[Ed. note — Our long-time contributor Steve Hicken is usually to be found helping out in the CD review section of S21. But a recent shipment of a number of band music CDs prompted Steve to group them together as a larger essay, and we thought it should end up here on the main page.  Recordings discussed in this essay: BARNES: Symphonic Overture; Fantasy Variations on a Theme by Nicolo Paganini; GERSHWIN: Rhapsody in Blue (Hunsberger, arr.); Overture on Themes from Porgy and Bess (Barnes, arr.); REED: Ballade. Raimonds Petrauskis, p; Oskars Petrauskis, a sax; RIGA Professional Symphonic Band/Andris Poga. PPOR-CD002  — GRAINGER: Band Music. Dallas Wind Symphony/Jerry Junkin. Reference 117 — GRAINGER: Transcriptions for Wind Orchestra. Ivan Hovorun, p; Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra/Clark Rundell. Chandos 10455 — CORIGLIANO: Circus Maximus; Gazebo Dances. University of Texas Wind Ensemble/Jerry Junkin. Naxos 8.559601]

Tragic but true: when the smoke had cleared, the new music wars had been won not by towners up or down or coasters east or left, but by a rear guard of trained symphonic band composers from big state universities in the middle of the country. — Daniel Wolf

According to the American Bandmasters Association (ABA), there are some 40,000 bands in the United States.1 Almost every high school, most junior high or middle schools, and many elementary schools have at least one band. On the college level, the situation is one of even more abundance—just about every college has more than one band, and the big public institutions have a handful or more. In addition, many municipalities have amateur bands, and some larger cities have professional wind orchestras.

Given these numbers and the exceptional quality of USA wind and percussion playing, you would expect that bands would be at the center of concert music in America. In reality, band music runs on a parallel track to the rest of concert music, and it has for a long time.2 There are stars in the world of band music, just as there are in the rest of concert music. These stars tend to be the conductors of the top bands at the big public universities of the Big 10, Texas, the west coast, and a few places in the Southeast, and composers at most of the same institutions, as well as a handful of composers making a living as freelancers. More about these composers later.

The music played by these bands falls into three very broad categories:

Marches! — To a very great extent, the wind band began as a military unit, designed to play music for armies to march to. There is evidence of ensembles consisting of what we call brass instruments and drums playing martial music in ancient civilizations in both the east and the west. Much of the music played by these groups was in reality signals, such as “charge”, “reveille”, etc. By the seventeenth century the instrumentation of what we now consider the standard military band had begun to settle, with the development of the position of the “drum major” whose function was to keep the soldiers marching in time.

As the instrumentation became fairly standard, more and more music was written for these bands to play. And most of this music was for marching. Tempos are within a certain range (mostly quick), phrases are clear, melodies stirring and carried, for the most part, by the flutes and clarinets. The march tradition is so deeply ingrained in the band world that many band directors wouldn’t dream of beginning a concert program with anything but a march.

Transcriptions or arrangements — A transcription is a note-for-note translation of a piece from one kind of instrumentation to another. In the case of band transcriptions, the vast majority of these are orchestra-to-band transcriptions. In these pieces, flutes, clarinets, and sometimes oboes, substitute for violins, and lower woodwinds for the lower strings. Solo instruments from these same choirs take the same roles as their orchestral counterparts, and the brass and percussion tend to have the same roles as they do in the original compositions.

A sizable number of orchestral works that have been transcribed for bands comes from the late Romantic period through the early part of the 20th century. From Dvorak to Shostakovich, symphonies and other orchestral works have provided grist for the transcriber’s mill. An important reason for this is that the winds in the original works (like Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony) had important roles and recasting this music for winds is not as radical a change as it would be in most, for example, Beethoven. Arrangements consist in taking pre-existing pieces of music (usually popular or Broadway tunes) and orchestrating them for the available forces (in this case, a band), usually as a medley, with newly-composed connecting material. There isn’t a rigorous line between transcriptions and arrangements, but it seems to me that the adding of this connecting material is a crucial distinction.

