A Brief History of British Military Music

We would like to start this post by wishing all of our readers a Happy New Year! We hope you enjoyed our content last year, and we looking forward to publishing more articles in 2020. Please do get in touch with us with any requests for topics you would like us to cover. To start off the New Year, we are going to to look at a brief history of British Military Music.

Unsophisticated Beginnings of British Military Music

British military music was unsophisticated until the Crusades (from the late 11th century). Trumpeters and drummers in the field sufficed as a medium for communication, as did pipers whose further remit was to frighten the enemy. Casualty clearance and first aid became their dual roll.

Our bands were generically descended from Saracen origins, described by one Crusader as,

‘comprising trumpets, clarions, horns, pipes, drums, cymbals – a prodigious array, creating horrible noise and clamour.’

These bands performed in Tournaments, were taken on campaigns and were employed on Naval vessels.

European Influence on British Military Music

From the 17th century onwards our European allies (and enemies) influenced each other and us in the development of military bands. Stretcher bearing became the universal secondary employment.

In 1762 the English Royal Artillery raised a band comprising eight musicians. By the 18th century, Turkish music performed by black men on bass drums, cymbals, triangles and tambourines became de rigueur. They performed drumstick displays wearing leopard skin aprons.

Maintained by regimental officers, bands grew steadily, in both size and popularity. Rivalry was created at an international level, usually with France in the lead. Then from 1830 to 1860 the zenith of extravagance was reached; by 1845 Adolph Sax had invented the piston valve that revolutionised bands’ instrumentation.

Forming a School for Military Bandsmen

In  1854 at Scutari in the Crimea, 16 thousand troops, paraded in celebration of Queen Victoria’s birthday. They heard a disparate rendition of the National Anthem that prompted the setting up of a school for military bandsmen at Kneller Hall in Twickenham.. The aim of this was to achieve uniformity of pitch and performance.

At the Royal Military School of Music, the world renowned extensive bandmaster’s course, culminated in graduation and appointment, and a presentation of the following oath:-

“I hereby promise and pledge my honour that being appointed to a Regiment as Bandmaster, I will do my utmost to fulfil the duties thereof and to deserve the Confidence placed in me; and with God’s help labour zealously and honestly in my vocation to prove myself thoroughly worthy of the same. I further pledge myself not to be tempted by any consideration whatever, private or pecuniary to abuse the trust confided in me and to do all in my power towards the economy of the Band Fund, by taking every care of the instruments and the other property committed to my charge and to preserve them in good order for as long as possible. That I will never ask for instruments etc., until I am conscientiously convinced that they are required and in the interests of the Band, cannot be deferred – and that I will then endeavour to induce the officers to obtain instruments or reeds through the Horse Guards, thereby to insure them, the best goods, on the most economical terms – without expecting any gain or profit to myself through such purchases.

I will never forget the benefit I have derived from the Institution which gave me my appointment and will endeavour to uphold the interests of Kneller Hall by word and deed, and to promote the same not only out of gratitude but for the benefit of others and I will take special care, as far as I can, to promote this end by inducing worthy non-commissioned officers, and good musicians to join the institution in order to maintain in the Army a creditable body of men in the rank of Military Bandmaster.

I will never lose sight of the fact now impressed upon me by the Commandant that the position of a Military and Civilian Bandmaster is very different – much more is expected from the former than the latter. If, from neglect of duty, drunkenness, peculation, or any other offence, a civilian may commit himself, the offence may perhaps be overlooked, or he would simply be sent away, as a bad servant, the officers feeling themselves amply satisfied in getting rid of him, without proceeding to extreme measures or to the Civil law. If however, for any offence as above mentioned, a soldier commits himself and more specially a Warrant Officer, it is termed a crime, and he is at once liable to a Court Martial. Thus while a civilian simply loses a situation and probably soon gets another, a Military Bandmaster may be utterly ruined, not only losing an excellent appointment without the last chance of getting another, likewise all hope.

I realise that in the case of the Civilian he impairs himself only, no one else suffers; but that in a Military Bandmaster, he belongs to a class on whom jealous eyes are constantly piped and he injures the whole body to whom he belongs, and the institution to which he owed his appointment – and from which in his distress, he can never look for sympathy, or help hereafter. I subscribe my name hereto, to certify that I will abide by the promise above given, to act zealously and honourably towards my employers, and also to certify that the rest of this document has been thoroughly explained to me and made intelligible to my comprehension.”

British Military Music Today

Since that time, thousands of musicians have emanated from the Royal Military School of Music into the 230 bands of the British Army, sadly now reduced to 15. But that doesn’t mean mediocrity. One has only to bear witness to modern methods of communication through YouTube, Facebook and the like, to witness, both live and recorded concerts worldwide; and it’s not only Army Bands that are out there. HM Royal Marines seem to be at their busiest in December as indeed are the bands of the Royal Air Force, especially in and around London.

A very Happy New Year to all you readers of the News page on the BBICO website .

Cyril Foster

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