Brass Bands in America

I recently started reading The Music Men: An Illustrated History of Brass Bands in America, 1800-1920, by Margaret Hindle Hazen and Robert M. Hazen, and came across a fascinating anecdote in the Preface.

Several years ago the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History celebrated the Fourth of July with a joyful reenactment of a nineteenth-century band concert…As was customary a century ago, the Declaration of Independence was read and a short oration delivered. Then, in the deepening twilight, as children tumbled on a grassy hillside and parents reclined on blankets and chairs, the band rendered such old favorites as “Hail Columbia” and Stephen Foster’s “Maggie by My Side.” For a few hours the past was revived.

Across the street, in stark contrast, another concert was taking place at precisely the same time. This celebration, thoroughly modern in concept and execution, featured extravagantly amplified country-western music directed toward a crowd numbering in the hundreds of thousands congregated near the Washington Monument. Most of that audience, unable to catch even a glimpse of the performers, milled about while helicopters chopped overhead and police cars cruised the adjacent city streets.

The juxtaposition of these two Independence Day scenes exemplifies the transformation of American society and musical taste over the past one hundred years. (Preface, p. xvii)

Not much more need be said in explanation of this story except to note that it points to a loss of intimacy in music and entertainment in general. The authors continue in the preface to point out that at one time virtually every town in America – even those with populations as small as a few hundred people – maintained some type of band.  The band performed at public functions like holidays, building commemorations, and numerous other events.  Sadly, many of those bands have long since disappeared, although community bands and other volunteer musical organizations do seem to be quite active in certain areas of the country.

Getting back to the book, although I’ve just started on it I would highly recommend it to any brass players interested in learning more about their musical heritage.  The band movement in America during the 19th and early 20th centuries had enormous influence on musical life in this country, far more than symphony orchestras.  American bands were important influences on instrument design, music education, the marketing and promotion of musical organizations, and the development of jazz, to name a few.  I plan on posting more highlights from this book in the future, including information on  instruments and the life of a professional band musician in the 19th century.

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