Brass Bands in the 1850s
We usually imagine the ornate Victorian gazebos that once were bandstands as belonging more in the fanciful and diminutive setting of toy railroads than to the leviathan of the industrial age that spawned them. Yet even when seen in an artificially serene context, those quaint nostalgic objects remind us of real, instead of toy, engines that were used not for recreation but to get to wherever there was a profit to be made as fast as possible. The bandstands, too, were not simply conjurings of small-town dreamers.
By the 1850s music in America was becoming big business. Both amateur and professional musical organizations were thriving. And the eminent Boston music journalist John Sullivan Dwight, together with numerous colleagues, was promoting, guiding, and frequently condemning popular music fashions in the course of reporting and polemicizing on the brass band movement in America before, during, and after the Civil War.
"When shall we have music for the People?" asks Dwight in 1852. "Music that all who will may hear, without money and without price; free to all ears, as the sparkling fountain on the [Boston] Common is, to all eyes."3 But by the following year he reports with a sense of growing horror on the development of a new kind of popular music-making that threatens to fulfill his dream with a vengeance nearly as cruel, one is led to suppose, as the curse on the sorcerer's apprentice. "All at once," he writes, "the idea of a Brass Band shot forth: and from this prolific germ sprang up a multitude of its kind in every part of the land, like the crop of iron men from the infernal seed of the dragon's teeth. And, as if the invention of new and deadlier implements of war, which came out about the same time, had hardened mens' hearts, all the softer companions of the savage science [the woodwinds] were banished."4 And later in the same issue he asks rhetorically: "Are the business and politics of the day so harsh, that the tones of our street music must, in correspondence, renounce all their sincerity and gentleness, and become mere bluster?"5 Indeed they must have, for three months later he reports on the summer concerts on the Common, with some chagrin: "The experiment succeeds beyond doubt or cavil," adding that "the music might be better, with larger and more especial organization, but under the circumstances it has been very good, and has been drunk in with every sign of attention and delight by a continually increasing crowd of listeners. There could not have been fewer than ten thousand persons, of all ages and classes, on the common the two last times."6 By the summer of 1857 Dwight is nearly beside himself. "How can we continue the discussion of Brass Bands," he complains, melting, we imagine, in the mid-August heat, "in such intensity of dog-days! It is aggravating to think of them. But the Promenade Concerts at the Music Hall go on, with more and more success, and prove what fine things might be done."7 The next week he adds: "We want volumes of sound, but not folio volumes."8
If the all-brass bands grate on Dwight's nerves, in combination with artillery and fireworks they offend both his sense of economy and his sense of smell. "The most noisy, rowdy, pop-gun and cracker-firing style of free expenditure" is his characterization of Fourth of July celebrations.9 And after announcing, apropos of Boston's annual anniversary celebration on September 17, that "nothing looms in the immediate distance but Mr. Burditt's monster brass band and cannonade concert,"10 he subsequently declines to review the event thus: "The windward position which we took, to avoid the smell of 'villainous saltpetre,' had an unfortunate effect on the music, so that we borrow the account of the Courier."11
Nothing, however, offends Dwight's sensibilities so much as the introduction of brass bands at serious occasions such as this one sponsored by his Alma Mater: "Last week we had commencement--commencement at old Harvard--and as usual, a Boston band assisted at the exercises. But--Ichabod!--the glory has departed. Brass, brass, brass,--nothing but brass."12
The bands that Dwight sought so consistently to reform or to have relegated to what he considered their proper place--the street--were what he called military as opposed to civil. And he ascribes to them not only a penchant for music of a warlike nature but dependence on the support of the military. "It is the military employment," he writes in 1856, "which creates and supports all our bands."13 In assessing Dwight's statement we must remember that bands, whether made up of full-time professional musicians or amateurs, were not part of the U.S. military before the Civil War era, the years during which Dwight wrote, and that they could be and indeed were supported in many ways other than by military officers. Band concerts were supported by private subscription, public funds administered by local elected officials, and, even during the Civil War, by private industry. In 1862 band concerts in New York's Central Park were paid for by the railroads to increase fare income by transporting out-of-town concertgoers.14 Indeed, the brass band movement in America warrants comparison, however cautious, with a parallel movement in Britain; for in America, as in industrial England, amateur bands were also formed by workingmen. Yet the differences, as will be seen, were great.