March forth! A brief look at American marches

March music has played a huge role in American popular culture. What’s a parade without marching bands? Or half time at a school football game? Would anyone want to listen to a Fourth of July concert, or a concert on any other patriotic occasion, without lots of marches? Is it even possible to imagine a band concert without at least one march?

The modern wind band began at the time of the French Revolution. After that, European nations developed infantry bands and mounted cavalry bands. Some nations developed highly centralized policies for the instrumentation of these bands. In any case, the military bands influenced the development of all other bands except the British brass band tradition.

The United States, on the other hand, preferred local militias to a strong national military. As a consequence, civilian bands, which served the militias among their other duties, developed without any attempt at standardization. That did not stop march composers from publishing their works, but marches appeared only as piano music. Each band-master worked out an arrangement for whatever instrumentation he had. At that time, most music publishers had only a local market, so few marches enjoyed wide circulation. Even those have not remained in the repertoire.

Marches by John Philip Sousa exemplify the American march today. Sousa took a historically mediocre U. S. Marine Band and made it into one of the nation’s leading performing ensembles. He then formed his own touring band, which became instantly successful, and led it the rest of his life. Bands like Sousa’s, and there were dozens of excellent ones, dominated concert life in American popular culture. In fact, the dominance of professional wind bands died at about the same time Sousa did. The combination of the economic stresses of the Great Depression and competition from newer forms of popular entertainment proved lethal.

From “Review” (1873) to “The Northern Pines” (1931), Sousa composed 136 marches, along with a vast quantity of other music. His single most popular march is probably “Stars and Stripes Forever,” but he wrote plenty of other favorites, including “Semper Fideles” (the official march of the U.S. Marine Corps), “El Capitan,” “The Washington Post,” “The Liberty Bell,” “Hands across the Sea,” and “King Cotton.” His marches present opportunities for every section of the band to display dazzling virtuosity and exhibit a surprising diversity of rhythms.

Although Sousa probably composed more of the current American march repertoire than any other composer, bands still play plenty of wonderful marches by others. To mention only American marches, “National Emblem” by Edwin E. Bagley, “American Patrol” by W. Frank Meacham, and “Anchors Aweigh” by Charles Zimmerman rival Sousa’s best marches in popularity. Robert B. Hall’s wonderful “Tenth Regiment” may not be well known by that name, but as “Death or Glory” it is among the most popular marches for brass band in Great Britain. Other notable American march composers include Karl King and Henry Fillmore.

But perhaps the composer second in importance to Sousa is Edwin Franko Goldman. He founded his New York Military Band in 1911, a time when professional bands remained very popular and successful. In 1920 it became known as the Goldman Band. Goldman initially recruited members from the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. The band did not tour, but developed a national reputation from its radio broadcasts. That may be one reason it survived the demise of so many other notable bands in the 1930s.

Like Sousa’ marches, Goldman’s exhibit both instrumental and compositional virtuosity. The names of Goldman’s marches do not come to mind as immediately as Sousa’s, but “Bugles and Drums,” “Illinois March,” “Children’s March,” “The Interlochen Bowl,” “Onward and Upward,” and “Boy Scouts of America,” among others, remain staples of the repertoire. No later composer has come close to matching the importance of the composers mentioned in this post for either the quantity or quality of their marches.


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