Opera at the Bandstand: Then and Now

By Wells, David A. | ARSC Journal, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Opera at the Bandstand: Then and Now


Wells, David A., ARSC Journal


Opera at the Bandstand: Then and Now. By George W. Martin. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2014. 254pp (hardcover). Illustrations, Bibliography, Index. ISBN 978-0-8108-8853-1. $85

In the nineteenth century, public concerts by wind bands were a popular form of entertainment in the United States. In an era in which the country had only a handful of major orchestras, thousands of bands--local and touring, amateur and professional, large and small--brought a wide array of music to the ears of the general public. A surprisingly large portion of the repertoire of these bands consisted of arrangements or transcriptions of excerpts from contemporary operas. This practice, along with the spread of popular song and dance sets based on opera, meant that the average nineteenth-century American was likely familiar with operatic melodies even if he or she had never had the opportunity desire, or disposable income to see fully-staged grand opera.

George W. Martin sets out here to examine in detail the role of American wind bands in disseminating operatic repertoire, a subject that has not previously attracted much scholarly attention. But in order to accomplish this, he has written what amounts to a survey of the history of bands in the United States. Martin does not attempt to be comprehensive; rather he focuses on the activities and programming of some of the most prominent bands. To this end, he discusses the bands of Dodworth, Jullien, Gilmore, Sousa, and others. Throughout, he provides a thorough account of the operatic selections played by these bands.

Moving into the twentieth century, Martin tracks the various technological, economic, social, and musical factors that contributed to the decline in wind bands in the mold of the great ensembles of the previous century. A handful of groups, most notably the U.S. Marine Band and the Goldman Band, did of course survive, and Martin continues his survey with these groups. He also details the new kinds of wind groups that emerged in the twentieth century: dance bands and the school-based wind ensemble. He argues that the latter of these, now the most common modern incarnation of the band, represents a break from the traditional role of wind bands. Rather than presenting a mixed array of popular and serious music (including operatic transcriptions), they generally focus on works specifically composed for band.

Martin's writing is clear and well structured, and he presents a good deal of compelling evidence for the prevalence and importance of operatic repertoire within the programming of nineteenth-century bands. …

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