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The Renaissance of the Band

From an Interview with the Noted Bandmaster

Edwin Franko Goldman

Secured Expressly for THE ETUDE Music Magazine



FIFTY YEARS AGO the great reign of the doughty Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore was coming to an end. Gilmore, always a wonderful showman, had made a magnificent contribution to the promotion of interest in the band and band concerts, and there were numerous bands in all parts of the country. Touring bands thrived and band concerts were profitable ventures. Fortunately, after the passing of Gilmore, a still greater star was to arise in the band firmament, in the person of the unforgettable John Philip Sousa, who, in addition to being a wonderful conductor, was also an enormously successful composer, and he soon eclipsed everyone in the band field both here and abroad. He made splendid innovations in his band and in his instrumentations, and raised the technic of bands to new heights.

“Toward the latter part of Commander Sousa’s life two new factors commenced to command American attention—the automobile and the radio. Time was when thousands of families, seeking a pleasant evening excursion, would hop on a trolley car and run out to an amusement park and listen to a fine band. After the automobile came, the owners were not content to stop at amusement parks when they could roam around the country. Those, who did not have autos, had radios and were content to stay at home and listen to them. But, all things go in cycles; people again have begun to long to hear bands “in person”; and now, to my joy, I have the pleasure in the summer of playing nightly to audiences of from fifteen to fifty thousand and even sixty thousand people. When I see these huge crowds there can be no disputing that there is now an amazing renaissance of the band.

And So We “Forward, March!”


“THE BAND HAS COME BACK to a new audience and it is built upon lines which command far greater respect. The band itself was largely to blame for its own downfall. The musicians felt that they were secure in their positions; and their chief interest, and in many cases also their only interest, was in the pay envelope. The result was that many of the bands were terrible. In the case of some of the traveling bands, they were badly dressed and likewise badly behaved. No wonder that the band got a “black eye.” Many of the bands were composed almost exclusively of a low type of foreign immigrant musician. They could hardly speak our language and turned up their noses at almost everything American.

“Many of the American bands were assembled only on the Fourth of July, Decoration Day, Labor Day, and other high days and holidays. Their harvest was during political campaigns, when they often marched both day and night. Their repertoire consisted of Onward Christian Soldiers; Adeste Fideles; a few hackneyed marches; the Star Spangled Banner; or America. Usually they played from memory, each player employing his own version of the national airs. The leader would often announce, ‘America in E-Flat, boys’; and then things broke loose. Who knows, this may have been the origin of swing; for unquestionably every fellow went his own precious way.

“Bands in those days rarely had any libraries of worth while music. They played the pieces given away by publishers as advertising matter, and these were rarely worth the paper they were printed upon. There were no dignity, no finished effects, no fine tonal quality. How fortunate it is that this type of band is now practically extinct. Better still is the fact that it can never, never return. The fine training, received everywhere, by youngsters in our public schools, has raised the standards so greatly that we need have no fear that such bands as we have described will ever again afflict our country.

“What moved me to go into the band field? First I saw new and greater opportunities for a superior organization. In addition to this, the opera season at the Metropolitan was only seventeen weeks long, and it was necessary to make a living in the summer. Accordingly I joined some of the park bands. Most of the players reported for work like hands at a factory. There were no rehearsals. In fact, the men resented the time spent at rehearsals. They showed an appalling lack of interest which was most discouraging to a player who had spent years under the batons of such conductors as Mahler, Damrosch, Mottl, Hertz, Toscanini and Mancinelli. I spent many hours of disheartening and discouraging unrest with the mercenary bands of the day. It was most painful to play under such conditions. The only bands that could be excepted were the Sousa band, and the Gilmore band, which was then conducted by Victor Herbert. My contracts with the Metropolitan Opera Company prevented my joining these organizations. Accordingly I started my own band and struggled with it for six years before I began to receive the fine support which has since made it possible to play for an aggregate of many millions of people.

The Better Band Musician

“In THE MEANTIME the whole band situation has changed entirely. A new type of American player has arisen second to none in the world. These are players with a new technic and a new virtuosity, and they had their beginnings in our own public schools. Therefore I say that there are greater opportunities for professional bands than ever before; because, for everyone who a few years ago gave attention to bands, there are now hundreds of people intelligently interested in them. Unquestionably there will be opportunities for traveling bands; but, to be superior to the splendid high school and college bands, they will have to be super-bands.

“It should, however, be remembered that fine players alone do not make a fine band. They must be trained, coordinated, and drilled, drilled, drilled, by an able and inspired conductor; and all this cannot be done in a few weeks or a few months. Success can be bought only through interminable, careful rehearsals.

“Band instruments have been vastly improved in every way, and American manufacturers have made an invaluable contribution to this advance. In fact, foreign made brass instruments have virtually disappeared from American bands. It is amazing to note how the technic of every instrument has gone ahead. This is confined not merely to tone, rapidity and tonal control. The actual range of players has been, in some instances, extended several notes. Most of the trumpets in Gilmore’s day did well when they went safely above the treble staff without painful blasts. Now they soar to extraordinary peaks of tone. We no longer marvel at high E-flat. Imagine what a difference this makes in orchestrations. In the days of Mozart and Beethoven, the orchestra trumpets could not play a chromatic scale. If the old masters could hear a fine modern concert band, it would both delight and astound them. The technic of writing for the orchestra of to-day, even shows an advance over Berlioz, which some musicians feel is as marked as that between a one horse shay and the latest Sikorsky air-liner.