The third large category is that of original compositions.3 Igor Stravinsky, Gustav Holst, Arnold Schoenberg, and Paul Hindemith were among the many major early 20th-century composers who wrote music for band. As the century progressed, however, band composition came to be a specialty — people that wrote band music tended to write little else, and people who were not band composers never touched the medium.

One composer who was well-known in both musical worlds was the Australian Percy Aldridge Grainger. He was a key figure in the development of the concert band out of the military band, and much of his band music sounds like the discovery of a new sonic landscape. Grainger worked in all three of the categories of band music. His extensive catalog of original band music includes marches as well as suites (his masterpiece, Lincolnshire Posy, is a suite based on folk tunes), fanfares, and songs (Irish Tune from County Derry, based on “Danny Boy” is particularly lovely). A disc of Grainger’s original music for band by the Dallas Wind Symphony, led by Jerry Junkin, is a testament to the enduring quality of the composer’s music. The disc itself is documentation of the extraordinarily high quality of playing that is found in professional wind ensembles—the performance of Irish Tune is a good example, with the excellent ensemble playing and careful, expressive phrasing maintained at a very slow tempo.

Grainger’s orchestration4 predates the band music routines described above. Compared to the gleaming aluminum surface of contemporary band music, Grainger’s sounds like deeply-stained wood. This is true as well of the disc of transcriptions, expertly played by the Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra, conducted by Clark Rundell. Most of the pieces Grainger transcribes are from either the Baroque or Romantic periods. They are expertly done, but they lack the immediacy and personality of the composer’s own compositions.

Another disc by a professional wind ensemble includes both original compositions and transcriptions. The Riga (Latvia) Professional Symphonic Bands produced a disc for its 35th anniversary that would not be out of place as a concert program at any college music department in the United States. In fact, while the performances on the disc are excellent, the music conforms to all of the aspects of band music outlined earlier, and by the end of the disc (which is very enjoyable if taken in parts) aural fatigue sets in, due not to the loudness of the music (there are plaenty of concerts of all kinds that are loud throughout and that don’t produce fatigue), but rather to it’s generally unchanging color.

The original music of today’s superstar band composers, people like John Mackey, David Maslanka, Donald Grantham, and David Gillingham, has a great deal in common with the marches and transcriptions described above: it tends to be tonal, even if this is a very expanded tonality, it’s loud (sometimes really loud), and the melodic burden is carried by the flutes and clarinets, with the brass and percussion usually playing a supporting, coloring, and loudnessincreasing role.

Many of these composers’ pieces follow a similar structural scheme—a loud, brassy opening section, followed by a relatively softer, more lyrical section which is, in turn, followed by a return to the original material, which is often both elaborated and truncated. They are designed to draw people in at the beginning5 and to bring them out of their seats at the end. And they frequently succeed.

With its infrastructure, the wealth of wind players in the United States, strong traditions, and dedicated composers, the band community would seem to be well-placed to play a role in the future growth of concert music. The ABA and the College Band Directors National Association (CBDNA), recognizing that there is a great deal of overlap between the communities of interest of band music and concert music in general, have instituted a variety of programs designed to bridge the gap and bring band music into concert music’s orbit.
One of the most important of these initiatives is the commissioning of works for band by composers not known for band music, and encouraging bands to do the same. Probably the highest profile commission produced yet is the University of Texas commission of John Corigliano’s Third Symphony, “Circus Maximus”. This is a very impressive piece, a large-scale work that addresses important musical and social6 issues in an engaging format. It is the kind of piece, imaginatively written and scored by a well-known composer from outside the band world, that could go a long way towards bridging the gap.
There is one aspect of this piece, however, that may prevent this piece from being a harbinger of band riches to come, is the sheer size of the forces needed to produce it. “Circus Maximus” calls for a large wind ensemble (including percussion), a smaller “Surround Band”, and a small Marching Band, thus severely limiting the institutions and presenters that could give it a performance. Nevertheless, “Circus Maximus” is a worthy piece (if not exactly the piece that is needed to bridge the gap), as is Corigliano’s Gazebo Dances, with which it is partnered in superb performances by the University of Texas Wind Ensemble, led, like the Dallas group, by Jerry Junkin.

