From Here to There: Wind Band from Sousa to Holsinger
Wind Band music has changed dramatically since its height of popularity during the late 19th century. In this episode we explore this evolution. Guests include composer David Holsinger and musicologists Patrick Warfield and Bryan Proksch.
From Here to There: Wind Band from Sousa to Holsinger
Hello, welcome to our podcast, “Not a Quiet Place: Exploring Special Collections in Performing Arts at the University of Maryland” I’m Christina Taylor Gibson. I’m the project archivist for the American Bandmasters Association here at Special Collections in Performing Arts or, more affectionately, SCPA. I’ll be the narrator through these four episodes exploring the sound and culture of wind band music. The University of Maryland has been collecting materials related to bands since June 3, 1963, when the American Bandmasters Association and the University jointly formed the ABA Research Center for the express purpose of creating a repository for history and information relating to wind bands. Today, almost 60 years later, we have five band-related organizational collections, over fifty-five personal collections of bandmasters, and a large collection of band scores and recordings. These collections represent a surprisingly large variety of musical styles and approaches.
As a jumping off point, let’s listen to one of the pieces from our collection. This is “The Armies of the Omnipresent Otserf” by David Holsinger. It’s performed here by the Rutgers Wind Ensemble under the direction of William Bertz.
I think you could call this music militaristic, but you’d be hard pressed to refer to it as a March, and although it would be entirely appropriate as the background music to a movie, I doubt you’d hear it in a parade or on the football field. This is a different sort of thing altogether, and that’s what this first episode is about, exploring the roots of wind ensemble music and how it came to be so different from the very public-facing band music of the sports game or holiday or political celebration.
We’re titling this first episode “From Here to There: Wind Band from Sousa to Holsinger.” In the moments that follow, you’ll hear us drill down on the sound of the wind ensemble and how it came about. We’ll talk to contemporary composer David Holsinger, and musicologists Patrick Warfield and Brian Proskch. We’ll also explore many of the materials held at UMD, including sound recordings, oral histories, and manuscript scores. You can learn more about all of this at our website: lib.umd.edu/SCPA-podcast
Let’s begin by spending more time with Holsinger’s captivating music. As you could hear, his pieces tend to have a driving rhythmic line propelled forward by syncopation and meter changes. He uses the full range of instruments in a wind ensemble with every instrument from the flute and to the tuba given a moment to shine. It is music that is moving and energetic but it also requires attentive, careful listening. Holsinger was willing to talk to me over Skype about his career and his composition. I was curious about his creative process. I had read in another interview that Holsinger wrote the percussion line of his wind band pieces at the very end of the writing process, but as you can hear, rhythm is an important feature of his works. I asked him about that unusual approach.
D. Holsinger: “Yes, I do add percussion to my scores last. Once when visiting the late Francis MacBeth, in his home, he brought up the fact that some of his students waited until the end of the composition before adding percussion. He said he told them that only bad composers do that. At that point I held up my hand, I think he was more than a bit surprised. I explained that the reason I wait til the end is to live with the rhythms I’ve written. My percussion is usually a layer on its own, so sometimes it enhances the winds and sometimes it’s a necessary diversion from the wind parts.
In addition to rhythms, Holsinger is really attune to color or timbre.
You know a band is a conglomeration of color, and in the fifty-plus years I’ve been writing, I suppose I’ve [committed] those colors very well. A family friend once asked how I could write for instruments if I couldn’t play them all. The simple fact is I don’t need to play them, I just need to know their possibilities and limitations. And I know how to put those timbres together. I suppose that’s part of being 75 years old. Surely I’ve learned something useful in that time.
To me the effect is cinematic with the sort of dramatic tension I associate with Hollywood adventure stories. For this score, “The Armies of the Omnipresent Otserf,” Holsinger won the American Bandmasters Association’s Sousa-Ostwald Award in 1982. The award honors new compositions for concert band and it’s made to encourage innovation in writing for the ensemble. It is one of the most prestigious awards for composers of contemporary band music. SCPA owns the manuscript scores for all Sousa-Ostwald winners as well as recording for many of these compositions. In this case, we have both.
When you look at the score, you can see all sorts of strange little notations. In passages like the one I’m about to share, measures of note heads are followed by squiggles and lines—graphic notation conveying the spirit and force of the desired sound rather than the exact pitches and dynamics to be played.
[correlating clip of music]
Altogether then we’ve got a large ensemble playing adventurous, evocative music. Even though these are wind instruments, you’re unlikely to hear Holsinger’s music in a very public space, as we’ve already discussed. Because it needs dedicated attention and a resonant environment, it is a really far cry from the music we associate with the most famous band composer in the U.S., John Philip Sousa. Here is his Pathfinder of Panama, performed by the U.S. Marine Band.
