Insight into Historic Band Music

by Paul Maybery

Genres in Historic Instrumental Music

Instrumental music from the late 19th and early 20th century falls into several major headings or genre. Band music in general makes up what will be our primary interest. However, it did coexist with other genres, including music for various orchestral combinations such as symphonic, theatre and salon orchestra, as well as early forms of dance orchestras. It is important to look at band music with a continued awareness of orchestral music as they both draw upon the same literature and composers. When we consider how publishers presented music to their consumers, we will begin to understand that these new editions were marketed simultaneously in formats for both band and orchestral instrumentations.


Instrumentation formats were not what we associate with band and orchestra in the modern context and here in lies the beginning of our understanding and appreciation of this music.

American band instrumentation has been evolving for nearly 200 years from models that resembled the early 19th century European wind ensembles (represented most notably by the octets of Mozart.) By the mid 1830s, the all-brass bands emerged in the musical communities alongside bands of mixed winds and brasses. The phenomenal impact of the brass band in popular American culture led to coining the term “brass band” as an umbrella for band music in general, even when these groups employed an obvious integrated wind and brass instrumentation. During the 19th century, other historical terms such as “cornet band,” “saxhorn band,” “brass and reed band,” “military band,” “concert band,” and “symphonic band” found their way into mainstream band jargon. Publishers understood the need for offering a product that could be utilized by a variety of instrumental combinations. As the brasses were for a long time the practical nucleus of these bands, arrangements were produced with an instrumentation scheme that allowed for maximum flexibility. This usually resulted in much cross scoring and redundancy in the parts. But for these early publications, this was simply the “nature of the beast” and arguably attributed to a pretty solid and very practical style of scoring. With such a model, as few as five or six brasses alone would suffice, or more as the situation would allow.

Function of Parts in a Band Score

Early models of band literature and numerous treatises on band arranging present and outline a systematic format for what, in the 19th century, defines “band music,” and, what sets it apart from other types of instrumental wind and brass music. According to one particular treatise, (G. F. Patton) band music requires four distinct functions within its instrumentation being 1. Melodic, 2. Parallel Harmonic, 3. Side and 4. Bass. Soprano instruments such as Solo and 1st Cornets, Piccolo and Flutes, Eb and Solo and 1st Bb Clarinets, function in the role of “principal melodic” as do some instruments of the alto and tenor range such as the Solo Alto Horn and the Baritone (Euphonium as it is called in modern terminology. Contralto instruments function in a “parallel harmonic” function and include the 2nd and 3rd Clarinets and Cornets, and often the Eb or F Horns and the Soprano,, Alto and Tenor Saxophone. The contralto voices, alto, tenor and baritone, generally function as “side” instruments, which are playing what was called the side (or accompaniment) rhythm. Trombones or Bb Tenors, the Eb or F Horns and frequently the 2nd and 3rd Cornets and Clarinets. Finally the bass instruments functioned as the “bass” both in a harmonic as well as rhythmic context with Tubas, Bass or 3rd Trombone, Bass (Euph) Baritone and Bass Saxophone, Bassoon and Bass Clarinet All band music had these four functions. It is important to understand that these functions and voices varied in the hands of well-informed arrangers giving the score interest. Since the writing of Patton’s treatise in 1875, the countermelodies that were so well written for the baritone or euphonium became a standard feature in the band score. They easily fall into the Melodic function.

Voicing of Instruments.

Today we think of band instrument voices with parallels to the choir; being soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Instrumental voices are categorized similarly and use a few additional gradations to fill in the spectrum. In the early brass band for instance, the soprano was played by the Eb cornet and the Bb cornet. What would be construed to be a contralto would be played on a Bb cornet and then the true alto on the Eb alto horn. The tenor range would be bridged by the lower parts of the Eb alto horn and the Bb tenor horn or tenor trombone, the baritone part, by the Bb baritone horn (modern euphonium) and the bass by the Bb Bass (a large euphonium-sized horn in Bb) and the sub bass by the Eb bass. (Tuba) The drums would reinforce the “side” and “bass” functions. The antiquated terminology for side drum and bass drum take their cue from their “side and bass” roll in the four functions.

