The U.S. Marine Band, America's Oldest Music Group

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The U.S. Marine Band marching down 15th Street during a parade held in honor of President Bill Clinton on Jan. 20, 1997. The U.S. Marine Band marching down 15th Street during a parade held in honor of President Bill Clinton on Jan. 20, 1997. (Duncan Graham/Wikimedia Commons)

Music has been a part of America’s history since the very beginning. In fact, America’s oldest continuously active professional music organization predates Washington, D.C. The U.S. Marine Band was founded by an act of Congress — signed by then-President John Adams  — in 1798, two years before Washington, D.C., became the nation’s capital. When the band played at the very first White House public reception on New Year’s Day in 1801, the White House was still under construction.

The Marine Band has grown up with the city and the nation, and as Washington has become essential to the nation’s cultural life, so too, has the Marine Band.

Though Adams was president when the Marine Band was founded, it was Thomas Jefferson who gave the band its unique presidential connection. A violinist and noted music-lover, Jefferson was the first to describe the band as “the president’s own,” and the title has stuck ever since. Jefferson’s inauguration also featured a performance by the Marine Band, founding a tradition that has continued almost without exception. John Quincy Adams was the first president to be honored with a Marine Band rendition of “Hail to the Chief.” The melody has become a trademark, announcing the president’s appearance at public events.

One particularly influential leader of the Marine Band was John Philip Sousa. Only 26-years-old when he got the job, Sousa was director for 12 years, from 1880 until 1892. Sousa transformed the Marine Band, raising the level of musicianship higher than it had ever been and composing the new repertoire that would win him the title of the “March King.” He also brought the Marine Band’s music to new audiences. The Marine Band had long played popular public concerts in Washington, D.C., but Sousa was the first to take the band on tour; this became an annual tradition. The Marine Band also made its first recordings under Sousa, for the Columbia Phonograph Company.  

This is a video of Sousa conducting the Marine Band in the public premiere of a new work, “The Royal Welch Fusilliers,” in 1930 (no audio):

Today, the U.S. Marine Band is one of the most versatile and prolific musical ensembles in the country. Its 154 members play nearly 500 concerts every year for a wide variety of occasions, from state funerals to White House receptions. They perform in every possible instrumental configuration, from a solo pianist or small chamber music groups, to a chamber orchestra and full band performances on the White House lawn. Sousa’s patriotic marches are still at the core of the repertoire, but the Marine Band prides itself on being able to play in virtually any style, from classical to jazz, funk and world music. The Marine Band also accompanies musical guests to the White House, which have recently included Stevie Wonder, Gloria Estefan, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and the cast of Hamilton.  

Below, Marine Band drummer Master Gunnery Sgt. Chris Rose accompanies Lin-Manuel Miranda as he freestyles in the Rose Garden:

The Marine Band collaborates with well-known composers, as well as performers.When the Marine Band celebrated its 215th anniversary in 2013, John Williams wrote a fanfare entitled “For the President’s Own” to commemorate the occasion.

Here, Williams conducts the Marine Band in a performance of his piece: 

The Marine Band has always served as a form of outreach for the presidency, beginning with its first public concerts on the White House lawn, and proceeding through the advent of tours and recordings. The Marine Band continues to connect Americans with the White House and the presidency, and to present artistic achievement as a source of national pride.

As its current director Lt. Col. Jason Fettig says, “I think what we see time and time again, whether it’s in public concerts, on tour and even inside the halls of the White House, is how music connects people. I know it’s cliché, but music truly is the universal language and it does feel sometimes that it is one of those things that can help bring people together like no other art form can.”

In this video, Fettig leads the Marine Band in the finale from Strauss's “Death and Transfiguration”:


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Comments [3]


The oldest choral ensemble in continuous existence in the US is the Old Stoughton Musical Society of Stoughton, Massachuestts. The original group was formed in 1786.

Oct. 15 2016 11:12 AM
David from Flushing

The oldest civilian band is probably the Allentown [PA] Band that was around in the 1820s.

Oct. 13 2016 03:26 PM
John J, Christiano from Franklin NJ

Wow! The Marine Band! The "Washington Post" just played! Is WQXR finally discovering Sousa???

Oct. 13 2016 10:03 AM

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