How Original Band Music Marginalized the Concert Band

concert band

An unidentified concert band, 2011.

When Patrick S. Gilmore took over leadership of the New York 22nd Regiment Band, he took it on a coast-to-coast tour. The age of the professional touring band had begun.

Like all bands before or contemporaneous with the Gilmore Band, as it soon became known, it performed a mix of music for popular entertainment and serious orchestral and operatic repertoire.

Music composed originally for concert band was limited to marches, music Gilmore’s soloists wrote for themselves, and other lighter fare by Gilmore himself. Gilmore’s great successor John Philip Sousa and all their notable contemporaries constructed comparable concert programs.

Not until the 1920s, after the heyday of the professional touring band had started its decline, did anyone think the concert band should have its own serious repertoire. Original band music did nothing to enhance critical opinions of the artistic merit of wind bands. In fact, the whole concept emerged at a time when audiences were starting to reject music of many well-known orchestral composers.

Gilmore’s and Sousa’s view of bands and orchestras

Gilmore concert band

Gilmore Band, Manhattan Beach 1884

Gilmore considered himself both an educator and entertainer. His educational efforts did not extend to trying to “elevate the musical taste” of the American population. He believed that he should perform music that the public could appreciate.

As for the operatic and symphonic repertoire he performed, he believed the wind band superior to the orchestra.

Figuratively speaking, the stringed orchestra is feminine; the military band masculine. The stringed orchestra may be as coarse as a very coarse woman, or made as refined as the most accomplished lady. So, to, the military band may remain like a rough street tramp, or he may undergo a polishing that will make a perfect gentleman, equally fit, from a critical stand-point to occupy the concert room with his more sensitive sister. This is what I have tried to make of my band. Someone may bring the stringed orchestra to such a degree of perfection as to make it a very queen among its kind, but my military band shall be king.”

Sousa concert band

Sousa Band, St. Louis Expo 1893

Gilmore was an accomplished cornetist. Sousa was a violinist, yet he, too, preferred a concert band to a symphonic orchestra, at least for contemporary music.

The string family, he wrote in his autobiography, was the most aesthetic of the instrument families, unequaled in “sentiment, glamour, register, unanimity of tonal facility and perfection in dexterity.”

Sousa Band souvenirBut the clarinet and other woodwinds surpassed the strings in “coquetry, humorous murmurs and the mimicry of animated nature” and the brass could “thunder forth a barbaric splendor of sound or intone the chants of the cathedral.” He noted that modern composers like Strauss (Johann Jr.) and Wagner had entrusted their most dramatic effects to the winds.

Therefore, he concluded, much modern music was “better adapted to a wind combination than to a string” even though composers wrote originally for orchestra. Like Gilmore, he considered the orchestra as feminine and the concert band as masculine. In other words, superior in the thinking of the mid 19th century, if not our own time.

No one, of course, informed composers that they were wasting their time writing parts for superfluous strings and should have composed for wind band instead! It seems odd that it did not occur to Gilmore, Sousa, or any other band director, either in America or Europe, to ask composers to write music especially for their bands.

Dvořák lived in the US from 1892 to 1895. Gilmore died in 1892, but Sousa and any number of other band directors active during those years could have asked him for music.

American composers, who couldn’t get a hearing from the New York Philharmonic, probably would have jumped at the chance to compose for an ensemble that actually wanted to put their music before the public. One contemporary of Gilmore who complained loudly about being neglected, George Frederick Bristow, lived until 1898.

The Goldmans and new commissions.

record label Goldman concert band

Goldman Band record label

Edward Franko Goldman organized the New York Military Band in 1911. Everyone called it the Goldman band, and he eventually adopted that name officially. It resembled the then numerous touring bands in many ways, but did not tour.

It had the good fortune to be underwritten entirely by the Guggenheim Family Foundation throughout most of its life. It did not depend on ticket sales. The band survived both its founder and his son, but it could not survive the foundation’s decision not to be its sole source of support any more.

The Goldman Band won a nationwide reputation for excellence because its concerts were aired on national radio broadcasts. Expanding the concert band’s repertoire with original compositions was another of Goldman’s innovations.

In November 1919, Goldman announced a contest for the best original work for band. The judges, Percy Grainger and Victor Herbert, awarded the prize to A Chant from the Great Plains by Carl Busch, conductor of the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra.

