The Band

  • The Glory of a Bandmaster

    The Glory of a Bandmaster

Ponchielli's Bands

Ponchielli was hired May 4, 1861, as the "Capo Musica" of the "Corpo di Musica" by the town of Piacenza. Little is known about the earliest instrumentation except what was published for the town's record that lists 24 musicians and 1 "servant." From the outset, the band in Piacenza was adjunct to the local militia or Guardia nazionale. A relic of the Napoleonic era, the various companies were organized around neighborhoods. Schedules for drills were to be found on large posters, and regimental buglers and drummers (usually boys) were used to call/remind the men of their military responsibilities.

In Cremona in 1865, Ponchielli's band consisted of twenty-seven musicians, five student-musicians, and two servants. With minor adjustments to the instrumentation (particularly as to the assignments for the students), this was the band for which he conceived his compositions after 1865. With the accession of the Venetian states after the third war of independence in 1866, the Guardia nazionale was gradually disbanded throughout Italy, thus many cities lost their funding for their municipal bands. With Ponchielli at the helm, Cremona was ready to have the very best possible ensemble.

Upon hearing this music when performed using the original instrumentation, many are struck by the "organ-like" timbre produced. This was intentional as there was (in the mid-nineteenth century) a conscious aesthetic choice that the two should be similar. Organs of the period were supplied with pitched and non-pitched percussion instruments controlled by wind power. In a competition for an organist post where Ponchielli was the judge, the applicants had not only to demonstrate all of the usual skills associated with such a position but also had to read a full band score at sight. While the "carnival-like" timbre of these organs might seem unnatural to us in an ecclesiatical setting, they were the norm of the day.

To better understand the reason for Ponchielli's choice of instruments, one must appreciate the function the band served. It was free, public music for the entire populace, even a municipal utility such as police and fire protection. In addition to free public music (a pre-electronic radio), the band served all of the functions bands have today. Because it was an outdoor band, timbral subtleties were less important than the need to be heard across a piazza thronged with hundreds of avid listeners.

Late in researches in the Archivio di stato in Cremona, a large-format document was discovered that filled in gaps between the two "piante" or rosters published after the re-auditioning of the band in January, 1865. This accordance reveals the core of the willingness of the Oversight Committee of the band to provide Ponchielli with a band of the highest quality, allowing even "foreigners - forestieri" to be members of the band.

Finally, the site for the band's headquarters and the site of the school associated with it may be known. At the end of the Sinfonia Seconda, Ponchielli notes its completion at the Caserma San Domenico. The Saint Dominic Barracks were located in the abandoned convent of Saint Dominic, that apparently as of 1872 had still not been demolished like the church had been to create the site of today's Piazza Roma. Thus, Ponchielli's active campaign to name the new piazza in honor of Antonio Stradivari has even more value. The band's set-up men must have appreciated the concerts in the new piazza as they needed to only carry the stands (and stage?) outside of the band's headquarters. Among the documents found the the Archivio di stato are drawings for a band barracks. Whether these were for another structure or the adaptation of the old convent cannot be ascertained.


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