A New March King: John Williams and the Concert Band


How the Maestro explored one of the richest American musical traditions and brought it into the 21st century

by Maurizio Caschetto

Some of the most celebrated and stirring compositions by John Williams, including many written for films, find one of their roots into one of America’s most fruitful and longest musical traditions, namely the music for concert band, also known as symphonic band, or wind orchestra.

John Williams’ ties with this specific instrumental ensemble go as far as to his childhood, when among the instruments he played as a youngster, other than piano, were clarinet, trumpet and trombone. Later in his life, he served from 1951 to 1955 in the U.S. Air Force. He served primarily as a pianist and brass player, but also did arranging and writing for the Air Force Band. In this position, the composer learned to write, orchestrate and perform in the idiom and style of the concert band. Williams acknowledged that this period of his life was very important in shaping his own future path as a professional musician:

This was a wonderful experience, and it seemed I was the only one there who could write arrangements for that band. I conducted some of the rehearsals, and the band played summer concerts in a gazebo during which the base commander often requested his favorite songs. […] everything I knew about band arranging was an extension of what I learned as a youngster arranging for jazz or dance band pieces for school groups. […] My abilities as arranger by the time I joined the Air Force were the result of those very limited experiences.”

In 1953, during his time of service at the Pepperell base in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Williams composed original music for a documentary short titled You Are Welcome, a travelogue film about the Maritime Provinces of Canada commissioned by the Canadian government. For that project, Williams wrote his very first original film score, using folk tunes he discovered in the library at Newfoundland and woved into the score. He recorded the music with members of the Air Force band. The experience “was certainly one of the most significant events in that period of my life”, Williams said in 2003.

Article from 1954 magazine “The Beacon” featuring a spotlight on young John Williams during his years of service at the US Air Force (courtesy of Jeremy Martin)

The composer fondly reminisced his time serving in the Air Force in an interview from 2016:

Before going into Williams’ later major contribution to the concert band heritage and repertoire, it’s necessary to establish the historic and musicological context in which he would have been played his part.

Music for concert band has been one of the major staples of American music since at least two centuries. During the 19th century, large ensembles of wind and percussion instruments in the British and American tradition existed mainly in the form of the military band for festive and ceremonial occasions. The repertoire consisted mostly of marches, but there were also transcriptions of famous orchestral pieces from the classical and opera catalogue. The march was however always the most natural musical setpiece for the concert band, because of its shared DNA with military music and its specific requirements (bugles, field drums and fifes, emphasis on fanfares and marching rhythms). It was also the perfect musical accompaniment for celebratory parades and rallies. Music for miltary bands and brass ensembles also had a very important development in the United Kingdom, where there is also a lively tradition for brass bands (a.k.a. “silverbands”) based around communities and local industry in several regions of the country, with colliery bands being particularly notable.

It was during this time that composer John Philip Sousa emerged as the most prominent figure in music for concert band. Sousa was conductor and leader of the United States Marine Band (a.k.a. “The President’s Own”) from 1880 to 1892. After leaving the Marine Band, he formed his own ensemble, the Sousa Band, with which he would tour successfully for the next four decades. He was a key figure in establishing a very specific sound and style for this kind of ensemble. He found parade music to be excessively brassy, so he greatly expanded the woodwind section, hence producing a more compact symphonic sound, to the point that this balance became standard international practice. He also changed the usual form of the march from the A-B-A to A-B, abolishing the return to the original key for the final section, to spice up the composition and also give a more surprising effect to the audience.

John Philip Sousa

During his long and distinguished career, Sousa composed more than 100 marches, including pieces like Stars and Stripes Forever, The Washington Post March, Semper Fidelis, The Liberty Bell, The Thunderer, King Cotton and many others that became some of the most beloved staples of the American tradition. His popularity was so large that earned him the nickname “The March King”. Many of this pieces are still performed by concert bands around the world and they’re also used in high school and university bands across the United States, becoming one of the de facto musical backbones for generations of performers and musicians. Sousa’s marches do something more than being customary accompaniment to parades. “His aim in performing them was to evoke, with an ensemble of picked virtuosos, the exuberant emotions that underlie the celebratory human impulse to march”, wrote musician and historian Benjamin Folkman.

