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More than marches and medleys: discover the wind symphony

“Why this cold-shouldering of the wind band by most composers? Is the wind band – with its varied assortments of reeds (so much richer that the reeds of the symphony orchestra), its complete saxophone family that is found nowhere else ... its army of brass – not the equal of any medium ever conceived? As a vehicle of deeply emotional expression it seems to me unrivalled.” Percy Grainger

(Lewis, 1991, p. 196)

Percy Grainger wrote the above in August 1939, forming part of the program notes for his wind band work “The Lincolnshire Posy”. He clarifies that at the time, most of the music played by wind bands was not originally conceived for the medium. Whilst Grainger was well aware of what a wind band was, having served as a bandsman in the 15th band of the Coast Artillery Corps during World War I (Bird, 1999), it appears other composers either did not understand the medium, or chose to ignore it. The ‘cold shoulder’ arguably still exists towards the wind band from audiences as wind band music is virtually non-existent in art-music platforms external to the genus and is rarely included in radio broadcasts. However, from a compositional viewpoint, the repertoire has extensively developed since 1939 yet few of the artistic works are known to the classical music lover. In the hope of sparking interest and developing newfound reverence for this dynamic ensemble, it is time to be the elephant in the room and clearly define the wind band and its repertoire.

First and foremost, it is important to understand the genealogy of wind-based ensembles and more fundamentally, the etymology of the word band to comprehend the various categories of wind bands and their repertoire. Interestingly, the word band was not originally associated with music. Band, from the Old French/Middle English word bende of the 12th century, was first used to describe a flat strip or a tool used to bind items together. By the 15th century, the term was used to depict an organised group of men (usually armed) whose association was designated by the wearing of a band of cloth around their arm. The term’s musical connotation came about in the late 15th century. Instrumental groups who attached themselves to bands of armed men became bands of musicians by association. By the end of the 15th century, the English and French were using the term to describe any collection of musical instrumentalists.

Whilst the term band has since been used colloquially in a variety of music circles, the association with military musicians has held fast to the present day. Military bands are the Grandfather of the genus and it is believed that bands were first used in a military capability around the 12th century in the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish embraced music as part of their militia and janissary bands. These were known as Mehter and comprised of kettledrums, bass drum, cymbals, trumpets, and a zurna (an instrument fashioned on the shawm, a medieval instrument that was the forerunner to the oboe). European fascination with Ottoman culture and customs occurred after signing the Karlowitz Peace Treaty in 1699 and this fascination caused the infiltration of percussion instruments into European military bands and orchestras.

The Age of New-Imperialism coincided with the end of the American Civil War and contributed to a boom in military and civilian bands. The term “concert band” was introduced to demarcate a band who performed concerts from one that served a military role. The Golden Era of Bands (1880-1920) was fostered by Irish-American Bandmaster Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, acclaimed for influencing instrumentation and raising performance standards (Grose, 1969). It was during this time that John Philip Sousa earned his reputation as the most famous bandsman in the world (Bierley, 1973). Military bands were also extensively touring Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century and their concerts often rivalled their orchestral counterparts (Rempe, 2017).

Around the mid-late 19th century, bands started to appear in schools. At first, they were external to the curriculum however; bands firmly found their place in United States schools by the 1920’s. The post-war economic boom, proliferation of military musicians, introduction of democratic education and the instigation of the National School Band Contest, all heavily contributed to the rise of the school band movement (Humphreys, 1989). School bands replaced the role of civilian bands in the 1920s, yet the repertoire largely remained undeveloped with orchestral transcriptions, marches, waltzes and popular songs dominating the repertoire. It is here that the opening quote by Percy Grainger comes into context. Whilst a handful of artistic works had been written for the wind band by composers such as Holst, Vaughn Williams, Hindemith and Respighi, few composers embraced the medium.