I had a teacher who once said that the sound of a symphony orchestra was one of the great achievements of Western civilization. Whether that’s true or not is open for debate, but there seems to be no question that the survival of orchestras in small to medium markets in the United States is in doubt. There are also artistic questions about the viability of the model that makes a symphony orchestra the center of a town’s musical life. Wind music, whose players are more plentiful than string players, and whose audiences tend to be more open to new music and new artistic situations, can assume a more central role than it has in most places now.

All of the pieces are in place, then, for bands to play an important role in the revitalization (or continued growth, depending on how you see the current situation) of concert music in the United States. What may be needed are artists, presenters, and patrons with the will and the imagination to re-invent musical life in their cities and towns.


1)  For purposes of this essay, “bands” includes Marching bands, Brass bands, “Concert” and “Symphonic” bands, which include multiple players on all parts, “Wind Orchestras”, which generally include one player per part in what is essentially an enlarged orchestral wind (and percussion) section, and other large ensembles made up of winds and percussion instruments.

2)  I was going to say that band music ran on a track parallel to “mainstream concert music”, but given the size of the band music universe, who’s to say what’s mainstream and what isn’t?

3)  Most marches played by bands were originally written for band, but I made them a separate category because of their unique place in the band world.

4)  “Bandestration” is not a word, and “instrumentation” is a slightly different area.

5)  This applies to the beginning of the piece itself, or to the beginning of the concert, if the concert opens with such a piece.

6)  Corigliano’s program note says that the piece examines the “parallels between the decadence of Rome and our present time”, how “many of us have become as bemused by the violence and humiliation that flood the 500-plus channels of our television screens as those mobs of imperial Romans who considered the devouring of human beings by starving lions just another Sunday show”. The composer intends for the piece to “both embody and comment on this massive and glamorous barbarity”. How a piece of music, with its inherently abstract nature, might do both without the embodying of the subject over completely taking over from the commentary is a subject for another essay.

3 thoughts on “Bands Apart”
  1. Bands rock!
    In addition to everything else I’ve been scribbling, I’ve been writing band music for the past couple of years and just loving it. On the heels of “Homecoming,” commissioned by the U.S. Army (for an amusing story, click here: http://www.alexshapiro.org/Articles/Shapiro_ACFBandArticle2008.pdf ), I was commissioned by the American Composers Forum for its BandQuest series, and the resulting piece, “Paper Cut,” was premiered here in Friday Harbor, WA this past May (for revelations of my adventures with 13-year olds, click here: http://www.alexshapiro.org/Articles/Shredding with the 7th Grade-The Making of Paper Cut.pdf ).

    This summer, I’m writing a four movement wind band work titled “Immersion,” for a consortium of seven commissioners, including five universities, one high school and one pro ensemble.

    The band world is wonderfully open and inviting to new band composers and their un-band-like voices and ideas. What sets “Paper Cut” and “Immersion” apart from most other band repertoire is that they’re both electroacoustic, and multimedia (“Paper Cut” makes extensive use of printer paper as an instrument and a visual, and “Immersion” will have video), which makes these projects amazingly fun for me. The band directors with whom I’ve worked have been absolutely marvelous and supportive, and I learn so much with each new piece. I’m constantly encouraging my peers to get into this world!

    This December will be my third year attending the enormous Midwest Clinic in Chicago (http://www.midwestclinic.org/) and I recommend it to all as a terrific way to meet friendly musicians who are genuinely interested in new works, especially from those of us who hail from outside the traditional band environments. Stop by and say hello to me at the ACF booth, and I’ll happily make lots of introductions for you!

Comments are closed.