“One hundred years ago practically all bands were military. They were as much a part of the army as muskets and sabers. Even the instruments were made with a military purpose in view. In the Civil War the bells of many of the horns were turned backward with some idea that the music would be shot backward to inspire the troops.


“The modern concert band began with Gilmore and came to its own with Sousa. Even now there is no such thing as a standard band orchestration. The bands of almost every country differ in instrumentation. When Sousa took his band abroad it was to thousands an entirely new kind of a musical organization. Americans, on the whole, are nearer in instrumentation to the fine British bands than to those of any other nation. The bands of France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Russia are notably different. The French bands for instance, are marked by a very large saxophone section. Whether one band of one the art world. The publishers would have a secure international market for their catalogs. As it is now, it has been only after a long struggle that the associated band interests have been able to make a standard instrumentation for American school bands. How long this will last in this fickle age, no one knows. The popular dance orchestras have introduced all sorts of new tone colors and sound effects, and the whole band literature seems persistent in keeping in a state of flux. However, we are all praying for standardization, so that more and more leading composers will be inspired to write original music for the band.

“It must be remembered that it is possible for American bands to take European instrumentations and play from them by adjusting the parts, but the original  orchestrator’s ideas are distorted. The same condition would apply to American instrumentations played by a foreign band. In some of the German bands, for instance, there are no oboes or bassoons; while there are more trumpets, and also other instruments such as Flugel horns.

“To my mind the instrumentation of the American concert band is nearer to an ideally comprehensive group for the performance of the works of great masters than that of any other nation. It is better balanced and more a kind of wind counter - until it is played again. But every performance brings out new colors and shades. Every thread of this marvelous design must come exactly in its right place, with the right tonal effect at the right time. Think what a wonderful training in precision and coordination this is to every young person who takes part in it. Surely the young people who are going through these musical experiences will have more responsive minds and better nerve control than the “jitterbugs” who abandon themselves to license in a frenzied riot of noise.

“Verdi and Wagner favored making arrangements for band. Some orchestral works are, to my mind, very badly adapted to the band and should never be arranged for it. Some of the works of Debussy, Ravel, Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin do not sound well with the band. Some are like pastels and are too delicate to be translated to the rich pigments of the band. With very few exceptions the piano works of Chopin do not lend themselves to the band. They call for the peculiar sonority and sympathetic overtones achieved through the use of the piano pedal. Percy Grainger and I have often discussed this matter, and we are agreed that certain compositions written for orchestra sound much better with the band, Sibelius’ choral-like ‘Finlandia,’ for instance.

“Band contests have been very helpful in stimulating interest in school band work. I have heard and judged at hundreds of them. One judges of course, for tone, interpretation, intonation, technic, attack, phrasing, and so on. From what I have observed I have come to the conclusion that the average musical intelligence of groups of boys and girls in different parts of the country is singularly uniform. It is the conductor who counts. If he is an able, well trained man, who has labored faithfully and with good judgment with his group, the results will be corresponding.

“The school bands in the West and particularly the Middle West are astonishing. European musicians visiting America have been dumfounded by what these young men and young women do. In fact I am told that this is having an effect upon European school bands; but it will take years for them to equal the great strides that have been made in America.

Westward the Musical Empire

“In THE MIDDLE WEST the school bands are a part of the regular school schedule, and the educational results may be best estimated by the fact that the students are going in for this work more enthusiastically than ever before. They receive credits for this work, as they properly should. In most places in the East the boys have to practice after school hours and the students receive no credit.

“The midwestern school bands are so exceedingly fine that in many instances they have passed the professional bands. At first the professional band players and the unions resented this as an invasion upon their rights; but, since the school bands cannot play for money, they cannot take business away from the professional bands. The only solution for the careless professional musician of other days is to forget his past and get down to work. He must not expect results without copious rehearsals and hard home practice. Fine conductors, a broad progressive spirit and work, work, work, should result in a superband; and, with the new interest in everything pertaining to the band, he will find a new field. The days of the old tooting, “umpah” band are done, and the sooner the professional musician finds this out, the better.

“For open air events the band is still supreme, notwithstanding modern amplification as applied to the orchestra. At the Golden Gate International Exposition, where my band will play from March to July, the wonderful California climate will enable immense numbers of people to attend the concerts; and I am looking forward to this engagement, with great joy. I am sure that they are ready for just as fine programs as it has been possible to give in New York. Last year for instance, in sixty open air programs, we gave three Wagner programs, four Russian programs, three Italian programs, one French program, two Bach programs, two grand opera programs, two Tschaikowsky programs, one Schubert program, two Beethoven programs, two symphonic programs, one Sousa program, one Verdi program, one Czechoslovak program, one Johann Strauss program, one Gilbert and Sullivan program, one English program, one Victor Herbert program, one Polish program, two German programs, one comic opera program, two original band music programs, and two ‘old music’ programs. Notwithstanding the fact that this large array of special programs was devoted principally to what the public calls ‘classical music,’ the popular response, both in numbers and in enthusiasm, was described by the papers as immense. Popular taste has changed marvelously in the last two decades; and, despite all that we hear about the lure of ‘jazz’ and ‘swing’ music, the appeal of finer music is growing stronger and stronger every hour.”


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