Hiawatha and The Indian Intermezzo

By Paul Maybery

At the turn of the 19th century, the demand in popular music for Indian Songs and the so-called “intermezzo” was becoming a cultural phenomenon.

In 1901, Neil Moret’s “Hiawatha” set the course for others to follow. While the trend peaked around 1905, additional examples of this type of song appeared throughout the next decade. “Silver Bell” (1905) by Percy Wenrich, “Iola” (1906) by Charles L. Johnson and “Red Wing” (1907) by Kerry Mills are some of those best remembered. Earlier songs that dealt with the Indian had been around since the mid-19th century, and seemed to take their lead from Longfellow’s poem “Song of “Hiawatha.” But these “intermezzi” appeared and flourished in a later era, which paralleled the great popular music explosion of Tin Pan Alley.

Interest in the Indian-song followed on the heels of two earlier movements that could be construed as “characteristic;” the minstrel show of the mid 1890s, with its “cakewalks” and “coon songs,” and the birth of piano ragtime in the late 1890s. Both of these dealt with the newly-introduced syncopated rhythmic elements of African-influenced music.

The Indian intermezzi from around 1905 all share some common qualities and figure into the concept of how popular music would romanticize the American Indian in the public mind. While the song texts themselves address typical Indian subjects, one however is challenged to find any evidence of authentic Indian musical material such as stereotypical minor keyed themes or rhythmic drum patterns. The form for these compositions rarely deviates from that used for the standard march or cakewalk, that being: Introduction, A, B, (Trio) C, D. At least one of the sections utilizes ragtime elements.


Musicologist Arthur Farwell (1872-1952) spearheaded a movement in America to locate, catalog and utilize authentic Indian themes in classical music. Composers, such as Edward Mac Dowell, took this “ethnomusicological” approach for investigating the culture of the Indians and treated the subject with great respect. Inspired by Dvorák’s approach to folk material and impassioned by the belief that American classical music needed to incorporate native music, Farwell, in 1901, created the WA-WAN Press, which he named for an Omaha tribal ceremony affirming peace and friendship. Arthur Farwell’s credo, “that it is only by exalting the common inspirations of American life that we can become great musically,” stands at the heart of the pioneering spirit that has shaped all American thought and art.


Popular tunesmiths Neil Moret (a.k.a. Charles N. Daniels), Kerry Mills, Percy Wenrich and Charles L. Johnson translated these academic efforts into popular compositions for a wider public consumption. Arrangements by their publishers were made and distributed for piano, orchestra and band.

Daniels wrote his most famous intermezzo, “Hiawatha,” as an instrumental piece, which he clamed was suggested to him by a train ride through his sweetheart’s hometown, Hiawatha, Kansas. The music is based on a locomotive-type rhythm, and if one uses a primed imagination, I suppose a very subtle suggestion of Indian drumming might be detected. It is crafted in the characteristic march-type style and structure as employed by the earlier cakewalk.

In 1902, the Whitney-Warner Publishing Company of Detroit paid Daniel’s $10,000 for the rights to the tune and engaged lyricist James O’Dea to add an appropriate and evocative text to it. Thus the “Indian Intermezzo” was born. In London, Boosey’s “New Supplementary Band Journal” also released an arrangement of it with their first issue along with piano sheet music version.

Sometimes subtitled as a Summer Idyl, “Hiawatha” was arranged in two versions for Sousa’s Band by J. Bodewalt Lampe and featured on one of the band’s tour. From 1903 and 1912 the Sousa Band made several recordings of it for Victor Records, helping to contribute to its wide popularity. Other famous bands and orchestras such as the Columbia Orchestra, and the Edison Concert Band made recordings of their arrangements of “Hiawatha” between 1904 and 1908 and the Columbia Orchestra revisited the piece as late as 1921.

Taking this concept of “characteristic” or “typical” music to another level, the great American composer and bandmaster, John Philip Sousa, also penned compositions with Indian rhythms and melodies. Most notable is his “Red Man” from the 1911 Concert Suite “Dwellers of the Western World.” Sousa’s efforts were very respectful of the Indian and suggested great dignity and sensitivity toward this colorful culture. Sousa enjoyed being made an honorary chief in three different tribes and given the Indian names: “Great Music Chief,” Chasing Hawk,” and “Chief Singer.”


While it hardly requires a treatise to understand this music, it may be helpful to recall certain elements of style that have become dominant in band music from the turn of the century.

To a large extent, the military band of the day functioned as a large piano. The traditional bass and rhythmic side figures of the left hand, as played by the low and middle brass of the band, accompanied the principal melodic and parallel harmonic material of the right played in the cornets and high woodwinds. The drums would support the rhythmic patterns of the bass and side instruments and would be written independently only for special effect.

