History of wind band

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The modern wind band, often referred to with distinction as a Wind Ensemble, is a result of the evolutionary process of the past three hundred and fifty years.[1] The role of a wind instrument player has changed from a minor role in the orchestral setting, to a supportive ceremonial role in military situations, to a key player in an all wind professional performance group. These changes have required instrument makers to improve the quality of their product, and have inspired composers to write for a completely new genre of music.[1]

Military bands[edit]

During the American Revolutionary War, there were many unofficial bands in existence. These bands ranged from small music groups of drums and fifes, to larger bands with many woodwind and brass players. Much like modern military bands, these groups performed largely at ceremonial activities, for political reasons, or for parties. It is interesting to note that many generals had bands, sometimes more than one, yet historians often have a hard time placing them, as there is a distinct lack of documentation that they were anything more than groups of drummers and fifers. However, there are numerous accounts that have surfaced recently through correspondence that indicate there were groups with a wide variety of instrumentation in demand at the time.[2] By 1789, when president George Washington went on his grand tour of the United States, the popularity of bands had grown such that in every town he visited, one would greet him.[3]

The 1789 National Guard band in Paris was the first “incontestably modern wind band".[4] That isn’t to say that there aren’t well-documented wind groups performing before this time, but these were usually small, private, chamber groups, which don’t relate to the same degree to the size, role, or sound of a modern wind band. This was the first real distinction between band and orchestra, which was a gradual delineation.[5] The French Revolution propelled greatly the advancement of the concert band, with many large bands enjoying great prosperity. New instruments were developed, and the original repertoire for these groups flourished.[5]

Orchestral crossover[edit]

Before what we think of as a modern wind band came into existence, wind players found the orchestra to be a suitable outlet for musical expression. Many composers took advantage of the different colors and capacities of wind players and wrote pieces of music that showcased these abilities. Composers such as Berlioz, Wagner, Holst, and Stravinsky all were key in the advancement of winds.[1]

Richard Wagner (1813–1883) contributed greatly to the advancement of winds in the orchestra, which inevitably advanced the growth of wind bands. Wagner utilized brass in new ways, even prompting the development of new instruments such as the tenor tubas ("Wagner tubas") and the slide contrabass trombone. One of his greatest contributions to the repertoire was his Trauermusik, composed in 1844 for winds.[6]

Other orchestral composers who began to widen their sights towards wind players included Hector Berlioz (1803–1869), whose Treatise on Instrumentation (1844) [1] proved to be the most “informative history" that has been found regarding wind instruments prior to its publication.[1]

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) in his early ballets L'Oiseau de feu (1910); Petrushka (1911); Le Sacre du printemps (1913) utilized extra-large wind sections. After the first World War, Stravinsky abandoned such huge orchestral writing and focused on smaller groups for a time, including wind groups. His work Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920) for orchestral-sized wind section is considered one of the most important 20th century compositions written for wind instruments, and his two later works for jazz band Preludium for Jazz Band (1936/37) and Ebony Concerto for clarinet and jazz band (1945 - written for band leader Woody Herman) also have importance.

Professional bands[edit]


Beginning shortly before, and extending into, the American Civil War, the widely popular bands were performing across the nation. One bandmaster, Patrick S. Gilmore (1829–1892), was earning great popularity touring with his group, “Gilmore’s Grand Boston Band", and led the way to the explosion of the American professional concert band.,[1][3] This is undoubtedly one of the greatest times for professional bands in the history of the genre, the “Golden Age of Bands".,[1][3] Gilmore’s very large band (often with 100 players) was one of the first professional bands. He had demanding standards, and they rehearsed and performed at many different venues including your traditional ceremonial military events, but also dance halls, parades, put on concerts, and other social events. If a party was willing to pay for their services, Gilmore would bring his band, or a part of it to suit their needs. With that being said, they obviously had a wide variety of repertoire to pull from to entertain. Everything from polkas and waltzes to marches.[4] After the outbreak of the Civil War, Gilmore’s band was enlisted in a Volunteer Regiment, and set the standard for military bands.[4] After the war, his band toured Europe, not spreading necessarily artistic music, but entertaining and exposing the world to this new style of band and spreading its popularity.[1] Back home, he organized the “Peace Jubilee", in which 10,926 singers, 525 orchestra players, and 486 wind players participated.[3] This five-day event showcased all the artists and was a booming success. The response to this inspired Gilmore to plan and execute the World's Peace Jubilee and International Musical Festival in 1872, at which the numbers of performers in all the groups was doubled.[4] Gilmore’s mastery of promotion and marketing helped the popularity of the wind band grow, and paved the way for his even more popular successor, John Philip Sousa.[1]


John Philip Sousa (1854–1932) became leader of the United States Marine Band in 1880, and began touring and enjoying great success. In 1892, after Gilmore’s death, he started his own band, as a model after Gilmore’s professional band concept in style, repertoire, and size.,[1][3] Many of Gilmore’s soloists and players were the core to this new band, and he set up a tribute concert two days after Gilmore’s death.[3] He took his band across the United States and Europe on concert tours, all the while remaining busy as a composer, penning marches for his band that remain standards of the band repertoire to this day. His legacy as the greatest march composer and bandmaster is a title that holds true today.[4] Compositions include Semper Fidelis, The Washington Post March, Star-Spangled Banner arrangement (which has become an American concert tradition), El Capitan, and The Stars and Stripes Forever.[3] In addition to great works composed for band, Sousa also made it a point to feature outstanding soloists with his group. Legendary trombonist Arthur Pryor, trumpeter Herbert L. Clarke, and Simone Mantia on Euphonium were among those featured.[3] At his peak, Sousa’s band enjoyed much popularity in the entertainment industry, especially since there was little competition as far as popular culture was concerned in the areas where the band functioned. This is particularly interesting given the fact that Sousa himself had no expert capacity on any wind instrument.[4] As other attractions and entertainment developed, the popularity of the band diminished, and the "Golden Age" of professional bands came to a close.[1]

