Friday, September 05, 2008

Colonial Willamsburg offers DVD about Fife & Drum Corps



On Memorial Day, 1961, when I went on a Science Honor Society senior field trip (Washington-Lee High School) to Mt. Washington, NH, we stopped on the way back and watched a patriotic parade in Tilton, NH. I remember the little marching bands and drums, with a relentlessness that recalls the mood of the first movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony (which I would hear performed once in Minneapolis in 2000).

But the background of all this march music from Europe has a lot to do with the fife and drum corps of earlier centuries, according to a DVD from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, “Drummers Call: America’s Fife & Drum Tradition” (purchase link here. The 56 minute film is directed by Michael C. Durlind, with Abigail Schuman as executive producer.

Bill White, educational Program Director for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, speaks. Stewart Pittman is the music director and talks about how young people are taught to play the instruments in bands for demonstration and celebration today.

Let’s wrap up the issue of classical music first. The DVD maintains that a lot of music of Haydn and Mozart (especially Haydn, as with the Drumroll Symphonhy, #103) may have been inspired by marching bands in Viennese Europe, but the more obvious Romantic example is Mahler.

But file and drum music played an important military purpose during the Revolutionary War. Music was used to communicate to “our” soldiers (keeping them performing their tasks in unit cohesion) but was also used to signal military advantage to the opposition. That contradicts military communications practice today where secrecy is so important.

New England, especially the Connecticut River Valley (and, as I know, New Hampshire) has maintained the tradition of fife & drum, but the best known reenactments probably occur at Colonial Williamsburg. The film shows how teenagers (from corps all over the country) are trained in summer camps to perform in unison, where there is an emphasis on unity as well as conventional musicianship. Fife & drum units develop special skills of a social nature that go beyond what probably is normally experienced in high school orchestras and bands.

The manufacture of the drums, with rolling and treating of wood (rather than conventional lamination) is shown.

The Continental Congress actually regulated the composition of fife & drum companies, and indirectly that regulated other military music and how it was paid for. Some of the organization of military music units in the Armed Forces today is still determined by these old laws.

The DVD contains three additional short films:

"Corps Stories: Memories of the Fifes and Drums of Colonial Williamsburg": (28 min) personal accounts of the difficulties of individual performers as they train. People could be demoted and forced to start over. Also, grade school kids, often not previously on their own from home, are brought in and taught by high school kids. There was an expectation of military bearing during the lessons and drill, and there is a bit of emulation of the military through a musical and artistic experience.

"Fifty Years Afoot": 12 minutes, stills, including some black-and-white from 1961 or so. It’s interesting (to me, at least) to see what Williamsburg looks like in BW. i wonder what that "bonfire of the vanities" picture is. It runs about 12 minutes.

"Alumni 5.1":

A fife & drum concert performance, running 5 minutes.

The DVD includes a bonus CD “Half Century of Quarter Notes: Celebrating the 50th Anniversay: The Fifes & Drums of Colonial Williamsburg,” 72 minutes.

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