Bangor Band has marched through Queen City’s history

Posted Feb. 08, 2009, at 8:50 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:38 a.m.

Bangoreans have always loved a band concert. “When the band plays it is time for everybody to run and shout,” proclaimed the Bangor Daily Commercial on Jan. 27, 1909, in preparation for the 50th anniversary concert of the fabled Bangor Band. (Bangoreans can “run and shout” to the United Methodist Church at 7 tonight to hear the band’s 150th anniversary concert. It’s free.)

A balmy evening at the little gazebo in the park near East Market Square (where City Hall sits today) was the preferred setting a century ago. “How Bangor people have flocked to the Band concerts on summer evenings in the charming little Central Park; filling every inch of the ground, lining the sidewalks and calling together parties of friends at all the windows and on all the verandas in the neighborhood,” the Commercial editorial said. But any time of year was a good time for striking up the Bangor Band, and the group’s 50th birthday was certainly good enough.

Adelbert Wells Sprague, the band’s director, had written a 50-year history of the organization and had it published in the Commercial in two parts on Jan. 23 and 30, 1909. During his long career, Sprague conducted both the Bangor Band and the Bangor Symphony Orchestra for decades, and he founded the University of Maine band, where he was chairman of the music department for 33 years. He is best known today, however, for adapting and arranging the music for the “Maine Stein Song” (with words by his UM roommate, Lincoln Colcord, and popularized by Rudy Vallee).

The Bangor Band was organized on Jan. 26, 1859, in conjunction with a militia company, the Bangor Light Infantry. The first concert was on Feb. 7 at the old Norombega Hall. Besides marching with the militia, the band played for many other events, including concerts, political rallies, benefits, parties, excursions to Fort Point and store openings. During the first Lincoln presidential campaign, it played for rallies for William H. Seward and Stephen A. Douglas, and it serenaded Hannibal Hamlin at his home in Hampden.

The Civil War proved to be the most exciting period in the organization’s history. The band enlisted in the Second Maine Volunteer Regiment in 1861, returning home about a year later, having served in various battles, sometimes under fire. A large group of members enlisted again in 1865, helping the Queen City meet its quota without resorting to a draft. Band members witnessed the American flag being raised over Fort Sumter and marched 300 miles back and forth between Savannah and Augusta, Ga., with the 14th Maine. “Every man marched the entire distance without grumbling,” wrote Sprague.

In the decades after the war, the band evolved. “As time wore on the custom of serenading, of playing in front of the theater ‘before the show,’ and of marching the streets or touring the city in a ‘band wagon’ before a concert became relics of the past, and finally even the days of the torchlight procession were over,” wrote Sprague.

The group became more of a concert band, although it still did “a certain amount of military and escort work.” The “gorgeous heavily padded and long-skirted red and gilt uniforms of 1869” gradually gave way to less-flamboyant garb. The quality of the musicians improved and the character of the music they played changed from quicksteps, dirges and waltzes to a practically unlimited repertoire. “The high-registered and difficult E-flat cornet is now almost a thing of the past, and the woodwind section has become an indispensable factor in the makeup of the concert band,” wrote Sprague.

Its schedule remained busy. The band played for the new holiday, Decoration Day, the first time on May 30, 1869. It played before President U.S. Grant at the opening of the European and North American Railroad in October 1871 in Bangor, later accompanying him to Vanceboro to play some more. Sometimes it played at two places at once as on July 4, 1874, when 15 members performed at festivities in Bucksport and 10 others in Boston. It played for mourners at the funeral of Hamlin and for both Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan in the presidential campaigns of the early 1900s.

The list of directors who either improved the organization, saved it from extinction or both was long. They included M.H. Andrews, like Sprague one of Bangor’s most important musical boosters; R.B. Hall, the noted cornet player and march composer; and Steven Crean, who later gained an international reputation as a cornet virtuoso.

A century ago, on Friday, Jan. 29, the Bangor Band held its 50th anniversary concert and a dance at City Hall. The imposing brick building at Hammond and Columbia streets no longer exists, but the band does, a tribute to the support music has received in the Queen City over the years.

The classical program that night was appropriate for such a historical concert, said the Commercial. It was the band’s opportunity to illustrate how far it had come musically from its oompah days. It also reflected Bangoreans’ inexhaustible love of opera. Wagner, Verdi, Rossini and Brahms were all on the program as well as Sousa.

The Commercial declared Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” to have been the most popular number, while the Bangor Daily News decided the audience had been most affected by several selections from “The Merry Widow” by Franz Lehar.

Tonight concertgoers at the Bangor Opera House can decide for themselves which pieces they like best, ranging from the work of march masters Sousa and Hall to Leroy Anderson, Lerner and Lowe and Shostakovich.

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