Josef Franz Wagner

Wagner was the composer of a well known march called “Under the Double Eagle” in 1893. It has been so often performed by United States bands over the years that it could easily be mistaken to be an American patriotic work.

What was the double eagle? J. F. Wagner was Austrian and the double eagle was actually an image common to the Austro-Hungarian coat of arms, illustrated below:

Image credit: habsberger.net

The image depicted the two headed eagle to represent the two halves of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was not exclusive to the Austro-Hungarian double monarchy, since it was used centuries earlier by ancient cultures including the Roman Empire and was more recently used by Albania. It has appeared widely in national cultures, including on stamps of the countries, symbolic of courage, national unity and strength.

Josef Franz Wagner was born in Vienna in 1856. His father was a doctor and Wagner received his basic musical education at the Royal Military Institute in Kaschau, Hungary. Around 1878 he was appointed bandmaster of the Royal 47th Infantry Regiment Band. Fourteen years later, he accepted a similar position with the 49th Infantry Regiment where he remained until his retirement seven years later, at least partly attributed to the fact that bandsmen had no pension benefits whereas military personnel were eligible for them. After his military retirement, Wagner was still in his 40s. He continued to compose and organized a civilian musical group. In addition, he is believed to have become popular as a conductor. Unfortunately he died at the age of 52 in 1908 of heart disease.

During his lifetime, he is estimated to have written anywhere from 400 to 800 compositions, at least 250 of which are known to have been published. He composed his famous and perhaps most familiar (in the U. S.) march called Unter dem Doppeladler in 1893 and the music was published shortly thereafter.

It has become a popular concert piece of concert bands. The Sousa band championed the work and accounts say it was recorded by Sousa three different times. It has since also become a popular crossover song in other genres and has been recorded and performed even by country music and bluegrass music artists.

The march passes the bear test: On May 8, 1909, the Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) posted a humorous article about the playing of this piece on a Victrola-type record player for animals in the local zoo. The article stated the familiar adage that “music could soothe the savage beast” and listed several recordings that were played for the caged animals on the “talking machine” that had been placed on a borrowed orange crate. The first piece was a violin recording of a number by a Russian “with an unpronounceable name.” The two black bears, Bill and Gussie, seemed to like it. Then they played “Under the Double Eagle,” which the writer erroneously attributed to Sousa, the bears first retreated to their den before emerging again to walk around their cage, stopping on each circuit to listen to the music. Other pieces were played, including the “William Tell Overture,” ” Stars and Stripes Forever” and many slower numbers, but the bears seemed to prefer “Under the Double Eagle” best.

J. F. Wagner’s Under the Double Eagle – YouTube

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