Glory Raised High By Horns
The Marine Band's grand gig has run from Presidents Adams to
By Hugh Sidey
We are talking two centuries of pure American spirit--formless and weightless but as powerful as our arsenals, the stuff of thumping pulse and shiny eyes and the voice of glory raised high by horns and reeds. The U.S. Marine Band, a band now judged by experts to be the best the world has ever produced, turned 200 this past weekend. On Friday the drums shook the South Lawn of the White House as President Clinton paid tribute. The next evening the piccolos rode the heavens in a Kennedy Center concert attended by the men and women who run this country.
What a birthday bash for those 148 men and women in flag-red coats and 23 gleaming brass buttons who make up America's most historic ensemble! President John Adams started it all when he signed the law creating the Marine Corps in 1798, including "a drum major, a fife major, and 32 drums and fifes." From that day Presidents demanded that the band be on hand to grace their moments of triumph and tragedy. And the band got bigger and better. Recently 35 euphonium players auditioned for one position, and all of them were turned down. Only the best.
The Marine Band has played at the inauguration of every President since Thomas Jefferson (he gave it the name "the President's own"), and both George Washington and Adams earlier heard it perform. In 1848, when a wagon hauling the 24,500-lb. cornerstone of the Washington Monument broke through a bridge, the Marine Band hurried to the site and, by that day's accounts, played "spirited melodies" to inspire the workmen.
Abraham Lincoln took the band with him to Gettysburg on a special train and at one point escaped to a seat up front with his beloved musicians. The band played a Lincoln favorite, the hymn Old Hundredth, right after the prayer that opened the cemetery dedication in which Lincoln gave the world a text of American meaning.
Winston Churchill was so taken with the band in wartime that he sat in the rain with his White House host, Franklin Roosevelt, and sang the verses of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Just five months before his death, John Kennedy traveled through an adoring Irish countryside and was touched by the tune The Boys of Wexford, which was played or sung at roadside stops and official ceremonies. Kennedy couldn't get enough of the song and told his staff. Shortly after he got home, the Marine Band had its own foot-tapping arrangement ready.
It was the Marine Band's 17th director, John Philip Sousa, whose talent and flair put the band on the American map beginning in 1880 and also planted a band culture all across the country. Every town of any significance had to have a band with a bandstand in the park. The first order was patriotism. Sousa's march Stars and Stripes Forever became (and remains) the most recorded piece of music in history. But the bearded Sousa also infused the classics into every River City he hit in his wide tours with the Marines and later with his own band. Music from Wagner's opera Parsifal was heard in the provinces nine years before it got to New York City's Metropolitan Opera, and Tchaikovsky, Dvorak and Grieg marched with the Marines on most of their journeys across dusty prairies and over mountains.
Radio and then television dented the town-band mania starting in the 1930s, but the musical virus had already taken hold in U.S. public schools, and there it still rages, from grade school to college. Frederick Fennell, 85, former director of the Eastman Wind Ensemble, who is regarded by many as the dean of band directors, estimates that there are up to 50,000 school bands in the U.S.--a number that would challenge the nation's athletic teams. And still at the head of the parade marches the Marine Band.
Fennell was at the grand concert to direct saxophonist Bill Clinton's favorite band music, the English Folk Song Suite by Ralph Vaughn Williams. And doubtless the magic spell cast by that music--so precise, so powerful--will again lift hearts and quicken steps.
Once, when George Bush and President Clinton were seated on either side of the host at one of those dreadful Washington dinners, rescued only by the glorious ring of the Marine Band, Bush leaned over to the host and whispered, "The thing I miss most about the White House is the Marine Band." A moment later, Clinton, from the other side, confided to the same man, "The thing I enjoy most about being President is the Marine Band."