Skip to main content

Collection Band Music from the Civil War Era

German, Irish, and Italian Influences

Band of the 8th New York State Militia [Detail]. Arlington, Va. June, 1861. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-B8184-4545. Call Number: LOT 4190E.

In American amateur brass bands the lines dividing social classes were not so sharply drawn as in British ones. Moreover, while Britons were expanding their empire abroad, they were not, as were their Anglo-American relatives, receiving foreigners at home. The immigration of the Germans, Irish, and Italians, among others, had a decisive influence on American popular culture in the 1850s.

While the all-brass band was predominant in America, it coexisted with some bands whose makeup was influenced by European immigrants with musical training. As early as 1852, the fashionable New York Seventh Regiment Band introduced woodwinds. Col. Emmons Clark reports the following:

In January, 1852, the engagement of Adkins's Washington Brass Band with the Seventh Regiment expired, and was not renewed. As there was no band in the city entirely satisfactory to the Regiment, it was proposed to organize a new military band. . . . Fortunately, the very best material for the purpose was to be found among the professional musicians of the German Musical society. . . . In April . . . the music committee was directed to make arrangements for a new band of forty-two musicians, and to contract for suitable uniforms and equipments. Thus originated the famous Seventh Regiment Band, the only band exclusively regimental at that period in the country. The leader and musical director was Noll, a distinguished musician, and the members were professional musicians carefully selected, and the new band used both brass and reed instruments in due proportion, and performed only modern and popular music of the highest order.16

We do not know why Adkins or his brass band fell out of favor, but along with him, the all-brass instrumentation of the New York Seventh Regiment Band was discarded.

Colonel Clark's reference to the German Musical Society and "both brass and reed instruments" immediately brings to mind the most important German bandmaster of the time: Friedrich Wilhelm Wieprecht. His seven-volume Königliche Preussische Armee Märsche, which contains full scores of his instrumentations "für die jetzige Stimmenbesetzung" ("for the present-day instrumentation") of selected works arranged in the chronological order of their composition from the mid-eighteenth century to 1853, represents the ultimate in German military band instrumentation of that period. The scoring is for the following instruments.

Woodwind and brass basses:

  • 2 bassoons ("Fagotts")
  • contrabassoon ("Contrafagott. Tritonikon. Sarrusophone")
  • bass tubas ("Bombardon. Helikon. Saxhorn Basso et
  • Contrabasso")

Brasses:

  • 4 trumpets in E-flat ("Trompeten")
  • 2 tenor trombones ("Zug-Posaunen im Tenor")
  • 2 bass trombones ("Zug-Posaunen im Bass")

Clarinets, including the highest woodwinds:

  • piccolo clarinet in A-flat ("kleine Clarinette")
  • 2 E-flat clarinets ("Mittel-Clarinetten")
  • 4 clarinets in B-flat ("Grosse Clarinetten")

High woodwinds:

  • piccolo in D-flat
  • 2 oboes

The basic saxhorn-Flügelhorn group, plus the French horns, and less the bass and high sopranos:

  • 2 sopranos in B-flat ("Hoch Flügelhörner. Saxhörner Soprano")
  • 2 altos in E-flat ("Alt Flügelhörner. Saxhörner Alto")
  • 2 Waldhorns in E-flat ("Waldhörner")
  • 2 tenor horns in B-flat ("Bass Flügelhörner. Saxhörner Tenore")
  • baritone ("Bariton-Tuba. Euphoneon. Saxhorn Baritone")

Percussion:

  • drums and cymbals ("Militair Trommel. Grosse Trommel mit Becken")

This is a large band, but forty-two men could do justice to Wieprecht's instrumentation, if that is what bandmaster Noll had in mind. It is likely that Wieprecht's international reputation as the reorganizer of the Prussian military bands made him a powerfully influential figure, particularly among those favorably disposed to things German. He was certainly known and respected in New York. And early in the war our Boston critic, Dwight, recommends him:

In Prussia there is a band master general, who organizes and controls the entire music of the Prussian army. Every band in the whole kingdom must conform, in numbers, in the selection and proportion of various instruments, in the particular structure, compass, pitch, &c., of each kind of instrument, to his unitary standard. He is thoroughly master of his subject, and probably knows more of the capacities of wind instruments and the best ways of combining them, so as to obtain the most effect, for every kind of service, than any man in Europe. Wieprecht is his name. He is preparing a treatise on wind instruments, which will be invaluable. Liszt and Berlioz, whose work on "Instrumentation" is well known, have owed much to Wieprecht.17

Drum Corps of the 30th Pennsylvania Infantry. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-B8184-B491. Call Number: LOT 4190D.