One main reason was instrumentation. The Age of New-Imperialism (1870-1914) brought musical instrument inventions such as the brass piston valve and the saxophone and sax-horn families, significantly altering the instrumentation of military and civilian bands. Brass instruments in some cases completely replaced a former all-woodwind consortium. The projection of brass instruments, complimented by their Turkish-inspired percussion, became well suited to outdoor performance venues as well as fulfilling their military role. Indeed, there is an old-middle English association with the word band that suggests “noise” and the phrase “beat the band”, used in the late 19th century, was an instruction to soldiers to make enough noise to drown out their musical compadres ("Farlex Dictionary of Idioms," 2015).

The downside of the rapid industrialisation of musical instruments was lack of international communication. Transposing instruments (applicable to most woodwind and brass) were initially based in multiple keys (including C, Ab, Bb, Db, Eb, F and G). There were also multiple instrument makers in different countries who utilised differing, and often conflicting, tuning systems. Bands were very large during the Golden Era and at this stage, there were no set parameters regarding instrument ratios (unlike the centuries-old orchestra). Hence these early “bands” (an often haphazard collection of multiple brass and woodwind instruments) were virtually impossible to tune. The intonation issues, outdoor concert venues and the lack of specifically composed, quality repertoire that extracted harmonious qualities from the ensemble resulted in many musically-questionable performances;

"Cacophony is hardly the term to apply to the performance of many of them; the noise in a boiler-maker’s shop is harmony by comparison."

(Clappé, 1911, p. 37)

Hence it could be argued that the industrialisation of musical instruments and their early adoption into military and civilian bands, as well as haphazard instrumentation, affected repertoire development. Who would wish to compose for such a cacophony? It is also important to note that prior to the Golden Era of Bands, military bands were largely functional musical vehicles and outside of their cultivated marches, had very little artistic repertoire of their own.

The ill-considered inclusion of newly invented musical instruments impacted public conception of wind bands and their music, but so too has the use of the “band” as a utilitarian tool. The march is the only musical form endemic to the wind band genus and this, alongside the early use of arrangements of popular music has fostered generations of audiences to believe that bands only play marches and medleys. Couple this paradigm with the further historically-informed notion that bands cannot play harmoniously and only play outside, and it can be understood why so many wind band concerts are so poorly attended.

It is time to shatter the 150-year-old paradigm and I'm not the first to think so. In 1952 Frederick Fennell, Director of Bands at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, New York devised a program of works for what he aptly named a ‘wind ensemble’ (Battisti, 2002; Manfredo, 2006). As Caines writes in his Fennell-based dissertation,

"To be a genre that could be considered high art, there needed to be a switch in how winds were used. The only way Fennell could envision this as an effective change was to rethink the standardisation and repertoire of wind music. Fennell believed that the creation of an independent repertoire would bridge the gaps between the competing factions of wind music, i.e. vernacular and cultivated."

(Caines, 2012, p. 4)

Fennell's vision was a success and since 1952, there has been a broad collection of artistic works composed for the wind band by an international array of respected composers. These artistic works are now being written for bands of evolving capability including school and community groups. It is a wide open genre that embraces innovation, providing enticing experiences for both performer and audience member alike.

Whether it was the establishment of a balanced, sonorous instrumentation, the introduction of wind band at the university level (and the resulting improvement in concert performance), or technological advancements made in musical instrument construction, the wind band has grown beyond their utilitarian role. The repertoire is largely unexplored by art-circles yet performances are worthy of anyone’s attention.

If I've sparked your interest, you may now be thinking...

"So what is a wind band in the 21st century and what music do they play?"

I'm glad you asked.

A wind band is a collection of woodwind, brass and percussion instruments. These groups are referred to as any of the following: concert band, military band, wind band, wind symphony, wind orchestra. A wind ensemble is the grouping formulated by American Frederick Fennell which features one player per part. In each of the aforementioned titles, the instrumentation is largely the same, but there are multiple players on each part. Usually, the number of performers in the ensemble influence whether the group is called a band, a symphony or an orchestra. Note that "orchestral winds" are the woodwind and brass instruments found in a symphony orchestra, and usually do not include members of the saxophone or sax-horn family.