[play clip of march]
Because the question animating this episode is “How did we get from here to there?” That is, “How did we get from Sousa to Holsinger?”
I spoke with two music historians who have written about Sousa and early band music. Pat Warfield is a professor at the University of Maryland. He wrote his dissertation and several articles about Sousa and is now working on a history of the Marine Band, which Sousa directed from 1880-1892 titled: Capital Flourishes: “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band put out by University of Illinois Press.
Brian Proksch teaches at Lamar University. I first met him when he visited us to look for documents to include in his forthcoming documentary history of band music, A History of American Bands in Source Documents: 1835-1935 put out by GIA Press.
Here Warfield describes how he thinks of Sousa fitting into the culture of the day: “It’s helpful to get to Sousa by coming through my journey, which is, I thought, as a graduate student, I wanted to do work on bands and at the time there wasn’t a whole lot of secondary source work on bands, so I thought, I’ll begin at the beginning and I thought, that must be John Philip Sousa. And I was very, very stupid and very, very wrong. And in many ways Sousa is the end of something or the transition of one something to another, so the world of professional bands that was happening in the 1860s, 70s, 80s, 90s, then Sousa’s band takes you in the 20th century, it’s really kind of the end of that tradition of touring professional musicians playing quasi-military band music.”
Before we go on with our narrative, let’s just pause here to recognize that Warfield is being overly modest and self-deprecating here—he is the most widely published expert on Sousa and professional bands in the U.S., whatever his early suppositions. It is partly because of his work on Sousa and on the repertoire Sousa performed that we can see the connections between what Sousa was doing and what was happening in small town bands throughout the U.S. As Prosch explains, those bands were extraordinarily popular.
“So, there are tens of thousands of bands spread out through America from the Civil War through World War I, let’s just say for the sake of convenience. Tens of thousands of bands. And every little city.
And you look at the pictures of these bands playing in the park and it’s not like fifteen old people sitting in the audience, the park is literally packed. It’s standing room only in an open park! Everyone goes to hear this. It’s a time when, and I think this maybe gets to your American Nationalism—it’s not so much American nationalism to me, that bands are involved in, although they are because of the Civil War and military bands, but there’s a civic pride. It’s a very local ‘This is our town, this is our town band, and we stand by it. We’re gonna hear this’ And you read these newspaper reviews, ‘this by God is the best town band in America’ It’s like, ‘yeah it’s not the best town band in America. You got like fifteen people,’ But, you know, to them it is! They’re never going to go down the road to hear the other town bands unless there’s a competition and then of course it’s not even about the music. The band is sort of a rallying point.”
Sousa toured the country playing in these small towns, capitalizing on local culture including in the choices about what music he was going to play. Patrick Warfield and I had a terrific conversation about this:
“He talks a lot about .. . The problem is that he’s at this moment when the highbrow/ lowbrow world is shifting. And I often ask my students, take a guess at who is the most frequently performed composer? And it’s sort of a trick question. What would you guess?
PW: Oh you’ve just answered the harder question, which is the second most frequently performed composer. Sousa is number one.
C: Oh, that makes sense, yes.
PW: He’s going to play his own music most and then Wagner is number two. So then you have this question, so why is the Wagner there? And the usual argument is okay, I’m going to have sweet treats of fun music and if I bribe you with that, then you’ll sit through the Wagner. And Sousa over and over again in an interview says, that’s not what I’m doing. I’m playing Wagner because the people of Fargo, N.D. wrote to me and said they want Wagner, right? He’s arguing that the American cultural desire is highbrow, and that it mixes perfectly well with everything else.”
Bryan Prosch explained to me that these choices in repertoire were mirrored in the pieces that the town band played “They’re the primary means of purveying culture to the population, and these bands are very conscious. There’s a lot of people writing about bands in the 19th century, talking about what they play and Sousa learned from Gilmore, Gilmore learned it from everyone else. That a band should play popular music, the hit song of the day, Sousa loves Annie Laurie, for example, I don’t know why, but it’s his favorite. And you play those pieces but you also play arrangements of classical hits Rossini or something like this, Beethoven, Sousa’s a huge fan of Wagner. So if you’re going to hear Wagner in America, in the 19th century, odds are you heard it in a band arrangement, not in an orchestra concert. And then you have marches and a lot of these marches are very patriotic, Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever, sort of classic to close out the concert with that”
So in other words, 19th century and early 20th century bands of all sizes and statures had a broad mix of repertoire. Some of it was highbrow, sophisticated contemporary music like transcriptions or re-arrangements for band taken from Wagner’s operas or Strauss’s symphonic music. In between those pieces were popular songs of the day and marches—things people could hum on their way out the door and play at home on the piano or violin. Despite Sousa’s statements to the public saying that the highbrow music was being chosen by the audience, it is quite possible that audiences preferred the marches and the popular songs. Nonetheless these highbrow excerpts were part of nearly every band concert from the outdoor weekend small town band concerts to the large urban gatherings that Sousa oversaw.