John Philip Sousa and the United Stated Marine Band “The President’s Own”

Besides the U.S. Marine Band and many other fine concert military bands, one of the ensembles that helped pushing Sousa’s repertorie and spreading it even more onto public consciousness during the 20th century was the Boston Pops Orchestra, led by conductor Arthur Fiedler for almost 50 years. One of Fielder’s mantras during his tenure as music director of the Pops was embracing a larger audience through the inclusion of pieces that spoke to the national heritage and the American core values. “Sousa’s concerts were, in fact, Pops programs par excellence, featuring operatic arias, violin concerto movements and classical overtures, with famous marches interspersed throughout as encores”, wrote Benjamin Folkman. Sousa’s marches found a perfect place into Boston Pops’ concerts, becoming a true staple of this orchestra’s repertoire. Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever – which really is an alternate American anthem – is the very last piece to be performed at every Pops’ concert still to this day.

Arthur Fiedler conducting the Boston Pops Orchestra (1969)

John Williams found himself picking up John Philip Sousa’s legacy almost by chance, but, as said above, we can find the seeds of his ties to the composer in his own musical formation, where he was able to absorb concert band music and its own idiom. The first example of Williams’ own march style dates back to 1976, when he composed the score for the film Midway. Directed by Jack Smight and featuring an all-star cast including Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, Toshiro Mifune and Robert Mitchum, the movie tells the real-life story of the historic Battle of Midway, one of the turning point of the Second World War in the Pacific. Despite the setting and the epic proportions of the production, the composer scored the film with a very discrete approach and sensibility. “Williams’ spare score focuses on character-based moments and conversations about battle tactics that compel the audience to take note of decisions that will affect the outcome of the action at hand”, wrote record producer Mike Matessino in the liner notes of the soundtrack album. However, the composer also wrote a patriotic march for the film’s end credits in pure Sousa fashion, featuring bold brass fanfares and virtuoso piccolo parts. As Matessino notes, the march “prefigures Williams’ later association with patriotic music that came with his 1980 posting as principal conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra”.

In 1977, Williams composed the score for George Lucas’ Star Wars and the film and its score’s huge success projected his career into the stardom. The iconic main theme, as featured in the film’s main titles, is not an actual march, but it contains some of the traits that can be traced back to the composer’s love for concert bands. The brass are true protagonists and play figures that are similar to bugle calls and fanfares throughout the piece, while the melody is in the key of B-flat major (the natural sound of trumpets). The percussion section (snares, cymbals and timpani) is given a prominent role and the woodwinds are called in for virtuosic flourishes and embellishments. It’s true and well-documented that Williams called upon a wide range of classical styles and influences from the collective consciousness for Star Wars, but the score’s ties with the concert/military band tradition (including British music for brass bands) is usually much less acknowledged. This became clear right after the film’s incredible success, when many concert bands immediately wanted to play themes and medleys from the film’s score, even if there wasn’t any official sheet music readily available.

It was however a year later that Williams composed perhaps his most exciting march for a film. Superman (1978, directed by Richard Donner) features a true American march as the main theme and it’s featured in all its heroic spirit in the film’s captivating main title sequence. Williams dives again into the American concert band tradition, delivering the perfect musical description of the most American superhero ever created, with a jubilant, almost festive performance from brass and percussion. We find again staples of concert band style of writing, with very extroverted gestures and a true theatrical flair. The London Symphony Orchestra sounds particularly thrilling and enthusiastic, adding even a pinch of British “pomp-and-circumstance” flavour, as they perfectly did in their performance on the Star Wars soundtrack. The performance of LSO’s principal trumpet Maurice Murphy, a musician who grew up playing in brass bands in the Yorkshire, is particularly thrilling and adds another link to Williams’ relationship with this repertoire. “He’s the ideal voice of the hero for Superman”, Williams said about Murphy in 2007.

In 1979, Williams found another chance in his film commitments to write a new march for Steven Spielberg’s WWII comedy extravaganza 1941. The film features a dazzling score full of bombast and panache, accompanying the zany, rambunctious and even absurd events happening on-screen with the right amount of extrovertedness. The main theme of the film is another true American march, used mainly to depict the character of Wild Bill Kelso as portrayed by John Belushi. Here’s how the composer described the piece:

Kelso was a crazy, impertinent but lovable Air Force pilot whose antics seemed to require a musical accompaniment that had humor and rhythmic vitality. […] I set myself the task of writing a zanily patriotic march that upon hearing, we might be moved to tap our feet to an imaginary parade going by, and have fun doing it.”

