Military Musical Instruments and the Culture of Perfection in the Long 19th Century

Herbert, Trevor (2023). Military Musical Instruments and the Culture of Perfection in the Long 19th Century. In: Cottrell, Stephen ed. Shaping Sound and Society: The Cultural Study of Musical Instruments. London, UK: Routledge, pp. 230–248.



The introduction of new species of brass and wind instruments, and the application of mechanisms for extending the facilities of existing models, was one of the most momentous developments in music history. Its ramifications were most obviously musical, but equally they were social and cultural. Almost without exception the most important introductions came from a widely perceived need to enhance the sound, sight, and reception of military bands rather than demands from within the traditional infrastructures of orchestral music—in fact, the modernization of orchestral brass instruments was welcomed neither universally nor consistently. From about 1840, military music was promoted as a representation of state order and a tool of diplomacy directed by governments at their own people, as well as foreign powers. Combined with new concepts of military display, it was enacted as a component of a broad cultural framework in which notions of order and authority were communicated. Implicit in this process was a set of ideas that embraced the potential power (later to be termed ‘soft power’) that the experience of military music could convey if it was itself seen as a representation of perfection.

The design and purpose of musical instruments were at the heart of this story. As such, it is wrong to regard the introduction of new types of instruments as simply providing easy access to chromaticism: it was a process that served a broader musical and cultural purpose. It is no accident that the three traditional orchestral brass instruments—the trumpet, horn, and trombone—maintained their basic shape when valves were added to them, while newly invented instruments were conspicuously different because of the purpose to which they were directed. These new instruments, such as cornets, saxophones, and saxhorns, were used only occasionally in the orchestra (although the tuba was adopted a little more frequently). Such were ubiquitously referred to as ‘military instruments’: this was the default term in newspaper advertisements, often in the classification of instruments in expositions and also in didactic writings. ‘Military instruments’ were written for discretely, taught in specially constituted places, listened to by apparently distinct audiences, and played by performers who created new idioms.

This chapter will examine this phenomenon, taking the instruments themselves as the primary focus. It will look at the intentions of instrument designers, the expectations of their primary clients, and the processes of change that these interactions caused. It will deal with the production and consumption of instruments and with the paradox that saw the military establishment, always a major segment of the dominant class, acquiesce in a process that designated military music and the activities it inspired (such as brass bands) as a subordinate subculture. It will touch on performance, the role of military bands as educators, the influence of military instruments on new forms of music such as early jazz, and the enactment of militarism in the civilian band of John Philip Sousa, which played a major role in representing Americanism in the early years of the 20th century.

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