As Warfield explained to us a few minutes ago, despite its popularity, the town band began to disappear after World War I and it was almost entirely gone by World War II. During the same period the school band was on the rise. It wasn’t that the band itself went away, but that it became less affiliated with the town square and more closely tied to the local school system.
When Bryan Prosch looks at the documentary history of bands in the U.S., which he does in his forthcoming book, he sees this occurring during the early 20th century in a gradual way.
“To me it starts with these big Universities in the big cities and then over the course time it works its way out to the sticks. Like with my work with the Magnolia Band in Beaumont, their first band director was the company dentist and then when he quit and left, in 1928/ 1927. It was long enough before the Great Depression, They hire a new guy who doesn’t really work for the Petroleum company except for this part time salary. How does he do that? He starts the Beaumont High School Band and then he takes over the reins of the Beaumont Symphony Orchestra. So he’s really sort of juggling three jobs, one of which is the high school band. And then when the Magnolia Petroleum Company closes its band because of the Great Depression, then he’s kind of in a lurch, and what he ends up doing, he really focuses on the high school band program. So I think at risk of very much overgeneralizing, sort of my gut feeling on it would be that a lot of these town bands were thriving in the 1880s and 1890s and then by the time you get to the early 20th century, there’s a decline in town bands and you can ascribe that to all kinds of different things—the invention of recording technology, um, radio of course is a big deal, and with that sort of decline in town band popularity, increasingly, the town bands fall one-by-one, and what happens is these town band directors convert over to being high school band directors. And then bands become increasingly educational.”
By mid-century, the town band was really a thing of the past. At the American Bandmasters Association National meeting in 1965, Don Gillis interviewed several bandmasters about their role in the ABA. We have the raw takes for ten of these interviews at Special Collections in Performing Arts. One of the figures Gillis interviewed was Karl King, who had spent most of his career as a small town bandmaster. Here’s a little bit of their exchange. Don Gillis speaks first.
“D.G.: What in the world is the American Bandmasters’ Association anyway? Now, I know a little about it because I’ve been a member for a few years, but what do you
K.K.: Well, D.G.: You’ve been a member a long time, but my aunt Connie up in Karum, Missouri doesn’t know yet maybe.
K.K.: Well, eh, it was originally conceived of by Goldman and Harding I think had a lot to do with it and Victor Grabel, he was secretary at the time. I think that originally it was practically all professional bands. There were more then and we didn’t have many of the educational men and, as I say, there were only two college men and there was Jim Harper, he was probably the only high school man at the first convention. I think Archie McAllister came in a year or two. Originally it was supposed to be made up of professionals, high-class professional men. It was supposed to be, I guess, a little bit of an organization for those who were presumed to be the best of the band field of the time, and I don’t know as the ideals have changed much since. Our membership has changed now where the professional man is very much in the minority because there aren’t too many of us left, see.
D.G.: I see, the economy of the times!
K.K.: Yes, and uh . . .
D.G.: The educators now outnumber, however, there are nonetheless, a number, still, of municipal band directors K.K.: Oh, yes, and uh . . .
D.G.: And I like to think of the service bands almost as being the professional bands.
K.K.: Oh they are, very definitely. When I say professional bands, I certainly include THOSE bands by all means because they are, they are, the best you might
D.G.: The bands like the old Armco band, for example, or the, some of the bands that were early bands on radio, do not exist in the sense that we knew them at that time, but,
K.K.: Let me interrupt here just a . . . when I started in the business, you know, was in the old days of the town band and the municipal band and there were no school bands AT ALL, there just was no such animal, and there were no university and college bands that I was conscious of except here and there out of some college out in small band with twenty--twenty-five pieces like you’d call a pep band now, that’d play at little at a game or something, but there were no educational bands. The TOWN band was king when I started. Each community had one. They played at least one concert a week, downtown, the public square, or someplace, you know, and the. To me, the band was always the people’s music. But I’ve never gotten out of that feeling or that atmosphere, I still do it out on four mile island (?) on my forty-fifth year now in a municipal band and people still come to the outdoor concerts and they enjoy them and I’m glad we’re keeping that old. But this whole thing has changed, you know, the school bands, God bless ‘em, they help run some of the town bands out of business, that’s the only thing I have against them, but some of the smaller communities didn’t see fit to keep both of them going and, uh, I think the old town band was really a part of Americana that should never have been allowed to vanish.”
