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The Music of the Gilded Age (March 2021): Bands

by John Druesedow


Wind bands modeled after European precursors were common in the United States as early as the Colonial Era. During the Civil War, literally hundreds of military bands were attached to individual regiments in the North and the South, and they performed regularly for military exercises, for so-called serenades (concerts in honor of officers or others), and for many types of social events, indoors and outdoors. Following the war, many bandsmen joined civilian ensembles and continued performing in patriotic parades, concerts in parks, and social events of various kinds. The best-known bands were those organized and directed by the Dodworth brothers (Allen and Harvey), Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, and John Philip Sousa. These bands are discussed in detail by Stephen Rhodes in A History of the Wind Band (available online only, see especially chapter 6, “The Nineteenth-Century American Wind Band”), Richard Franko Goldman in The Wind Band: Its Literature and Technique, and Jon Newsom in his essay on nineteenth-century bands in The Wind Ensemble and Its Repertoire, edited by Frank Cipolla and Donald Hunsberger.

The Dodworth Band, whose history can be traced back to about 1825, still continues as the Dodworth Saxhorn Band (based in Ann Arbor, Michigan), which bills itself as “America’s premier 19th-century brass band.” The band’s eponymous website is very informative. Patrick Gilmore organized and directed two Peace Jubilees (1869 and 1872), which were staged in Boston and involved literally thousands of instrumentalists and choir members. The Center for American Music Preservation’s website Patrick S. Gilmore and the Boston Peace Jubilees is a valuable resource on this, as is Hamm’s Music in the New World (discussed above).

Founded in 1798 and since 1801 known as “The President’s Own,” the United States Marine Band is the oldest and best-known band in the United States. John Philip Sousa remains the name most closely associated with that band. Indeed, when it comes to band music, John Philip Sousa (1854–1932), dubbed the “March King,” is preeminent. In his early career he was a violinist and played in the United States Marine Band, eventually becoming the band’s director. Sousa resigned from that post in 1892 in order to create his own ensemble. Patrick Warfield details Sousa’s early years in Making the March King: John Philip Sousa’s Washington Years, 1854–1893.

In the 1880s and 1890s, the sharp distinctions that might today be drawn between popular and art, or classical, music did not hold sway in all quarters. The bands accompanying social dancing—of which there was a great deal during the Gilded Age—performed a repertoire that frequently included transcriptions of opera overtures and other examples of so-called art music. Whether the music was written for an operetta or an opera did not matter a great deal. Even some marches (for example, Sousa’s “Washington Post March”) found their way to the dance floor. 5 Although it covers only Pennsylvania, Kenneth Kreitner’s Discoursing Sweet Music: Town Bands and Community Life in Turn-of-the-Century Pennsylvania provides a fine general treatment of turn-of-the-century bands.