That is the German picture as it might have influenced Noll in the mid 1850s. But there was also the Italian influence. Francis Scala, leader of the U.S. Marine Band, had been brought to America about 1840 by the navy. He was a Neapolitan and, true to the custom of his homeland, held the clarinet to be the principal band instrument. He himself was a virtuoso on the E-flat clarinet. While he permitted some lively brasswind solos, mostly on what he often called the "Hippocorno," the E-flat clarinet stole the show. (The word "Hippocorno" is Scala's unique corruption of the term Ebor Corno, which was probably established by a New York bandmaster, Allen Dodworth, who dubbed a brasswind of the E-flat tenor horn family to which he applied some modifications the "New York Horn"--in Latin, the "Novo Eboracii Corno.") While it is impossible to fix the instrumentation of Scala's band, for it seems to have varied slightly from month to month, he had a clear idea of what it should be in principle. His conception was a traditional one, maintained in Italy throughout the nineteenth century. A good example is his arrangement of Giuseppe Verdi's I Due Foscari: Terzetto and Quartetto for a band of about twenty-eight men, dated July 4, 1856. It calls for:

  • E-flat flute (piccolo)
  • Clarinet solo (E-flat, Scala himself)
  • E-flat clarinets (2 divisi)
  • 1st clarinet ripieno (2 divisi)
  • 2d clarinet (2 divisi)
  • 3d clarinet (2 divisi)
  • E-flat cornets (2 divisi)
  • Cornopeans in B-flat (2 divisi)
  • French horns in F (2 divisi)
  • Ebor corno solo
  • Ebor cornos (2 divisi) Baritone
  • Tuba
  • Trumpets in F (2 divisi)
  • Trombones (3 divisi)
  • Small and bass drum

Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, who was born in Ireland and was to prove himself a true innovator in band instrumentation, is supposed to have introduced reeds into his brass band in 1859. It was not uncommon to use piccolos and clarinets to double the soprano brasses, so if this is all that Gilmore was doing, it was no innovation. However, we have an interesting account concerning Gilmore's band in 1862. A member of the 24th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry is reported to have written home of Gilmore's band: "[He] used to give some of the fashionable concerts we had at home and we lack nothing but the stringed instruments now. In their place however we have five reed instruments, of which no other can boast."18 This may suggest a family of reeds with the full range normally covered by the violin, viola, and cello. It is more likely, however, that strings in this context were thought of as purely melodic instruments. Yet it was probably Patrick Gilmore who made the most important contribution to the concert band in America before John Philip Sousa by eventually developing an instrumentation that enabled a large wind ensemble to produce effects comparable to a full orchestra at a time when American orchestras of high quality were scarce. Victor Herbert, Gilmore's successor, makes this interesting statement in an article published in 1895:

From the old bands which depended on the loud brasses and drums, all forced to their utmost to make the most noise possible, to the bands of the present day which interpret the works of the greatest so as to satisfy even the most exacting musician, has been a hard but glorious struggle up the steeps of Parnassus, and to Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore belongs most of the glory. . . . As the repertories of bands have increased, the demand for new tone-colour effects has caused new instruments to be made, so that to-day the composer or adapter has a wide range in registering. The use of compositions originally written for orchestras has caused a great increase in the wood-wind section of the bands--flutes, oboes, clarinets, and saxophones--of which every band should have a quartet--bassoons, and contrabassoons. These additions make the repertory of the band universal. The greater sustaining power of the wood-winds gives a beautiful richness of harmony, and relieves one from the torture of listening to the scratchiness of poorly played strings.19

Dwight himself, as early as 1868, confirms that Gilmore was doing something unique with the mixture of brass and woodwinds. In an issue of his Journal that year he prints a review of a concert from Chicago. It reads, in part: "The reed and wind effects of Gilmore's band were quite novel here, where it is so unusual to find more than the smallest possible assortment of instruments in the orchestra. So our people curiously enough 'went out to see' and hear 'reeds shaken in the wind.'"20

 Back to top