The result is a march full of pomp and swagger, with a dash of “Southern”, almost jazzy accents that gives the piece an off-kilter character. As in many Sousa marches, Williams too calls for virtuoso performance and even very elaborate contrapuntal writing, when he juxtaposes the three thematic subjects at the same time in the final section of the piece as heard in the film’s end credits and concert arrangement.

In 1980, Williams was appointed principal conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, entering into the pantheon of American music. And it was indeed through the legacy of John Philip Sousa that he wrote his first original composition for the Pops. Actually, it was Arthur Fiedler who asked Williams to compose “a five-minute brilliant march” to celebrate his own 50th anniversary as principal conductor of the Boston Pops. Williams agreed, but found himself too busy with previous film commitments to be able to do it. The esteemed conductor passed away in July 1979 and John Williams was picked as Arthur Fiedler’s successor on the podium of the Boston Pops. So, after accepting the role, he wrote the piece as a memorial to his predecessor and premiered it at the opening concert of the 1981 Pops Season under the title Pops on the March. The piece is a lovely homage to Arthur Fiedler’s extroverted persona, while also being a deliberate homage to the music of John Philip Sousa at the same time. It’s however unquestionably rooted in Williams’ own idiom, especially for the thick and sometimes daring, jazz-like harmonic language and the absolute brilliance of his orchestrations. The piece’s main thematic subject is a rhythmic motto based on the pronounciation of Arhtur Fiedler’s name (“Ar-thur Fied-ler! Ar-thur Fied-ler!”) and it’s presented by woodwinds, then doubled by tuba and trombones. Throughout the piece, the simple motto is given a very sophisticated Hindemith-like workout, dancing through the sections while also being put in counterpoint with subtle hints of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. In this sense, it’s particularly thrilling when Williams gives that piece’s famous piccolo line to the full horn section in counterpoint to the main thematic subject. The piece a true showstopper and probably one of Williams’ most thrilling and lesser-known concert marches.

From this point on, John Williams’ catalogue really flourished with many other marches written for films, concert halls and public events. In 1980, he composed the score for the Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back and the main new thematic idea is The Imperial March, written as a theme for Darth Vader. Much has been written and said about this iconic piece of music and the only thing that should be added is that Williams again referenced the heritage of military music for brass bands. In 1981, Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark introduced the character of globetrotting archaeologist Indiana Jones to the whole world and to accompany him John Williams wrote a march that would become one of his most famous compositions ever, The Raiders’ March. Again, it’s a piece only deceptively simple and it sports many of the concert band’s stylings as well, depicting Indiana Jones’ heroism through bold and extroverted brassy orchestrations, thanks in no small part to Maurice Murphy’s beautiful performance as principal trumpet.

Williams looks pretty surprised when confronted with this specific side of his film repertoire:

Of course each of my marches was written to meet some musical or film requirement. 1941, the Midway March, or the Imperial March from Star Wars. I did not set out to write a march in any of these cases, but each seemed best suited to that type of music. As I look back, there are half a dozen of my marches that have hung around longer than I expected.”

In 1980, Williams recorded one of his first albums with the Boston Pops with march repertoire as its subject. Pops on the March features famous marches mostly by classical composers (Elgar, Tchaikovsky, Walton), but also a handful American staples such as 76 Trombones and South Rampart Street Parade, as well as Gershwin’s Strike Up the Band, Williams’ own March from Midway and Alfred Newman’s Conquest from the score of 1947 film Captain from Castille. In 1991, he recorded another album of marches and parades with the Boston Pops, I Love a Parade, this time featuring a large selection of John Philip Sousa’s iconic marches, as well as his own Pops on the March.

