The “Gold Standard” for wind bands in the United States is the United States Marine Band, which is actually the oldest continuously operating musical ensemble in our nation, having been established by an Act of Congress signed into law by President John Adams in 1798. Often called “The President’s Own”, it is the Marine Band that provides the music for Presidential Inauguration ceremonies, receptions of foreign dignitaries on the White House South Lawn, state dinners, and more, including public concerts. This is no organization of “second-rate” musicians; performers are selected by an audition process as rigorous as that employed by many professional orchestras, and the members of the Marine Band are career professionals, as well as members of the United States Marine Corps.
The Marine Band performs a lot, though for the vast majority of Americans, the main venue where they get to hear the band is on Inauguration Day every four years when depending on how much of the ceremony they watch, they might hear “The Star Spangled Banner”, “America the Beautiful”, “The Stars and Stripes Forever”, and “Hail to the Chief”. That’s a pity. There is an enormous wealth of wonderful music for concert band beyond the marches and circus music, and the US Marine Band has recorded a ton of it over the years.
Marine Band Showcase is an album I sought out because of one piece on it, and at the time I had to order it through a subscription service called the Musical Heritage Society, which was basically Columbia House for classical music lovers. It has since turned up for sale in various outlets, and the whole thing is available on YouTube, which is nice. The album is perfectly titled: it’s a showcase of the wide range of musical expression a wind band is capable of achieving.
The disc opens with a transcription, Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C Major, BWV 564. This is the only transcription on the disc, which is notable because transcriptions of orchestral and keyboard works used to comprise the majority of the repertoire for wind bands. The other seven selections are music specifically written for wind band, and there isn’t a single Sousa or K.L. King march in evidence. There is one by Beethoven, the March in D Major, that the great composer wrote for the bands of his day, and there is Percy Grainger’s wondrous Children’s March: Over the Hills and Far Away, which is one of the most charming pieces of music ever composed. Grainger’s Marching Song of Democracy is here, and it’s an interesting work in its own right. There is Camille Saint-Saens’s work for wind band, Orient et Occident, which is a standard of the band repertoire. And there are several “modern” works, one of which is the reason I sought this disc out. That work is Elegy, by Mark Camphouse, and it is one of the most moving pieces of music I have ever heard.
I was fortunate enough to get to perform this work in my freshman year of college, and I still remember how stunning I found the piece. It opens with a solo flute, sounding a motif that recurs throughout the piece, and very, very gradually the rest of the woodwinds enter. Listen to the Marines play this! It’s some of the best woodwind playing you’ll ever hear, and gradually the rest of the band arrives. Elegy is a piece that questions and strives, always seeming to gather its strength and then ebb away, and parts of it sound like a liturgical comment on death. There are passages of mystery and anger; melodies seem to arise but then disappear again throughout as the music poses questions whose answers never seem to satisfy. Finally, though, we come to the work’s final segment, starting at the 10:42 mark below, in which Camphouse finally seems to be pushing toward an answer. This starts with a more contemplative tone, but it builds and builds and builds until we arrive at a final flowering that is one of the most astonishing musical climaxes I have ever known. (Playing this in college had the effect of leaving more than a few of us in the band in tears.) Elegy ends with a feeling of peace and calm and acceptance, but…one final tolling of the bell, off the tonic, leaves the listener with a slight sense of non-resolution.
Elegy is a work that plumbs some of the deepest mysteries of human existence, and I consider it to be a masterpiece. It’s a work to which I turn often in times of emotional stress; it was the first piece of music that I could listen to after 9-11-01. I’ve listened to it a number of times over the last year, for obvious reasons.
The Marines play all of this amazingly, with utter technical command of their instruments, and their sound is full and robust, the way a great band should be. This is a great, great recording.
Here is the entire album, embedded as a playlist. Enjoy!