The Compass or Range of the Band.

Yet another distinguishing characteristic of vintage band music that sets it apart from simple quartets and instrumental ensemble music is its compass or range from highest to lowest notes of the score. Since most bands were initially assigned to outdoor performance, it was understood that audibility depended for the most part on the brilliance and carrying power of the soprano instruments that were given the principal melodic material, or the tune. In the previous generations before the brass band or the military band with its mixed instrumentation, fifes were successfully used, either in unison or harmony, while the drums marked the bass and side rhythms necessary for marching. This format was generally referred to as “field music,” and due to its ability to be heard above other noises, it found place for military signaling during battle. Early bands usually performed in military settings. It is understandable then that the acoustic efficiency of wind and brass instruments was an issue of great importance. In these early mixed wind bands, up through the first 3 decades of the 19th century, it was necessary for the achievement of this brilliance, that music be scored into what is referred to as the second octave, that being from the upper half of the treble staff to an octave above. Generally speaking, this was no problem for woodwinds, but for brass, until the 1830s there was no appropriate instrumen
t to fill this voice until the emergence of the Eb keyed bugle. What we refer to as the all brass band first appeared in Boston and New York during the winter of 1834/35. In approximately a decade the valve system replaced the keys on brasses and the valved cornets and related saxhorn-type (conical bore) horns took over on their respective voices with even further acoustical efficiency. Even so, considering all this development, the four functions of the band score would remain as a basic feature and the range or compass of the instruments would hold and in some cases widen considerably.

Woodwinds: With or Without

As might be imagined, the American public that eventually cultivated a taste for enjoy military band music, came from a perspective of first hearing a mix of woodwinds and brasses. In fact the principal melodic material in bands of the early 1800s had to be assigned to the woodwinds, as the brasses, other than the early trombone, and the hand horn with its stopped notes, had access to only the pitches of the natural harmonic series. These early bands by necessity needed to be 20 players or more and were expensive and problematic to maintain. One can understand the enthusiasm when a band of less than a dozen players could make three to four times the volume of sound and be heard effectively outdoors just as well as the shrill fifes of old. While the new sound of brass with its brilliance and rich harmonies was indeed seductive at first, laments were eventually heard bemoaning the “exile” from the band of the beautiful sound of the woodwind instruments. While the brass band or cornet band gained in popularity throughout the 1840s and 50s, the full and mixed military band was never entirely abandoned and rose again to a revived prominence after the American Civil War. Evidence of the interest in an integrated band can easily be seen in the first band publications to appear during the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. Publishers both understood public opinion and at the same time were in a position to influence its direction. It is this band music, which began to appear in the 1870s, that serves as the beginning of that body of literature which today forms the legacy of the modern band. Much of this music still exists and is found in historic band libraries across the country. Unfortunately for the uninitiated, it does present problems for modern performance. For instance many of the parts are printed in keys that are obsolete. Instruments such as the Db piccolo, the Eb horns are a stumbling block to many modern players. Often times the arrangements are void of parts for oboe, bassoon, saxophones as well as the lower clarinets. And, to the modern conductor who likes to see “what’s what,” there is rarely a score. Usually a cornet part with cues is all that is provided for the leader. By the turn of the century it was acknowledged by prominent publishers such as Carl Fischer, J.W. Pepper and Oliver Ditson, that the band music situation needed improving and more integrated arrangements were created which could be had with a condensed conductor score.

The Situation at Hand

So, where does that leave us today, when we stand in front of a dusty box of one hundred year old band music? Are we clueless or, is there hope that there may be usable treasures and jewels of beautiful music inscribed on those pages? First we must have the tools to deal with it, to understand how to be fair and objective in evaluating it, and how to go about making a selection and preparing the music for modern performance. In the following articles I will begin to lay some light on this enormous volume of music, literally thousands of tunes, in dozens of different and beautiful and exciting categories. Hopefully you will begin to appreciate this vast source of music as the heritage or legacy of the modern American band, and enjoy the time you spend exploring its mysteries.

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