|Be honest: Does this picture|
give you flashbacks?
“Why doesn’t band music get as much respect as orchestral music does?”
I had to come up with an answer on the spot, and I think I was on the right track overall. Yet this is the type of question that can reveal so much about history and cultural assumptions that it warrants research and a much more thorough answer than I was able to give off the top of my head.
Some preliminaries: As most people reading this know, the telltale difference between band and orchestra is the presence of stringed instruments from the violin family. For the most part, bands don’t use them, and orchestras do (though there are exceptions). The word “orchestra” can apply to an ensemble of only strings (a “string orchestra”) or to a combination of strings and woodwinds, brass, and percussion (a “symphony orchestra” or “full orchestra”).
The word “band” in classical music encompasses several types of ensembles, some of them are differentiated less by which instruments are used than by the style of music they play: concert band, wind ensemble, symphonic band, wind orchestra, wind symphony, and so on with various permutations of the words “wind,” “band,” “ensemble,” “symphony” and “concert.” There are also military bands and, of course, marching bands, but for this post and Samuel’s question, I’m going to stick with the concept of a concert band—one that could be expected to play similar venues as an orchestra. That also means that I’m talking about works in which instruments are treated as a section, though there’s still a bit of crossover in the repertoire of concert bands and chamber ensembles, as some groups may play, say, a wind octet with multiple instruments per part.
One more thing before we look back in history: As with any question of this type, it’s wise to examine whether the underlying assumptions are true. That is, does band music have less cultural capital than orchestral music? I say this is an accurate perception, based on my experience as a string player, listening to classical radio, and generally belonging to the classical music community. Even beyond that, I came across this paragraph from the Simple English Wikipedia (which is apparently not as fastidiously maintained as the regular Wikipedia):
“The songs [sic.] written for the concert band are much more easy [sic.] to listen because of its repertoires. The repertoires are not only about the orchestral composition. Light music, jazz, march and popular tunes are also played. Even though people don't have special knowledge about it, anyone can enjoy the concert band music. It is highly acclaimed for both its quality and popularity. As the arrangement of concert band music is completed in the 20th century,its modern and dynamic style appeals general public.”(Incidentally, I hope that by the time you read this blog post that somebody has improved this paragraph. Please. I’d do it, but I doubt band folks want a violist defining them.)
– “Concert Band” on Simple English Wikipedia as of 3:23 pm on February 12, 2018
Whereas regular Wikipedia attempts weeds out cultural assumptions, this version presents them vividly. According to prevailing wisdom, band music is easier to listen to, doesn’t require specialized knowledge, and can be enjoyed by anyone. Conversely, orchestral music is more difficult, requires prior study, and is enjoyed by an exclusive set. I’m not conceding that any of the above is true (in fact, it’s complete BS), yet I do think this accurately reflects how most people outside of the band community think of bands and orchestras.
But where did these associations come from? Why are strings treated differently from the other instruments?
The distinction came about in the Medieval era, when instruments were classified as either haut or bas. Literally, these terms mean “high” and “low” respectively, but they refer to dynamics/volume rather than pitch or status. The haut instruments—such as the shawm, sackbut, and drums—are loud, suitable for playing in outdoors in festivals, or on the battlefield…or at a festival celebrating a battle. The bas instruments—viols, but also harps, lutes, and recorders—are quiet and more appropriate for indoor settings, like a royal court. Of course, a horn could be played inside, or a group of viols outside, but overall the outdoor/indoor associations stuck.
|Can you handle these haut beats?|
Both types of ensembles gathered more cultural associations over time. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, during the nineteenth century, people began to promote art appreciation as a way for people to improve themselves. Also, they thought that one needed to be educated to truly understand and appreciate “high” art, especially music. That linkage tends to apply to orchestral music, but not as much to band music. Or, as John Philip Sousa said, “Theodore Thomas [conductor of the Chicago Symphony] gave Wagner, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky in the belief that he was educating his public; I gave Wagner, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky with the hope that I was entertaining my public.”
Sousa was a major influence in how people in the United States perceive band music. He started off playing violin, of all things, but he enlisted in the United States Marine Band, eventually becoming their director. After that, Sousa built his own band of professional musicians, presenting them as precise and disciplined as an actual regiment, with him in the dual role of conductor and commander.
|The March King himself|
I could go on and on about Sousa, but instead I’ll just mention that his extensive touring not only shaped the public perception of what a band should sound and look like, it also inspired many people to become musicians themselves. Composer Meredith Willson, best known for his musical The Music Man, attended a Sousa concert as a child in Mason City and was inspired to learn to play flute. At age 19, he joined Sousa’s band as a piccolo player, a time he recounted in his first autobiography, And There I Stood with My Piccolo. Those familiar with The Music Man, with its plot involving the formation of a town band, can understand how bands have been cemented as a populist endeavor in the American imagination.
Anyway, this populist image has been a double-edged sword for band music through the ages. If a school is fortunate enough to have a music program, it is much more likely to have a band than an orchestra. Bands, especially marching bands, are a fixture at football games and other sporting events. Band programs often receive more funding and exposure than orchestral programs, at least in the realm of music education.
