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Collection Band Music from the Civil War Era

Post-Civil War Bands

Drum Corps of the 10th Veteran Reserve Corps [Detail], Washington, D.C., June 1865. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-B8171-7688. Call Number: LOT 4190G.
Bibliographic Information

At the close of the war many of the Yankee bands went home, perhaps to regroup as "civic" bands, as brassy as ever (much to the annoyance of John Sullivan Dwight, who resumed his antibrass campaign with his customary vigor), some to participate in a final victory celebration by marching in Washington or some hometown, or joining in the playing of The Star Spangled Banner for the flag-raising ceremony at Fort Sumter on April 14, 1865, hours before Lincoln's assassination.

During the war, the quality of military (brass) bands had improved, as Dwight himself acknowledged. "Everyone who walks our Boston streets," he wrote in 1862, "or who attends the war meetings, must have been struck with the great improvement in some of our Military bands of late. . . . The wonder is where so many musicians come from in these war times, and that while so many go off to the war, more that ever before seem to have sprung up at home."58 Moreover, with the end of the war there was for Patrick Gilmore, once Dwight's fair-haired boy, a golden opportunity to put his promotional genius to work. The specter of monster concerts, consisting of massed bands or instrumental forces impressive for their sheer number, had only peeked over the horizon when the war temporarily arrested its progress in the direction of full-scale looming. In Gilmore's famous "Peace Jubilee" concerts, where thousands of performers entertained simultaneously in a display of acoustic brute force before an audience almost as large as the legion of orchestral and choral talent that confronted it, Dwight found a newer and better target for his arsenal of invective. Gilmore, it seems, was intent on eclipsing the Dog Star of the brass band movement by the magnitude of his own monstrous novelty. Wrote Dwight in the January 16, 1869, issue of his Journal:

Our city has been o'er-full of music since the new year came in. We pity the man who undertook to hear the whole of it; it may be some one did so, on a wager, as now and then a valiant toper seeks immortality in drinking till he burst, or some spread-eagle patriot wheels a barrow from Providence to Boston when his party loses the election,--but of his fate we have not heard. Better wait, if ye have such an appetite for quantity, and, drinking the whole sonorous ocean at a draught, "go up" all together, gloriously, from bandmaster Gilmore's millenial tabernacle, over which, by earthquake shocks of harmony, the heavens, it is presumed, will open right up into the Paradise of Fools, where ye may dwell immortal!59

Band of the 107th U.S. Colored Infantry [Detail]. The men at the right hold E-flat tubas; those at the left carry E-flat Flügelhorns.
Arlington, Va., November 1865. Photo by William M. Smith, possibly at Fort Corcoran.
Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-B8171-7861.
Call Number: LOT 4190F.
Bibliographic Information

On this note, we might end the story of the heyday of the brass band movement in America--or begin any number of others. However, we feel that Dwight, who posthumously has been our virtual coauthor, should be given this opportunity to express the generous side of his nature more fairly:

It is easy to sneer at popular music, and to exalt the education of the ear to be derived from listening to classical or intricate compositions. But while the common people are the listeners to the concerts on the Common, and the class who patronize the great organ, the opera and the oratorio are away at Swampscott and Mount Washington, the preferences of the popular heart have a right to be consulted.60

We have dwelt on matters of popular music, a subject in which Dwight took a keen interest not as a historian but as a critic. Inevitably, his high standards together with his desire to raise the quality of popular music by raising the standards of its audience and vice versa led him to express himself in a style whose tone is often cantankerous. Yet few critics of art music today devote themselves to the improvement of popular, as opposed to genteel, taste as did Dwight, perhaps because it is now considered passé, patronizing, or simply a waste of time. The music historian, however, cannot neglect the social history of music. Consisting as so-called popular music does of much that is inferior to the works of the masters of Western art music, it nevertheless offers insights into both the manners and the taste of people for whom some of the greatest artists have offered their best works.

"Dickens," G. K. Chesterton wrote, "stands first as a defiant monument of what happens when a great literary genius has a literary taste akin to that of the community. . . . There was this vital point in his popularism, that there was no condescension in it. The belief that the rabble will only read rubbish can be read between the lines of all our contemporary writers, even of those writers whose rubbish the rabble reads. . . . Dickens never talked down to the people. He talked up to the people. . . . When I say that everybody understands Dickens I do not mean that he is suited to the untaught intelligence. I mean that he is so plain that even scholars can understand him."61 Any music historian should be able to supply the names of a number of composers to whom Chesterton's remarks, by analogy, apply.

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