In terms of repertoire, wind band repertoire has two main genres, ‘Functional’ and ‘Concert’ (see table below). Functional being music which is prepared for a purpose, be it (primarily) ceremonial or educational. Concert being repertoire performed for audience appreciation by tertiary ensembles or as semi-professional/professional, military/civilian groups including the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra and the Dallas Wind Symphony.

It is fair to surmise that due to the historical evolution of bands, most current wind bands exist within a military or educational setting. Hence it is of no surprise that the table above reveals that a large percentage of the repertoire exists as Functional. The repertoire listed under the Functional heading is divided into two sub-genres; Ceremonial and Educational. Ceremonial music here delves into repertoire largely played by military ensembles and community bands; Educational music focuses on repertoire utilised in primary, middle and secondary schools.

What the table does not demonstrate is the ongoing dominance of product-orientated, formulaic repertoire. However; it is formulaic repertoire that largely dominates public opinion. The formulated approach to educational wind band repertoire developed due to the urgent need for student-orientated repertoire during the American school band movement of the 1920’s. Formulaic repertoire can be likened to eating a meal at McDonalds – predictable, constant and straightforward. Whilst customer satisfaction is dictated by individual taste, a meal at McDonalds will satisfy the fundamental need of any customer - hunger. In the same way, formulaic repertoire with its predictable structures and melodic sequences, traditional tonal centres and recognisable rhythmic patterns satisfy the teaching need of the eminently busy school-based band director. Formulaic repertoire has its place within the educational sub-set of wind band repertoire but sadly, it has also generated decades of same-sounding literature that has triggered generations of internal and external criticism.

For much of the public, their knowledge of wind band music is either associated with the Functional repertoire of the military or the formulaic compositions performed at school band concerts. However; there is an additional body of Western-art music composed for the wind band that is largely unknown to music-loving audiences: the cultivated. The cultivated arm of Concert music for the wind band can be described as exciting, emotionally dense, playful and thought-provoking; everything art-music should be. If any aspect of wind band music has embraced an Avant-Garde movement, it is in the cultivated concert works largely instigated by Frederick Fennell and his invention of the wind ensemble.

"Through Fennell’s influence, and the influence of several other American conductors, there has been an ongoing series of role reversals in the wind community and the relationship with their audiences. With the continuing legitimisation of wind music, this specialised genre has been gaining a foothold in the larger music community as a professional and high art genre, while simultaneously clinging to its more vernacular past."

(Caines, 2012, p. 4)

In Australia, we are fortunate to host one of the leading conductors in the genre, American Dr. John Lynch, at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Lynch’s extensive repertoire knowledge and mastery on the podium has inspired well-respected Australian composers such as Matthew Hindson, Ross Edwards and Paul Stanhope to write for the medium. His work at the Conservatorium is fostered by an army of exceptional band directors and music educators based throughout Sydney and Australia. Lynch’s appointment has been so well regarded that Melbourne Conservatorium have followed suit with the establishment of a full-time Director of Bands position. Dr. Nicholas Williams from the University of North Texas will arrive in July 2019 to take up this post.

Australian schools are simply brimming with brilliant wind bands in each and every state and territory, and they are performing a wide range of exciting repertoire at astonishing levels of performance. Yet we don’t hear about these hard-working individuals, and nor do we hear about their concerts.


Because public opinion is stuck in the 19th century. Because there is no professional “Sydney Wind Symphony Orchestra”. Because the wind band repertoire featured on the radio is usually a march. Because, for the most part, concert goers are not aware of these performances. The concerts are not reviewed in national newspapers like their classical counterparts and nor are their composers and compositions recognised as "real music". To be frank, audiences have simply not been exposed to enough cultivated repertoire through the regular channels to know that these performances are worthy of their attendance.