However, because of its popularity and association with entertainment, bands also suffer the stigma of amateurism. Community bands are still going strong throughout the country, at many different skill levels. Even though professional bands exist, the classical music world has been slow to accept them as equals to professional orchestras. Many cities in the United States have orchestras established in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, proudly bearing their city’s name: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, and so on. These carry the weight of cultural institutions and are a point of civic pride. They receive more respect and patronage, leveraging their image as purveyors of “high” art.
Some ambitious conductors and composers have tried to garner more respect for concert bands in the classical music sphere. Perhaps the most notable figure was Frederick Fennell, who formed the Eastman Wind Ensemble and commissioned works from big names like Percy Grainger, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Vincent Persichetti. Fennell—and other directors with similar goals—also encouraged composers to write longer, multi-movement works like symphonies and concertos in contrast to the short works typically performed by bands, to give some artistic heft to the repertory.
But is orchestral music really a higher art than band music, whatever that might mean? Does a composer draw less on their artistic faculties when writing for band? Is it more challenging to compose for orchestra than band?
I informally asked some composers I know on Twitter about writing for band vs. orchestra, and they shared a variety of perspectives. Chris Cresswell asserts that every composition takes artistic effort: “As a composer I try to write the most honest piece I can, regardless of outsider's perception of the ensemble.”
Several composers mentioned challenges specific to writing for band, some of which are intrinsic to the medium. For instance, in orchestral writing, the stringed instruments tend to blend their sound, and individual woodwinds, brass, and percussionists are used for touches of color. Bands, however, coordinate entire sections of each instrument instead of soloists.
Brin Solomon says, “[In my opinion] writing for band is more challenging because the colors are more distinct and less prone to blending; it’s hard to make something ‘pop’ with timbre since every color in the band is one that traditional orchestral writing treats as an accent color.” Patricia Wallinga notes a similar issue: “I find band writing more challenging than orchestra writing because there are more instruments that can and will obscure other melodic instruments.”
Yet some of the difficulties composers mention are connected to the public perception—and often reality—of bands as amateur ensembles. Matthew Saunders laid out these challenges in a series of Tweets, pointing out that, “with a top-level band, you are more likely to be writing for student performers, since there are very few professional bands outside the military, and a handful of professional groups that match the level of, say, a mid-tier regional symphony.” In addition to aiming music at a certain level of difficulty, Saunders notes the need for band music to be more flexible than orchestral music:
“As a composer, one of the big challenges for band writing is that I often don't know how many players will be on each part, which leaves many decisions about balance and tone quality in the hands of players and conductor more so than in orchestra…Even in works played by top groups, instrumentation is flexible. As a result, tuba, baritone sax, bassoon, bass clarinets may all have essentially the same part, especially in older works. In orchestra, there is a stronger tradition of a ‘standard’ instrumentation and professional groups are expected to have what the composer asks for, no more, no less.”
Saunder’s observation is closely tied to the perception of orchestral works as artworks that must be rendered according to the vision of the Great Composer, whereas band pieces are allowed to bend to the circumstances of performance.
Once again, I’m sarcastically referring the power bestowed to the Great Composers by many classical music enthusiasts. But what happens when a Great Composer deigns to write a piece for band?
|If you don't think Sousa is a |
Great Composer, he'll pop ya!
Yet many composers find advantages to composing away from the constraining expectations of “high art.” Kate Sutton, who is preparing to defend her dissertation on this very topic, informed me that composers’ perception of band music has changed over the past sixty or seventy years, to the point where many appreciate the artistic flexibility of a style that is mostly overlooked by the classical canon. Also, without so many dead white men taking up spots on concert programs, bands usually play more works by living composers. Among the recent composers who have earned praise for their high levels of artistic expression in band music are Joseph Schwantner, Kristin Kuster, Steven Bryant, David Maslanka, Roshanne Etezady, and John Mackey.
Unfortunately, most of these developments in band music are known only within the band community. The major works and composers in the realm of band are still obscure to even ardent fans of classical music. As with other issues of a restrictive canon, this ignorance can be overcome by increased exposure. Though it would be awkward to program band works in a concert for symphony orchestra, perhaps classical radio stations could include more works by the above composers to familiarize listeners with what’s going on in that world without strings.
Public perception of band music and its relation to other types of music is complex, so much so that this long blog post touches on only the surface of a fraction of the deeper conversations to be had on this topic. In any case, I hope that you can see that, like so many other, band music has been shaped by composers’ responses to audience expectations. It isn’t intrinsically “less artistic” than any other form of music, and its populist reputation has given it a history distinct from other styles of instrumental music.
Many thanks to the composers in the Twitter discussion for providing quotes and helping shape a section of this post: Brin Solomon, Patricia Wallinga, Matthew Saunders, Philip Howie, and Chris Cresswell. Also, thank you to Kate Sutton, Rob Deemer, and Wes Flinn for their feedback on drafts of this blog post.
Like what you’ve read?
Meredith Willson, And There I Stood with My Piccolo, 1948.
Patrick Warfield, Making the March King: John Philip Sousa's Washington Years, 1854-1893, 2016.
Bryan Proksch, A Sousa Reader, 2017.
Kate Sutton, Conductor-Composer Relationships in the Contemporary American Wind Ensemble Community, PhD dissertation, 2018.