After listening to Karl King talk about the town band, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that King’s music was very much in the Sousa march tradition. His most famous one was the Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite March and that’s a circus march. You’ll hear some similarities to what Sousa wrote and then this extra quality that we hear in circus music, kind of a whirling spirit. You might recognize it from going to the circus yourself.
But as King implied in his interview with Gillis, the music was changing. Fewer marches were being composed and played. The thing is, the values of the academy fundamentally changed band music. So when the band moved from the town square into the school building, there was a new dynamic and that produced different pieces. One of the goals for many teachers is engage and challenge performers and audience members alike, so there were increasing calls for the composition and performance of art music written for band. This is the kind of music that you might associate with a symphony orchestra or opera house, but this time composed for the band rather than transcribed from a score for another type of ensemble.
One of Gillis’s other interviewees at the 1965 ABA meeting wrote this other kind of band music. His name was Vaclav Nelhybel. He had begun his career in Europe, working as a conductor for Swiss Radio Orchestra and eventually immigrating to the U.S. in 1957. A few years later, Nelhybel began to work with school bands. In works like Prelude and Fugue, which was performed at the 1965 ABA national meeting, Nelhybel sought to elevate concert band music.
Because of that interview with Don Gillis, we’re able to hear Nelhybel explain what he was trying to do with his works for band. The first voice you’ll hear is Don Gillis and the second Nelhybel.
“D.G.: Mmm-hmm. Well, you heard the American band and then just had to write for it.
V.N.: Well, eh, ya, I was, I was already tempted because em, I played myself with the exception of oboes and bassoons, or clarinets, all the brass instruments, so I was always kind of a man of wind instruments. And this fantastic, fantastic potentialities which were there. I was fascinated by it because in Europe they have bands. They have bands, like I say, Italian bands. They have the instrumentation which is much richer than the American, but the
D.G.: By richer, what do you mean?
V.N.: Many more, more different instruments. I, just, a high a-flat clarinet, is something what exists, then the generally the European bands have the differentiation in the brass. They have full brass families. Uh flugelhorns, alto, tenor horns, baritones, tuba, and trumpet, and so on. And so, what I did, I first tried to get as many recordings as possible, what has been composed, what has been recorded, and studied scores, and then, took about three months. Then, then I tried to find, where am I in it? I mean as composer, what is my response- I didn’t want to write something as it has been written because there are certain clichés of course. It’s not the same thing as symphonic music, the scope is absolutely, it’s individualistic. And there there has been, because it was meant for people, so somehow everybody was having at one, at one aim, but in symphonic music, everybody tried to express HIMself. (yes) And so, that’s what I tried, I tried, am trying.”
Nelhybel was closely affiliated with the American Bandmasters’ Association and with music in the schools. He spent a good deal of his career conducting and writing music for high school and college bands. In fact, that’s how David Holsinger got to meet Nelhybel. Holsinger told me the story when we spoke.
“C: You have cited Nelhybel as an influence several times. In our conversation just now and elsewhere. And I’ve been spending some time on a project on the 1965 ABA convention. Nelhybel was there, he was interviewed during that conference. And one of the things that I noticed in looking at that material is that his music really marks a transition.
D.H.: It does, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a big jump.
D.H.: I know that the music of Vaclav Nelhybel showed up in my life at just the right time. I’m afraid that his music doesn’t get played much today simply because his publishing company at the time just did not edit his music very well. I think those who play under his baton really realize the impressive angst of his music. All those flared crescendos never properly showed up on the printed page. And his percussion! Well, I really believe before Nelhybel had come aon the scene, percussion writing was basically ratty-tat-tat, ratty-tat-tat. Neylhybel’s percussion? Thunder and lightning. I’m convinced he changed the scope of band percussion to this day.
C: Well, and his concept of the band as well, really, I guess almost a symphonic ensemble in terms of range and um, canonization is really different.
D.H.: I had read that when Nelhybel encountered his first full score for concert band, he commented that it looked like acres and acres of clarinets and he imagined just what he could do with that. I think concert band was the perfect ensemble for his symphonic mind.