On Friday March 29, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music Wind Symphony will launch their 2019 season at Verbrugghen Hall with their program “Distant Views”. Featured on the program are two world première performances of substantial works by Australian women. The first is a saxophone concerto by Ukrainian born, Australian composer Catherine Likhuta, “Let the Darkness Out” featuring the highly skilled Michael Duke on Alto Saxophone (a member of the Nexas Saxophone Quartet and on staff at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music).

Likhuta writes about the work,

"In its original 2011 version, “Let the Darkness Out” is a virtuosic and captivating sonata for alto saxophone and piano, and is my most internationally performed piece to date. Michael Duke came up with an idea to turn “Darkness” into a saxophone concerto. Since the original version of the piece demonstrates the agility of both saxophone and piano, I’ve had to tackle the “temperament” of the piece in order to make it playable by a large ensemble, while still preserving the virtuosic nature of the work."

The second première is my first symphony. The four-movement work is inspired by four prayers written by Michael Leunig, these being subtitled; I-The Blessing of Light, II-Bitter and Sweet, III-Reflection and Resonance, IV-The Creation of Faith. Each prayer, originally conceived for the arrival of each season, is also an allegory for the trials and tribulations of life. I have endured every moment during the composition process. An Australian symphony for winds is a rarity amongst Australian composers, and it promises a raw, honest and uplifting emotional experience for players and audience alike. American composer and conductor Timothy Mahr (St. Olaf College, Minnesota) states,

"Each movement is a creative, natural extension of the poetry. It's innovative, searching, touching, challenging, and ultimately gratifying."

Both Cathy and I are in the final stages of our PhD in composition (University of Queensland and the Australian National University respectively) and each brings a fresh new voice to the medium. Also on the program is the well-loved John Williams Tuba Concerto featuring Conservatorium concerto winner Andrew Jeffries, the elegant Serenade in Eb Op. 7 by Richard Strauss ​​and a cornerstone work in wind band repertoire, Symphony in Bb by Paul Hindemith.

Humanity breeds tolerance through knowledge and it is hoped that through this article, a broader audience of music lovers will learn that the wind band is no longer a utilitarian ensemble that simply performs music for parades and school fêtes. The Wind Band offers a varied and colourful contribution to instrumental music and with literally millions of children world-wide entering musical performance through this medium, it is worthy of our attention. Without wind bands, would there be orchestras and more importantly, orchestral audiences? It is a medium with a respectable history that has developed a rich, artistic repertoire worthy of study and broadcast. It is so much more than marches and medleys.

To book tickets for the Sydney Conservatorium Wind Symphony concert “Distant Views”, please visit the Sydney Conservatorium box office website and scroll down to March 29:

To learn more about me and my compositions, please visit:


Battisti, F. L. (2002). The winds of change: The evolution of the contemporary American wind band/ensemble and its conductor: Hal Leonard Corporation.

Bierley, P. E. (1973). John Philip Sousa: American Phenomenon (Revised Edition): Alfred Music.

Bird, J. (1999). Percy Grainger: OUP Oxford.

Caines, J. E. (2012). Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble: The Transformation of American Wind Music Through Instrumentation and Repertoire. (Dissertation/Thesis), ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing. Retrieved from

Clappé, A. A. (1911). The Wind-band and Its Instruments: Their History, Construction, Acoustics, Technique and Combination, for Bandmasters, Bandsmen, Students and the General Reader: H. Holt.

Farlex Dictionary of Idioms. (2015). S.v. "to beat the band." Retrieved from

Grose, G. (1969). Patrick S. Gilmore's Influence on the Development of the American Concert Band. Journal of band research, 6(1), 11.

Humphreys, J. T. (1989). An overview of American public school bands and orchestras before World War II. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 50-60.

Lewis, T. P. (1991). A source guide to the music of Percy Grainger: Pro/Am Music Resources.

Manfredo, J. (2006). The American Bandmasters Association's impact upon wind-band instrumentation. Journal of band research, 41(2), 74.

Rempe, M. (2017). Cultural Brokers in Uniform: The Global Rise of Military Musicians and Their Music. Itinerario, 41(2), 327-352.

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