America’s Brass Band Heritage – Ancient History

by Larry Johnson

It all started with Joshua. Or did it? The idea of making some kind of noise for the dual purposes of frightening the enemy and inspiring one’s own troops appears for the first time in recorded history at the time the ancient Israelites began the conquest of Canaan. But the practice is obviously much older. The earliest Egyptians are known to have used trumpets for military purposes, and there are indications that the most ancient civilizations in China and India had similar practice.s But Joshua’s use of a recognizable form of military music is the earliest instance in which such a practice was written down.

What General Joshua chronicled was his use of the first military band at the siege of Jericho around 1400 B. C. The Bible clearly describes a band of seven trumpets at the head of his army while it marched around the city. This band, which was composed of Hebrew priests, was under the tutelage of a man who was dressed in all the finery of his time. His costume included an ephod, or breastplate, set with twelve gemstones. The hem of his robe was decorated with pomegranates. And on his head he wore a turban of the finest linen. While the Bible identifies this individual as the High Priest, he is instantly recognized by bandsmen everywhere as the original Drum Major. So all the elements of what would evolve into the modern military band were present at the time of this ancient campaign.

In subsequent centuries there is only a single mention of a significant military-type ensemble, that of Nebuchadnezzar, until Greco-Roman times. Then the use of brass, reed and percussion instruments in close association with military activities reached a golden age.

The Romans, who practiced the art of war profusely, were quite fond of brass instruments and developed several types of horns and trumpets for military use. They also combined trumpets with drums. The Roman Drum Major, or standard-bearer, wore a wolf skin over his upper body and carried a wooden pole topped by the imperial letters SPQR. Roman bands were not known to have played anything other than calls; acoustically their instruments were incapable of melody. Tub the presence of several types of brass instruments in relatively large numbers does create some interesting speculation as to whether Caesar’s legions developed a close relative of a modern day drum and bugle corps.

The Greeks differed from the Romans in military music as widely as they differed in other areas. Athenian Greek armies placed melodic instruments (flutes, strings, reeds) at the head of their columns and reinforced them with tambourine-like percussion instruments instead of drums. Spartan Greeks utilized the double pipes and on several occasions refused to go into battle until they first heard the sound of them. (The precursors of Scottish traditions can be clearly seen here.) Trumpets were strictly signalling devices in Greek armies and were separate and apart from the musical establishment.

The passing of the Greco-Roman world brought an end to the early military band prototypes. The trumpet reigned supreme on battlefields for a thousand years, usually in teh service of a monarch or nobleman, and almost always in the form of a single instrument. Organized ensembles did not reappear until the time of the Ottoman Turks. And then began the history of modern military bands.

Next time: we’ll go from the Turkish traditions to Europe.

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