Saturday 27 June 2015

Marching Out

All around the UK today there’ll by military bands and soldiers parading through towns and cities for our annual Armed Forces Day. Each year one city hosts the main national celebration, and I remember well the parade in Nottingham when it was hosted here 2 years ago.

Today it seems impossible to have a military parade without a marching band. But that’s how they were until about 350 years ago when a courtier adapted an idea from the Turks and applied it to the French army.

There are two types of military music. First is the music played on the battlefield. This can be imagined in the bugle charges of the cavalry, or the solitary bagpipe. The Turks had a particular type of band who would gather around their military standard during battle and play loud music to reassure the soldiers that their standard was still flying. This military band was a small group of perhaps ten musicians.

The Turks had an elite fighting force called the Janissaries and they seem to have been the first to form these small military bands in the 1330s. As well as performing on the battlefield the Janissary bands also played at ceremonial events and parades, and it is this second type which influenced the creation of the modern military parade. The ceremonial use of military music has survived and flourished more than the music of the battlefield.

The first European power to use recognisably Turkish military music was Poland, in a fusion with European music which quickly spread westwards. What made these military bands sound Turkish was the introduction of instruments not used in European music – big bass drums and cymbals. Imagine a modern marching band without them! And there was one new instrument developed by the Europeans especially to make military bands sound more Turkish – the triangle. Yes, that small bit of bent metal rod in a shape that has its own resonance in lgbt heritage was invented to create a feel of the Ottoman Empire.

With these new instruments and the traditional European forefathers of the oboe and trombone the modern military band was formed. This combination was pioneered by that French courtier I mentioned back at the top of this article. But what is most significant about his contribution to military bands is that he decided to put the band among the ranks of the marching soldiers instead of have them stand to one side – he invented the marching band. His name was Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687).

An Italian by birth Lully was appointed Superintendent of the Royal Music by the French King Louis XIV. Several important changes were being made in the military during King Louis’s reign. First was the establishing of Europe’s first full-time standing army. Next was the introduction of the flintlock musket and bayonet. Then there was the close formation marching. It was only natural that Lully would be dragged in to write the first military marches.

Lully was already experienced in writing music for people to move by. He was an enthusiastic dancer (he first met the king at a dance) and working with the royal dance master Lully created the first modern ballets. King Louis’ enthusiasm for the ballet and opera faded in the 1680s, and he became tired of Lully’s open gay relationships. Louis apparently knew of several courtiers who had homosexual affairs, and one of Lully’s with a young “music page” called Brunet attracted too much notice.

Here’s one final connection between the modern military marching band and Lully. During Lully’s lifetime the method of conducting a band or orchestra was with the use of a large staff which the conductor tapped onto the floor to help keep time. Lully used one of these staffs to conduct the royal orchestra in a celebration of the king’s recovery from surgery.

During the performance Lully jabbed himself in the foot. Rather vainly he refused to have the foot amputated because it would mean he wouldn’t be able to dance. Gangrene set in, which spread to his brain and he died.

And the connection to modern marching bands? Who do you see marching at the front of the band? A man with a big staff, just like the one that killed Lully.

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