Before television, movies, radio, or sound recordings, people either had to learn to play musical instruments or attend concerts to experience music. Wind bands provided the majority of concerts. In the golden age of American wind bands, none was as successful and well known as Sousa’s Band.
John Philip Sousa gained the experience and reputation needed to start a successful touring band as leader of the U.S. Marine Corps Band, America’s oldest professional musical ensemble. Before Sousa, it functioned as little more than Washington, DC’s town band. In his twelve years of service, Sousa transformed it to a nationally recognized band.
Under his leadership, the Marine Band started recording for the Columbia Record company. Sousa’s marches became some of the earliest hit records.
After years of trying, Sousa obtained permission to take it on tour. He hired David Blaikley, the former manager of the Gilmore Band, to organize the first tour throughout the Midwest. Its success encouraged a second tour that took the band as far as San Francisco. The success of that tour directly led to the end of Sousa’s leadership of the Marine Band and the formation of Sousa’s Band. Continue reading →
Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming: a last rose in the snow in Skandia (photographer’s title and description) / yooperann via Flickr
No one knows who wrote either the German text or the tune of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” According to legend, a monk near the Rhineland city of Trier found a rose blooming one Christmas Eve, plucked it, and put it in a vase on an altar devoted to the Virgin Mary. The poem “Es is ein Ros entsprungen” may have been written as early as the 15th century, but the earliest extant version appeared in the late 16th century.
At the time, the Protestant Reformation roiled Europe in general and Germany in particular. Catholic and Lutheran publishers issued slightly different versions of the text, paired with the tune we know and love today. I say slightly different, but the change of two lines clearly shows a theological gulf. Just whom does the rose symbolize? Continue reading →
Early printing of Hail Columbia, with a portrait of President John Adams
“Hail Columbia” is not a well-known song today, but it has a prominent place in American history. It became a hit immediately after its first performance and remained popular for more than a century.
Of all patriotic songs before the Civil War, only “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America” rivaled “Hail Columbia” in popularity. The former uses the old English drinking song “Anacreon in Heaven” and the latter the English national anthem “God Save the King.”
Oscar Sonneck, who examined these and many of the patriotic songs that never caught on with the public, noted, “”’Hail Columbia’ holds a position quite unique in the history of our national songs for both the words and the music were written in America.”
The word “Columbia” obviously comes from the name Christopher Columbus. The District of Columbia and Columbia University share the name. Columbia is a lady, by the way. Continue reading →
The United States Marine Band is the oldest professional musical organization in the country. John Philip Sousa, its most famous leader, elevated it from a town band in Washington D.C. to a national touring band.
In exploring Sousa’s accomplishments, it is necessary to describe the history of the Marine Band. As it turns out, the band would not have needed a leader of Sousa’s qualifications without the previous efforts of another remarkable musician, Francis Scala. Continue reading →
Initial trumpet notes from Fanfare for the Common Man, at Copland’s Memorial Garden, Tanglewood Music Center, Stockbridge, Massachusetts / Francis Helminski via Wikimedia Commons
Trumpet flourishes announced important events and lent dignity to government officials as early as the Middle Ages. Only in the time of Napoleon did anyone recognize an opportunity to compose fanfare music instead of relying on trumpets’ random blaring to make noise. Very few fanfares have entered the symphonic repertoire. Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” is preeminent among them.
At the outset of the Second World War, Eugene Goosens decided to start each concert of the 1942-1943 season with a patriotic fanfare. Copland contributed one of eighteen. No one considered these fanfares anything more than occasional music. “Fanfare for the Common Man” surpassed all expectations and became one of Copland’s best-known pieces. Continue reading →
The American Civil War inspired more great songs than any other conflict. George Frederick Root composed a large share of them. Some of them are rousing patriotic tunes, such as Battle Cry of Freedom. But he also composed songs about the devastating impact of the war on American families.
“Just Before the Battle, Mother” is one of the earliest of these. It became such a great hit that it inspired many other songs. Root himself composed more than one of them, including the companion piece “Just After the Battle.”