John Williams conducting the Boston Pops at the Hatch Memorial Shell in 1981 (Photo © Michael Grecco)

Ceremonial occasions and international events like the Olympic Games also gave Williams the opportunity to show his pretty much unrivaled talent at writing marches. The widely popular Olympic Fanfare and Theme is one of the best examples of Williams coalescing the tradition of concert band music with a more sophisticated symphonic gesture. The same could be said of similar festive pieces Williams wrote during the 1980s and early 1990s, like Liberty Fanfare (composed for the re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1985), The Olympic Spirit (written for the US broadcasting of the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea) and Celebrate Discovery (composed for the 500th anniversary of the Christopher Columbus Day). All these pieces, together with his famous film themes, entered the standard repertoire of both the symphony orchestra and the concert band. For the latter, the composer prepared and supervised specific and thorough transcriptions of his music through the years, showing his own deep affection to the concert band.

John Williams rehearsing with the U.S. Marine Band in 2013 (Photo courtesy of U.S. Marine Band Facebook page)

Williams’ association with the band world cemented even more profoundly in 2003, when he was invited in Washington D.C. to conduct the U.S. Marine Band for their 205th Anniversary in a special concert featuring many of those transcriptions. It would have been the first time the composer would conduct a concert band since his days in the Air Force. Ten years later, Williams celebrated the 215th anniversary of the group by writing a new original composition, fittingly titled For the President’s Own. Despite not being a march, the composer found a sublime synthesis of his whole love affair with concert band music, with a piece full of virtuosic writing and an overall joyous excitement for the great sounds the ensemble is able to produce. Williams translated his own memories of “the first blast of sound that I heard from the group. Certainly loud, but loud and beautiful. Never harsh, and never ugly in any way. It’s a noble, brilliant sound. It’s a beautiful balance, and articulate.”

U.S. Marine Band Staff Sgt. Rachel Ghadiali summed up perfectly the challenges presented by the piece:

The new work does not easily fit into the mold of a traditional musical form and is perhaps best described by the casual term “curtain raiser.” Williams’ spirited work begins with a dialogue among six trumpet parts, presenting a challenge to the players to match articulation and sound to create totally cohesive lines. It weaves together bright fanfares from the high brass, exciting rhythmic woodwind interjections, pulsing bass lines, along with many other motives, each with their own gripping kinetic vigor. There is a quiet and ever-building energy replete with the bustling rhythmic activity and brilliant brass writing that characterizes many of Williams’ finest scores. The excitement of the music continues to grow until the brass and percussion engage in a dialogue that brings the work to a dazzling conclusion.

Listen to “For the President’s Own” performed by the U.S. Marine Band conducted by John Williams

Esteemed conductor Leonard Slatkin was the first to say that Williams “is the closest we have to a modern-day March King”. What is particularly impressive is how the composer was able to make an old musical form new and popular again, while at the same time inspiring young people and musicians to pick up the instruments and make music together. Williams tried to explain why a march is something more than it appears, especially in the American culture:

A good march does get the blood up, and it might take a clever musicologist or sociologist or a combination of the two to explain why this is true. At my age and with my experience while observing my father and playing in bands myself, including a brief stint in a military band, I certainly have heard a great many marches. I have played marches on bassoon, trombone, trumpet, tuba, glockenspiel, cymbals, or whatever instrument needed to be covered. One of the most significant aspects of a march is the nostalgia involved. In a way it might be similar to baseball in that everyone who goes to a game surrenders a part of contemporary life. Usually nothing much happens right away. A whole hour may go before anybody hits the ball. The ballpark takes us back to the eras of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, who had a very different sense of time. […] Today people go to the ballpark and surrender to a kind of regression that leads back to an earlier time in this country. I think the Sousa march and the swingy march – the kind of marches the Bill Finegan and Glenn Miller band played – go to some place in the American soul and are part of what defines us as a nation.

We can say without doubt of being proven wrong that all the marches and festive pieces John Williams composed for films and concert hall further nourished this aspect of the American soul and helped many listeners and musicians in feeling close to a rich heritage of the American music culture, keeping it fresh and popular for the generations to come.

Special thanks to Jeremy Martin and Emilio Audissino for their help and contribution

Resources and Links

  • John Williams Returns to Bands Where He Began 50 Years Ago, by Maj. Michael J. Colburn, The Instrumentalist magazine, June 2004
  • Liner notes for Midway – Original Soundtrack Recording, Varèse Sarabande, 2011, by Mike Matessino
  • Liner notes for I Love a Parade, Sony Classical, 1991, by Benjamin Folkman
  • March from “1941”, Introductory note by John Williams, Hal Leonard Corporation Publishing, 04490288

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