Music & the British Military in the Long Nineteenth Century

By Bourassa, Dominique | Notes, June 2015 | Go to article overview

Music & the British Military in the Long Nineteenth Century


Bourassa, Dominique, Notes


Music & the British Military in the Long Nineteenth Century. By Trevor Herbert and Helen Barlow. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. [xi, 353 p. ISBN 9780199898312. $74] Music example, illustrations, facsimiles, appendices, bibliography, index.

In his classic work on military music, Henry George Farmer noted that "during the past half-century, literature in all other branches of musical art has grown enormously and is still being poured out at a bewildering rate--yet works treating of military music, of its history, or of its theory, are conspicuously rare, and may be counted almost on the fingers of one hand" (Henry George Farmer, The Rise if Development of Military Music: Military Music and its Story [London: Wm. Reeves, [1912]], vi). These findings, set forth over a century ago, still ring true today. Despite military music's ubiquity, the literature on this subject is sparse, and even general music histories continue to ignore it. Under these circumstances, Trevor Herbert's and Helen Barlow's Music if the British Military in the Long Nineteenth Century is a welcome addition.

Herbert and Barlow point out that their "book is primarily about the music of the British army" (p. 15). Their research is based on an impressive array of primary sources (military regulations and other military and governmental publications, personal diaries, letters, local archives) and secondary sources. Herbert and Barlow's long nineteenth century lasts from the 1770s to 1914. They choose not to begin in 1789 as is usually done, because it is from the earlier date "that one can discern a regular and continuous pattern of the employment of bands of music" (p. 4). The result is a fascinating and wide-ranging book "on the phenomenon of [British] military music" (p. 9) at home and abroad.

In the introduction, Herbert and Barlow explain that the history of military bands can be divided into three periods: the late eighteenth century, during which military bands were not officially part of the British army, but instead were formed of professional musicians paid and maintained by officers; the early nineteenth century, a time of consolidation characterized by regiments maintaining bands formed of soldiers led by foreign (often German) civilian bandmasters; and the second half of the nineteenth century, a period of centralization, professionalization, and standardization (pp. 6-7). The authors explore these developments in eleven chapters that follow "a thematic rather than a strictly chronological approach" (p. 15).

Chapter 1 sets the scene by briefly considering signal instruments (drums, fifes, trumpets, bagpipes), which existed well before the late eighteenth century. These instruments served "as primary modes of communication between commanding officers and men" (p. 17): drums, for example, regulated marching; trumpets transmitted orders and signals. In chapter 2, Herbert and Barlow study the changing status of bands as a British military' institution in the late-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries: their organization, instrumentation (including janissary instruments), their role in the life of officers and regiments, and their positive impact on recruitment. The expansion of the military throughout the nineteenth century had beneficial consequences (in terms of numbers, pay, etc.) for military musicians and for their families as well (chap. 3). In chapter 4, the authors explore in more detail the evolving instrumentation and repertoire of military bands up to 1857, and survey the commercial infrastructures that supported them. They investigate provincial auxiliary forces (militia, yeomanry, and volunteers) before 1840 (chap. 5). Since most militia musicians had no prior musical experience, music training in militia bands "must be seen as the most important development in the supply of wind instrumentalists" in the early nineteenth century (p. 108). At the same time, the popularity of military tunes led to the publication of piano transcriptions that in turn fed the rapidly growing "provincial domestic piano market" (p. …

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