprano register--the French cornet à pistons and the German soprano Flügelhorn--had already found a secure place in the bands of Europe, and an outstanding quintet of Englishmen, the Distins, was to publicize Sax's new family of horns through their widely successful public performances on the instruments. Thus, although families of saxhorns--and their German counterparts the Flügelhorns--were not destined to find a place in the orchestra they were to become standard band instruments for years to come, and not least of all in Great Britain and America, where, as we have noted, interest in the formation of amateur brass bands was growing at such a rate that by the mid-1850s it had reached the proportions of a significant popular movement.26

Moreover, the homogeneous quality of the saxhorn-type band and its carrying power in the outdoors were significant advantages. One writer who had heard a Canadian regimental band of the British type compared it unfavorably with the new all-brass style and was quoted in Dwight's Journal under the editor's magnanimous introductory remark that "happily all the world does not think alike":

In the afternoon there was a review of the 39th Regiment of the Champ de Mars, near the court house. Whether it was intended for a scientific display or not I am unable to say; but this much is due--it was a creditable exhibition. The music by the band was good, though not "putting the Boston bands to blush," as the correspondent of the Courier is pleased to say. On the contrary, the Brigade, or Brass, or Germania are, all three of them, quite as scientific and skillful. Last autumn, at the railroad jubilee ball, I heard this same band in contrast with Chandler's Portland Band; and those of your readers who were present at Bonsecours at the time will, I think, join me in giving to Chandler's the highest encomiums. The 39th band is large, but it has some dozen men blowing their breath away on clarinets, bassoons and flutes, to but little purpose. In short, it is a great waste of wind. The band is modelled as our Boston bands were fifteen years ago. Take away the inefficient reeds and give them tubas instead, and this Crimean band would crash out a mighty march; but now it wants body, as an Englishman would say of his beer. The melody is one grand squeak, sounding like the sesquialtra [sic] of the organ, and about as well adapted for melody as that stop would be with a swell accompaniment. There is a brilliance to the American bands not yet attained by the English, if this is a fair specimen of their proficiency.27

Battalion of Marine Corps. Washington Navy Yard. April, 1864. This detail showing the Marine Band may provide the best available record of the instrumentation of the band at the time. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-B8171-7698. Call Number: LOT 4190F.

Earlier, Dwight himself had expressed the contrary view: "A certain peculiar and pleasing effect invests [brass band] music, at first, but it is of a kind which lacks character and durability. For genuine enjoyment I would as soon listen to a Choral Symphony performed with flutes and the voices of eunuchs."28

But Dwight was also constructive in his criticisms and often balanced his invective with positive statements:

The more pathetic, the more human the music to be interpreted, the more cold and inadequate do the tones of these instruments appear. With all their mellowness and smoothness, with all their luscious commingling, they sound to us like soulless, watery, Undine-like natures; and while we have the perfect shape of the melody we loved, it still affects us somehow like its ghost. But when that "Hungarian March" was played, so full of sad, determined, truly moral heroism, who did not feel the fitness of the music to the organs that conveyed it, and a more real, although simpler, satisfaction.

The same criticism, or an analogous one, applies to this whole modern improvement in the construction of brass instruments; to the whole Sax-horn family, the valve-trumpet, &c., so softened down and made so smooth and flexible instead of the harsh, spirited, crackling blast of the old straight trumpet. That had character, if it was somewhat intractable; but these are somewhat emasculated in their gentleness.--But this opens a whole field of discussion, which we may not enter now.29

Later he reviews a concert and makes this comment on what he considers an appropriate type of music for brass: "The selections for the brass instruments were better than usual. That solemn old Chorale was just the thing for them; and the piece from Meyerbeer's 'Camp of Silesia' was quite stirring. Give us more Chorales, if you wish to edify us."30

Dwight's appreciation of the technical advantages of the new valve brasswinds is mitigated by his concern that the advantages lead to abuse:

It certainly cannot be questioned that the employment of valves greatly facilitates the performance of difficult passages in music. Of the truth of this we have sad evidence in the readiness with which half-fledged artists essay the execution of compositions wholly beyond their calibre of comprehension, on the one hand; and, on the other, in the performance, by virtuosos, of parts unfitted and never intended for the particular instruments they profess. But however much be gained in ease and rapidity of execution, the full equivalent, and more, is lost in quality of intonation. Like dampers upon vibrating strings, this multiplicity of valves and keys interferes with the free action of the metal and essentially dulls and deadens its tone. In confirmation of this, compare the unsatisfactory effect of the valve trombone with the richness of intonation that belongs to that noble instrument in its original form.31

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