Influential composers[edit]

In Europe at the turn of the 20th century, wind bands were also enjoying a high standard of performance and level of popularity.[4] The core literature of bands had relied heavily of orchestral transcription in the past, but with the growing popularity of the wind band, composers were starting to take notice. In 1909 English composer Gustav Holst (1874–1934) wrote his First Suite in Eb; designed for the British-style military band, this piece has become a cornerstone in band literature. It is considered the first piece of music where the composer crafted very carefully the colors and style of wind instruments.[1] The Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall, in a southwest suburb of London, was the place where credit for the popularity of many famous works for British band is credited. Under the direction of Colonel John A. C. Somerville, this school popularized many great works by Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gordon Jacob, and Percy Grainger.[7] These pieces have since become standards in the band repertory, respected and well known to all modern band directors and music educators.,[7][8]

American contemporaries to these British innovators include Charles Ives, an often-misunderstood visionary of the twentieth century. Ives composed music for both orchestra and wind bands from a young age, with his earliest composition being premiered when he was only 11 years old.[3] The popularity of his very original sounding music speaks of the openness and change that was happening in the band world at the time, becoming more open to different genres of music. Many of his pieces not originally composed for a wind setting have since been transcribed and seen much implementation in the band repertory.[3] Since 1940, there have been many original works for Wind Band by most prominent American composers.,[3][4]

Percy Aldridge Grainger (1882–1961) had a colorful effect on the evolution of the band world. He felt that composers should be working on music designed specifically for the demands and abilities of a wind band, just as they do for an orchestra.[9] He convincingly spoke of the importance of a composer carefully considering each family of instruments and its color.[9] Sousa, who performed them quite frequently with his band, helped immensely to popularize Grainger's works. A huge advocate for the saxophone, Grainger played a big role in its rapidly growing popularity, and he wrote very carefully for the instrument, saying it is, " . . . indispensable, but must be balanced and complete".,[3][9]

The modern Wind Ensemble[edit]

During the middle part of the 20th century, the modern band went through somewhat of a renaissance. School bands were growing in popularity and popping up all over the country. This band consisted of far fewer players, about 45, maintaining the sound of a large band, but with the virtuosity of a chamber group.,[3][4] All the previous repertory is playable, yet musical independence is more easily achieved, even in younger bands, with an ensemble of this size.[1] The goal of this ensemble is artistic expression, not entertainment like its predecessors.[4] Also, all instruments used in the model for the Symphonic Wind Ensemble were usually readily available in most high school band rooms.

Only in the 1950s did composers really begin to explore the genre of the Wind Ensemble, with many pieces being written for it, most of which remain standards to this day. Schoenberg, Milhaud, Goldman, H. Owen Reed, Hindemith, Vincent Persichetti, and Morton Gould are all composers who came into their own during this time as composers of wind band music, and helped to foster a core of repertoire that would be performed for generations to come.[3]


In Japan, for example, it has developed into a rich and enormous tradition of its own, with prolific composers, prominent professional ensembles, and an enormous national competition.[10] This history, across both the span of time and geographic borders, has seen a distinct transformation in the instruments, players, and repertory for winds. The band has grown along with the times; and will certainly continue to do so as we continue along this evolutionary process.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Fennell, Frederick. Time and the Winds. G. LeBlanc Co.
  2. ^ Anderson, Simon V., “The Unofficial Bands of the American Revolution," Music Educators Journal vol. 61, no. 4 (1974)
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Hansen, Richard K, The American Wind Band: A Cultural History, GIA Pub., Chicago, 2005.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Goldman, Richard Franko. The Wind Band. Allyn and Bacon, Inc, Boston, 1961.
  5. ^ a b Goldman, Richard Franko. The Concert Band. Rinehart & Co., Inc. New York, New York, 1946.
  6. ^ Votta, Micheal “Richard Wagner’s Trauermusik, WWV 73." in the Wind Ensemble and its Repertoire, eds, Cipolla and Hunsburger (New York: University of Rochester Press, 1994),
  7. ^ a b Mitchell, Jon C, “J.A.C. Somerville and the British Band in the Era of Holst and Vaughan Williams." in the Wind Ensemble and its Repertoire, eds, Cipolla and Hunsburger (New York: University of Rochester Press, 1994),
  8. ^ Reynish, Timothy, “Contemporary British Music for Band and Wind Ensemble," in the Wind Ensemble and its Repertoire, eds, Cipolla and Hunsburger (New York: University of Rochester Press, 1994)
  9. ^ a b c Grainger, Percy. “Possibilities of the Wind Band form the Standpoint of a Modern Composer," in Grainger on Music, eds Gillies and Ross (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)
  10. ^ Hebert, David G, Wind Bands and Cultural Identity in Japanese Schools (Dordrecht and New York: Springer, 2012).