Winds and Brass Forever

Concert bands have a rich history in the tradition of music and ought to be preserved

Most people have heard, in some form or another, the famous “Stars and Stripes Forever” march by John Philip Sousa, with its crisp trumpet lines, sonorous bass undertones, and delicate flute ornamentation. The piece is rightly a classic of 20th-century wind band literature. Yet despite its popularity, mere mention of the word “wind ensemble” often elicits either blank indifference or vague recollection of a long-dropped middle- school activity. This is unfortunate—for though it tends to be overlooked, the wind ensemble offers an artistic experience as beautiful as anything performed in Sanders Theatre.

The wind ensemble has a long and rich history. Evolving from 19th century military bands, typically known for their performances of sharp, fast-paced marches, the first modern wind ensembles took form in the 1950s. These groups possessed a musical repertoire that, while originating as a uniquely American style, quickly spread worldwide. Indeed, in their heyday, wind bands proved to be a powerful attraction, drawing wide audiences.

Harvard’s own wind ensemble, though popular, was no stranger to innovation. It was hosted by the late composer Henry Brant, a pioneer in ideas of spatialization in music; for Brant, the rhythms and melodies of music were not enough to capture the “new stresses, layered insanities, and multi-directional assaults of contemporary life on the spirit.” In addition to traditional orchestration, he arranged the members of the ensemble in such a way as to provide a richer experience for the listener. Indeed, Lowell Lecture Hall was reportedly one of Brant’s favorite places to hold a concert—true to his spirit, when my ensemble performed his work, we placed a row of trumpets in the balcony flanked by flutes. To those on the floor below, the sounds washing down from above blended with those from either side to provide a warm, blanket-like musical experience.

As musical tastes have evolved, however, the institution of concert bands has regrettably come to occupy a narrower and narrower niche. Dwindling audiences at performances—even at Harvard, which has boasted such greats as Leroy Anderson and Leonard Bernstein—are the surest indicator of such a transition. Those seeking high culture these days often gravitate to grand symphony orchestras specializing in post 18th century European music or else perform adaptations of popular music.

As well known as the works of Mozart, Tchaikovsky, or Beethoven are (and nobody can possibly underestimate the contributions of these musical giants), a body of equally powerful music exists in the repertoire of the wind ensemble. Percy Grainger’s epic “Lincolnshire Posy” emerged from his personal travels in the English countryside, where he collected folk songs and transformed them into a rich, layered multi-movement piece. Each movement adopts the personality and unique melody of a folk singer but is adapted for a modern ensemble.


Wind ensembles occupy a special position in the musical tradition, blending the refinement of high music with the spirit of the modern day. Students ought to realize that Harvard is uniquely placed to offer a rich musical experience that is often underappreciated by those looking for good music. Even if Bach or Britney is more to your taste, it is worthwhile to explore an area of music that is much more far-ranging than “three cheers for the red, white, and blue.”

Bilal A. Siddiqui ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a molecular and cellular biology concentrator in Winthrop House.