C: And so what was it about his conducting? I haven’t ever seen a video of him
D.H.: You know to me at age 19 Nelhybel was a furious titan on the podium. He didn’t step on the podium, he was the podium and all the strata around it. His hair flew in all directions. His baton was like a saber, slicing the air to ribbons and his eyes blazed with a fervor that seemed to tremble my very soul. And his music was both beautiful and brutal. He came to our very small college in 1965 and went on our annual tour with our concert band. He guest conducted on every concert. We played Chorale and Triticco, three concerts a day--morning, afternoon, and night--and three different locations. We concluded the tour in Kansas City so he could take a flight back to New York. That last concert under his baton basically changed my life. As is typical of touring ensembles, at the conclusion of the evening, everyone is helping to clear the stage and pack up the bus and the truck and with everyone rushing around me, I couldn’t move. I sat there on that stage, Mr. Joe College Cool, I suppose, and I cried and I cried. And in that moment I knew what my life passion was. I wanted to be a composer. The following week was spring break, and I went home and wrote my first composition, which basically became my first published piece.
We don’t have a recording of Holsinger playing under Nelhybel’s baton, but we do have this recording of Nelhybel’s Triticco.
[Nelhybel’s Triticco example]
The piece we just heard, Vaclav Nelhybel’s Triticco was one of the pieces that inspired David Holsinger to become a composer. Both composers come out of a long tradition of classical art music performed by bands. At first those pieces were transcriptions or re-arrangements of opera or symphonic compositions. Once the band became more closely associated with schools, there was an increasing demand for original music written for band or wind ensemble. The American Bandmasters Association responded to that demand by creating the Sousa-Ostwald competition for new compositions for band. Vaclav Nelhybel never won that competition, although his works for band are very much in that tradition. David Holsinger won it twice, first in 1982 for Armies of the Omnipresent Otserf and second in 1986 for In the Spring, at the Time When the Kings Go Off to War. Both the contest and the tradition of writing new music for wind ensemble continue, shaping the way students and professionals alike understand “band music.” Here’s the rousing conclusion to David Holsinger’s Armies of the Omnipresent Otserf to send us out.
[music plays in background] Thanks for joining us for our first episode of the SCPA podcast, “Not a Quiet Place”. We hope you’ll join us for the next three segments, each focusing on another aspect of the band world. In episode 2, “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” we look at marching bands at Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the U.S.
Which brings us to the last thing you need to know: Who are we? I’m Christina Taylor Gibson and I introduced myself at the top of the episode. I do most of the writing, researching, interviewing, and curating for these episodes. Benjamin Jackson produces, edits, and problem-solves. Natalie Salive is responsible for all web content. Remember to view her awesome work at lib.umd.edu/scpa-podcast We all work together at Special Collections in Performing Arts at the University of Maryland. [Music Full Volume]
More Information on the Web:
- Marine Band Webpage
- Library of Congress Page
- Holsinger's Personal Page
- Karl L. King Band
- SCPA exhibit
- Nelhybel Collection
Links to Music
- Complete Marches of John Philip Sousa
- Holsinger, To Tame the Perilous Skies
- Holsinger, The Armies of the Omnipresent Otserf
- Holsinger, In the Spring at the Time When Kings Go Off to War
- YouTube Mix of 50 Karl L. King Marches
- Nelhybel’s Trittico conducted by Revelli
Articles and Books
Bierley, Paul. Editor. John Philip Sousa: Excerpts from his Autobiography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Brozak, George A. “Revelli and Fennell: The Albert Austin Harding Influence.” Journal of Band Research 38, no. 1 (Fall 2002): 1-24.
Camphouse, Mark. Editor. “David Holsinger.” In Composers on Composing for Band. Chicago: G.I.A. Publications, 2002.
Clickard, Stephen. “David Holsinger.” In A Composer’s Insight: Thoughts, Analysis, and Commentary on Contemporary Masterpieces for Wind Band. Volume 3. Galesville, MD: Meredith Music, 2006.
Kopetz, Barry. “Karl L. King: A Biographical Sketch of the Early Years (1891-2920).” Journal of Band Research 25, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 47-63.
Mark, Michael. “Music Education History and the Future.” In Music Education: Navigating the Future. New York: Routledge, 2015. 3-12.
Proksch, Bryan. Editor. John Philip Sousa. Middleton, WI: A-R Editions, 2019.
Pisani, Michael. “John Philip Sousa’s ‘Red Indians’: A Case Study of Race in Music.” Nineteenth Century Music Review 3, no. 1 (2006): 73-88.
Silvey, Brian A. “The 1923 Schools Band Contest of America.” Journal of Band Research 45, no 1 (Fall 2009): 56-61
Sullivan, Jill M. and Amy E. Spears. “All-Female School Bands: Separate Spheres and Gender Equality.” In Women’s Bands in America: Performing Music and Gender. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017.
Warfield, Patrick. Making the March King: John Philip Sousa’s Washington Years, 1854-1893. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013.