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The great quiet

By Trevor Herbert


The story of military music is absent from conventional music histories even though it had a vast influence on many aspects of musical life. Bands of music originated in the British military in the eighteenth century among the aristocratic officer class as a form of entertainment and as a means of enhancing the cultural status of that profession. They retained this function throughout the nineteenth century and beyond; by the turn of the twentieth, military music had proliferated in most countries. In Victorian Britain its most visible association was with the new brand of state ceremony and its utilisation to convey the authority of the state both at home and in the vastly expanding empire.

The regimental band retained its importance within the gentlemanly, socially exclusive world of the officers’ mess throughout the nineteenth century and beyond, as illustrated by ‘Bandnight’ (1911), a pen and ink sketch by Lt. P. R. Quayle of the 127th Baluch Light Infantry, then stationed in Poona, India. (Courtesy of the Council of the National Army Museum, London.)

Military music created a massive expansion of the music profession, and the commercial and economic infrastructures on which it relied. The first bands of music were formed from London professional players, but this supply was sufficient only for the small group of elite regiments attached to the royal guards. A new source of players was needed. From the late eighteenth century, thousands of men and boys were recruited to the army and quickly trained as literate instrumentalists by German civilian bandmasters imported for that purpose. Many of these previously untutored army musicians came from the urban and rural dispossessed: those pressed into service and the inhabitants of workhouses, orphanages, and the ‘military schools’ founded to accommodate the sons of soldiers who had fallen in the many wars of the century. Many Victorian musical luminaries were products of this legacy; one such was Sir Arthur Sullivan, son of a military musician who had been recruited from a military orphanage.

The Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall, London, was established in 1857 to train a new breed of student musicians, many recruited from schools and orphanages, in response to the proliferation of military bands. The School’s band is shown here in an engraving from The Graphic, 8 September 1894.

There is a mass of evidence about the effect of music on soldiers in fields of conflict. The diaries and journals of ordinary soldiers provide vivid testimony of this, as do the reports of war correspondents. Soldiers would recline exhausted and draw nourishment from the arrangements of the classics and the jaunty and sentimental songs that reminded them of home. Popular songs were also used for marching, and William Howard Russell, the legendary war reporter of The Times, wrote of “how regiments, when fatigued on the march, cheer up at the strains of their band, and dress up, keep step, and walk with animation and vigour when it is playing.” The odd, bitter-sweet juxtaposition of pleasant music and the barely imaginable realities of nineteenth-century warfare provide a surprisingly saddening account of men and boys, a long way from home and persistently conscious of the frailty of their destinies. This was the context for the experience of listening to music.

The band of the 1/24th Regiment of Foot, photographed in 1878 in South Africa, played cheery, morale-boosting melodies as the regiment marched to the killing fields of Zululand; the entire band lost their lives. (By permission of the Regimental Museum of The Royal Welsh, Brecon.)

The Crimean War was the first to be fought under the gaze of the press, and many reporters risked perils not very different from those of the soldiers themselves, who acted out their service amidst the carnage and bloodshed of the Crimea as well as the diseases that ran rampant and which accounted for so many of the casualties. Men would wander well beyond their own unit to the midst of another if it was known to have a good band. The most compelling evidence of the impact of music in fields of conflict is found in accounts of what became known as the “great quiet”.  The British command decided to prohibit all bugle calls and music to avoid advertising the position of its troops to the enemy. For months the twenty-five bands of the British army which had sustained the morale of tens of thousands of men in the Crimea were reduced to silence:

The silence and gloom of our camp …[is] very striking. No drum, no bugle call, no music of any kind, is ever heard within our precincts…. Many of our instruments have been placed in store, and the regimental bands are broken up or disorganized…. Judging from one’s own feelings, and from the expressions of those around…the want of music in camp is productive of graver consequences than appear likely to occur at first from such a cause…. It seems to be an error to deprive [the soldiers] of a cheering and wholesome influence at the very time they need it most. The military band is not meant alone for the delectation of garrison towns, or for the pleasure of the officers’ quarters, and the men are fairly entitled to its inspiration during the long and weary march in the enemy’s country, and in the monotony of a standing camp ere beginning a siege.

Any thoughts that this sentiment was exaggerated or even trivial should be abandoned; there is too much evidence to the contrary. The story of the “great quiet” speaks vividly of the power of music and the potency of its effect on the human condition.

Trevor Herbert is Professor of Music at the Open University, and author of Music & the British Military in the Long Nineteenth Century. He has written extensively on the convergence of musical and cultural history.

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