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March Into March!

Marching band
Beth MacDonald
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Marching Band

“Ready? March!” And so, my mom, with a big smile, would order me and my siblings away from playtime and TV and up to teeth brushing and bed. That’s one of my memories of the word “march.”

Another was the excitement of any parade we were brought to see as we grew up in Boston. There were parades with marching bands for St. Patrick’s Day, Memorial Day, the 4th of July, the North End’s summer street feasts/parades honoring different saints, and even the local Little League Opening Day parade for a few years when my kid brother was a participant. And we never, ever missed watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on TV every Thanksgiving morning. Regardless of the different reasons for the parades, one thing was for sure – we’d see marching bands and hear them playing marches.

We grew up with marches. All of us know that a musical march is a lively piece of music to which you can, well, march, as in a parade. Right?

It turns out that in music, “march” is defined broadly as music having a strong regular beat, written for marching and performed by a military band. It’s understood to have originated as a way to keep up the morale of soldiers, perhaps beginning with only the steady beat of a drum.

In time, that original reason for marches evolved. Through the centuries came marches for the funerals of royalty and marionettes (Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette"), marches for royal coronations, marches to strike fear or stir-up patriotism as a country heads into war. Jazzy marches, graduation marches, bridal marches, and marches done by ballet dancers.

And don’t forget about “screamers.” That’s the name of the category of marches used by circuses in the first half of the 20th century. And there are piano marches and march movements in larger classical compositions that don’t require anyone to march at all.

Here are a few marches that show the wide variety of the music that qualifies under the category.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote about a dozen marches starting from age 11. His collected marches, K. 408, are scored for different groups of instruments, with and without strings. Most were commissions from noble patrons for outdoor enjoyment. Here is a grouping of 3 of them from three different orchestras and conductors.

One more famous march from Mozart: While many people call it the “Rondo alla Turca” (the Turkish Rondo), which was part of his Piano Sonata No. 11, K. 331/300i, throughout its history it has also been known as the “Turkish March.” That is because this movement imitates the sound of the Ottoman Janissary (elite infantry) Bands gaining popularity in Europe at the time. These are believed to be the oldest military bands in history. Mozart was not one to leave a popular form of music behind, especially if it meant a chance to make money from it. Here’s pianist Lars Roos.

Even before Mozart’s marches was English composer and organist Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary, also known as The Prince of Denmark’s March. It is believed he wrote it around 1700 for Denmark’s Prince George, who was husband to England’s Queen Anne. Here is jazz and classical trumpeter Wynton Marsalis with Anthony Newman conducting the English Chamber Orchestra.

This piece has gained great popularity over the last 50 years as a wedding march. It was also heard during the wedding ceremony of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles in 1981. By the way, about 4 minutes into the Beatles song “It’s All Too Much” (from the Yellow Submarine album) you’ll hear the March quoted!

Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg was asked to write the incidental music to Henryk Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. In Act 2, the title character Peer is brought into the Hall of the Mountain (Troll) King. Later in the scene, we hear the “March of the Trolls.” Here’s Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic.

The main theme of this next piece will be familiar to you if you’ve ever seen Loony Tunes cartoons or movies such as Beetlejuice. Frederic Chopin’s March funèbre (Funeral March) is often played as a stand-alone piece by pianists, but it was written originally as a movement in his Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 35. Here is one of the great Chopin interpreters, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli.

The March funèbre was played at Chopin’s own funeral as well as later at the state funerals for President John F. Kennedy, Sir Winston Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher.

John Phillip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever was written In December of 1896. While some of us grew up with the parody lyrics (“Be kind to your web-footed friends, for a duck may be somebody’s mother…”), the actual lyrics celebrate liberty, freedom, and the Union. I wanted you to have a version with the real lyrics! Here’s the U.S. Army Field Band and Soldier’s Chorus.

In 1987 this march became the National March of the United States by an act of Congress.

Just from the title, St. Louis Blues, you’d never guess the piece is a march, but it is. W.C. Handy’s piece was published in September of 1914. One of my favorite memories of this piece was hearing the Boston Pops play it in Symphony Hall, with drummer Fred Buda having the time of his life in the back row. I found you this recording of the St. Louis Symphony playing it, with the conductor Gemma New having the time of her life conducting it!

There have been countless marches written and you’ve probably heard countless versions of them, from Tchaikovsky’s “March of the Toy Soldiers” (from The Nutcracker ballet) to Victor Herbert’s “March of the Toys”, (from Babes in Arms); from Schubert’s Military March No. 1, to the famous “graduation march,” “Pomp and Circumstance,” March No.1, by Edward Elgar; from the “Triumphal March” from Verdi’s opera Aida to movie marches as heard in The Bridge on the River Kwai and the “March of the Winkies,” who guarded the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. Here's hoping these reminders help you march into March.

Coda: Let’s hear one more march. This time, from John Williams’s score to Star Wars Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back. Your heart starts racing when you recognize it’s Darth Vader’s theme.