Band Music from the Civil War Era

The American Brass Band Movement: A Historical Overview
by Jon Newsom

Band of the 10th Veteran Reserve Corps Click for image caption

Brass Bands in the 1850s

English Influence

German, Irish, and Italian Influences

Band Instruments

Band Music

The Civil War Bands

Post-Civil War Bands

Essay Notes

The early 1850s saw the brief flowering of a brilliant style of brass band music that constitutes an important but insufficiently explored part of our musical past.1 The cornets and saxhorns that made up the all-brass bands of the 1850s and remained a popular, though decreasingly prominent, feature of American wind bands through the nineteenth century were capable of producing, in the hands of good players, music of great charm and style. The leading E-flat soprano part, taken by Adel Sanchez in this online recording, demanded extraordinary virtuosity, and the prominent role played by the E-flat cornet or soprano saxhorn-Flügelhorn type instruments is characteristic of early American brass band music.2 At the same time, the uniquely homogeneous and mellow sound created by the whole family of horns ranging from soprano to bass is the outstanding quality of these instruments.

The obsolescence of the instruments used in this online recording is due to changing taste rather than to inherent defects in their design. They presented some irksome--though manageable--intonation problems, to be sure, just as various instruments do today. Bassoonists, for example, must cope with a notoriously imperfect instrument, but they have no special license to play out of tune. Certainly such problems would have been overcome by competent players of the old horns who used them constantly, for they were readily mastered by the musicians heard in this recording, who had just four days of rehearsals with the unfamiliar instruments before the concert and recording session. Moreover, music of the difficulty found in many band compositions of the era would never have been composed, much less expensively engraved or meticulously hand-copied into part-books, if there had been no musicians to do it justice.

In addition to his studies on the history of band music, Jon Newsom, chief of the Library of Congress's Music Division, has published articles on improvisational jazz, the songs of Stephen Foster and Henry Clay Work, the German Romantic composer Hans Pfitzner and Thomas Mann, and the film music of David Raksin. This essay is adapted from the following publications by Mr. Newsom: "The American Brass Band Movement," The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 36 (1979): 115-30, 138-39; and "Our Musical Past: A History of the Instruments and the Musical Selections," liner notes to Our Musical Past: A Concert for Brass Band, Voice, and Piano, Library of Congress OMP 101-102 (1976).

Band Music from the Civil War Era