The band gave the piece’s premiere performance on a concert on July 5, 1920, which was devoted entirely to the work of American composers. Of ten composers represented, seven were still living. Two others, Edward MacDowell and Ethelbert Nevin, had been alive and active within living memory. Unfortunately, Busch’s piece proved unsuccessful, but Goldman kept offering prizes and commissioned well-known composers, both European and American.

Despite the efforts of Gilmore, Sousa, and their contemporaries, the concert band did not have a reputation on par with the orchestra. By commissioning original works, Goldman believed that “the real Concert Band in the comparatively near future will reach a position of musical respectability and artistic excellence at least equal to the Symphony Orchestra, and perhaps superior to it.”

But none of the music captured public attention like the old masters of the orchestra had. Bands and their music have perhaps equaled the orchestra in artistic excellence, but they haven’t come close to its musical respectability

Composers whose music commonly appeared on orchestra concerts did not supply their best music for Goldman’s commissions and did not compose additional works for concert band.

The composers who wrote multiple pieces for band never became especially successful composers orchestra. The most successful (Walter Piston, Paul Creston, and Vincent Persichetti) did not write the kind of music audiences for band music really wanted to hear.

The piece Schoenberg provided illustrates the problem. Aside from a small group of enthusiasts, audiences in both Europe and America despised his atonal music. His music of the 1940s shows signs of returning to some kind of tonal stability. Indeed, two pieces, Variations on a Recitative, op. 40, for organ solo and Theme and Variations, op. 43, for band are in D minor and G minor respectively. Schoenberg quickly transcribed the band piece for orchestra.

If Schoenberg had been a good composer working in an unpopular style, these two pieces should have met with as much popular approval as his early Verklärte Nachte. They didn’t. Goldman programmed more and more new music as orchestras programmed less and less. He even insisted on programming marches and other more popular music only on the second half of his concerts.

After Edward Franko Goldman died, his son Richard Franko Goldman assumed leadership of the band and continued to stimulate composition of new original band music. Of all the band directors mentioned, only he had a formal education in music, including some post-graduate coursework and composition lessons from Nadia Boulanger and Wallingford Riegger.

He leaned even more to the “serious” side of concert band repertoire than his father. In fact, his idea of popular music for band was largely limited to Sousa and Suppé rather than any living, currently popular musicians.

Fennell, finishing what Goldman started

Eastman Wind Ensemble

Eastman Wind Ensemble

Frederick Fennell, founder of the Eastman Wind Ensemble, took the Goldmans’ demotion of orchestral and operatic literature one step further. Instead of reducing the number of transcriptions, he set out to eliminate them.

Instead of a large massed concert band, Fennell offered composers a collection of wind instruments from which they could choose for each piece much the way composers had always treated the orchestra.

Although the ensemble performed Sousa more than any other composer, the programs on the whole deliberately appealed to the minority of people in the US who had an active interest in new music. The ensemble’s members, not insignificantly, have never comprised professionals, but students. Its funding has always come from the institution. It has never been dependent on ticket sales.

In 1994, then conductor of the Eastman Wind Ensemble Donald Hunsberger wrote, “An increasing number of conductors, composers, and performers have moved away from the popular-culture aspects of the traditional concert or military band . . . As a result, the wind band moved far ahead of other types of performing ensembles in contemporary repertoire. In doing this, it has sometimes surpassed its audiences’ ability to comprehend contemporary music trends.” He was not apologizing or expressing regret.

Few professional concert bands still exist. Most bands, besides school bands, are either academic music department bands, which have completely embraced the wind ensemble concept, or community bands that have no other models. Many social and economic conditions helped cause the near death of the professional wind band. Only the repertoire accounts for the band’s cultural marginalization.

In the 19th century, when “classical” composers sought to produce music that would please their audiences, none of them wrote music for wind band. In the 20th century, when many composers have written for wind band, and a significant portion have devoted their careers to it, they have insisted on writing music they think the audience ought to like.

Chief source:
George W. Martin. Opera at the Bandstand, Then and Now. (Scarecrow Press, 2014)

Photo credits:
Concert band: Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Gilmore Band. Public domain.
Sousa Band. Public domain.
Sousa souvenir. Pubic domain, University of Illinois Archives.
Goldman record label. Public domain.
Eastman Wind Ensemble. Eastman School of Music


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