While certainly there was no one tempo for any piece of music, the speed of the music needs to support the style and mood of the music. It must also be at a speed that allows the infrastructure of the music to function in such a way as to breathe life and consequently a pulse into it. Circumstances and talent to a large part determine what will work. So often, perhaps because there was seldom a conductor’s score to consult for any of these pieces, the inner accompaniment rhythms were often blown over, and if the tune itself ceased to captivate the listener, well then the whole composition was thought of as having little merit. I have found that however simple those accompaniment rhythm patterns are, when they are represented by well balanced chords in the mid-range instruments (alto and tenor voiced instruments) the compositions come alive and reach out to the listener, drawing them into a delightful experience. Neglect those inner elements of style and the poor piece will likely flop.

Much of the style from the era at the opening of the 20th century can easily be achieved by the understanding of note shapes. These are generally indicated with the traditional markings of “staccato” and “accents.” Arguably staccato translates as “detached” or “separated.” In the 19th and early 20th century context it was understood also to shorten the notes duration by a half. Two types of accents occur. The first and most common “>” visually describes the note’s shape, that is with more volume at the beginning and a natural decay over its duration. (similar to the decay on the piano) The other accent “^” (quite opposite from its acquired and more modern meaning in jazz as more of a short hard hit) is a long resonant accent with little or no decay.
If a band would care to quickly adapt to the style of the period, addressing these basic note shapes would be the most expeditious way to achieve that end. A common pitfall is to try to force “swing” rhythms and articulations onto this early march or ragtime style. Results will be better and the whole arrangement will function more stylistically if you can bring yourself to avoid this temptation.

The interpretation of
note lengths is a topic of much discussion. In general we have evidence from old wax cylinders and early 78 phonographs that a much shorter style was employed. This style is fairly consistent from recording to recording and band to band, indicating some common sense of style that was understood among recording professionals at the very least. There are those that argue that such a short and crisp style was only used for recording and that a sound closer to modern practice was used for concert performance. The same discussion centers on the type of vibrato used. By modern standards the historical vibrato, found on recordings, seems in excess with regard to its speed and frequency of use. Some contend that a straight tone, when used in early pre-electronic recording, was not effective. My contention is that yes, emphasis may have been placed on a crisp sound and vibrato in the studio, and also that in general it was not that different from what happened when musicians were in front of an audience. This opinion can be supported by looking back over the past 50 or more years and witnessing the development of a more opulent sound vocabulary used by brass, wind and percussion players in virtually ever genre. For those that care to look back even further, a similar course of development in the orchestra can be seen in the demands created by opera composers such as Bellini and Wagner, where aural representation and instrumental textures began to take on almost supernatural proportions. Unfortunately there are no sound recordings from that period.

Aside from picking up a cylinder or 78 from an antique dealer or raiding the old phonograph in the attic, there is a wonderful resource for listening to vintage recordings of band music.
The University of California at Santa Barbara has set up a web site where anyone can listen to MP3 files from their historical cylinder collection. I’ve often heard the obvious comment that the sound quality isn’t very good. That is true, but there is still much information that is there from which to learn. We have gone over many of those elements, such as note shape and length. There is also the issue of vibrato and phrasing as well as adjusting the instrumentation. Choice of dynamics often differs from the printed score. Tempo is a touchy issue as it ties into pitch. We usually do not know what the exact tuning pitch of a band was for the recording session, so adjusting the speed of the antique phonograph involves more of an educated guess than scholarship or science. An exception: we do know for instance that the Sousa Band played at low pitch, just a few cents below A=440. How do we know? Well, surviving low-pitched instruments from the Sousa band are still in evidence. Other bands recorded at high pitch which could be as high as 30 cents above A=440. So trying to arrive at “the” tempo from an early phonograph may be speculation at the very best.

Why not check the Chatfield Brass Band Library’s online catalogue, select an intermezzo or something that you find fascinating and begin your exploration into this wonderful world of vintage band music. Create a full score in notation software and examine the inner workings of these early arrangements. It will require a little work, but just think where it will all lead. . . If you use Finale, I would be happy to assist you in your journey of discovery.
For musicians in collegiate academia, a project such as this would be just the “ticket” for a sabbatical.

I would like to think that good bands would care to be informed and play representative pieces from their musical legacy with authority and conviction. Certainly not every performance of vintage music needs to be an exercise in “historically informed performance” – it does take a little extra team effort. But with the understanding of some of the basics, the older and “classic” styles in the band’s vast canon of music can and do come alive with some extraordinary results.

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