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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

“A Charming Resort”

White House United States Marine Band Concerts

People enjoy a United States Marine Band concert on the south grounds of the White House on July 16, 1921.

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For nearly a century, the United States Marine Band’s Saturday afternoon public concerts on the south grounds of the White House from June to September were a fixture of cultural life in Washington, D.C. Performed largely in an era before radio, motion pictures, television and the internet, the concerts offered people a chance to sample free, high quality entertainment, maybe enjoy a cooling breeze or two – and perhaps get a glimpse of the president and first family.

In 1798, President John Adams approved legislation that officially brought the United States Marine Band into being, making the Marine Band America's oldest professional musical organization. Two years later, the federal government relocated from Philadelphia to the new Federal city of Washington. According to tradition, the Marine Band came with the chief executive and made its White House debut at President John Adams and First Lady Abigail Adams’ first New Year's Day reception in 1801.

About 1842, the band began its 90-year tradition of playing Saturday outdoor concerts on the White House Grounds. By the 1850s the concerts were being described as “A charming resort for all well-behaved people who desire to inhale for an hour or two the odor of blooming grass, shrubs, flowers and foliage.” In the 1870s, President Ulysses Grant and First Lady Julia Grant walked freely greeting friends and their guests, while their children Nellie and Jesse “had many a gay hour running about among the people."1

Battalion of Marine Corps including the "President’s Own," in front of the Commandant's House at the Marine barracks in Washington Navy Yard, April 1864.

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Francis Maria Scala, who directed the Marine Band from 1855 to 1871, was on friendly terms with many presidents, particularly Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce and Abraham Lincoln. Scala admired the fact that although Lincoln had no formal musical training, he was nonetheless passionate about music and greatly enjoyed the Marine Band’s concerts. When the band opened the 1864 summer concert season, President Lincoln appeared on the South Portico and took a seat, “enjoying the pleasant scene before him ." 2

Following the tragic death of her 11-year old son Willie in February 1862, First Lady Mary Lincoln insisted that the band not play its usual summer concerts on the White House grounds. The following year, 1863, Mrs. Lincoln again wanted to ban the concerts, at least until after July 4. On June 8 Navy secretary Gideon Welles noted in his diary: “[Last year] there was grumbling and discontent, and there will be more this year if the public are denied the privilege for private reasons. I … suggested [to President Lincoln] that the band could play in Lafayette Square. … The President told me to do what I thought best.” Five days later Welles wrote, “We had music from the Marine Band to-day in Lafayette Square. The people are greatly pleased.” In 1864 the concerts returned to the White House grounds . 3

Painting of John Philip Sousa during his years as leader of the United States Marine Band.

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The popularity of the Marine Bandconcerts was in large measure due to the high quality of the music. John PhilipSousa was the band’s director between 1880 and 1892, and brought world fame to“The President’s Own.” While the band was already considered a beloved nationalinstitution, Sousa’s dynamic leadership transformed the Marine Band’srepertoire, emphasized symphonic music, changed the instrumentation, and maderehearsals exceptionally strict.

The Marine Band delivered some of its most memorable outdoor concerts in this period, including a performance of the musical score from Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Mikado, just three months after its premiere on the London stage and before it became a smash hit in American theaters. There might have been a hint of humor in the June 20, 1886, performance for the newlywed President Grover Cleveland and First Lady Frances Cleveland—bands across the country had played a song from The Mikado, “For He’s Gone and Married Yum-Yum,” in the days after the president’s May–December marriage earlier that month.

“The United States Marine Band at theWhite House,” lithograph by United States Printing and Lithograph Co., located in Baltimore, Maryland,c. 1928.

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An 1891 account of the popular concerts reported, “Administrations come and go, but the band plays on forever.” That summer President Benjamin Harrison confided to friends that the Marine Band’s opening notes of “Hail, Columbia” always made him feel a bit sad, as they reminded him of his Civil War days as commander of a brigade in the 20th Corps – “Hail, Columbia” was the music always played before camp broke up and the army began marching. 4

Although the band performed serious orchestral works such as the overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser (a particular favorite of Frances Cleveland), it also played many selections from fashionable operas and did not neglect popular ballads like “Home on the Range,” “Oh, Promise Me,” “After the Ball,” “On the Banks of the Wabash,” “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band ." 5

In the early 1930s the summer concert tradition had come to an end. By that time three generations of Washingtonians had experienced a popular custom of hobnobbing with the president, members of the diplomatic corps, army and navy officers, and the elite of self-defined Washington society as children frolicked and couples strolled on the South Lawn while the band played on.

Sheet music for "U.S. Marine Band March" by Herman Kroll, published in 1919 by Walden Music Co., in New York.

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