The Band Music of Amilcare Ponchielli
The Glory of a Bandmaster
Twenty-one "festive" marches are to be found in the edition. All of them are original, though Ponchielli did arrange marches by other composers, mainly Italians. With few exceptions these marches celebrate the Risorgimento, Italy's process of four wars of independence to establish the modern Italian state. Not one march appears in Francesco Belforti's catalog of c.1880, and few can be identified in the concerts as "marcia di Ponchielli" was a common annotation.
Nearly half of the marches are identified by number only. From their instrumentation, they seem to have been written for the smaller band in Piacenza. The newly liberated province of Emilia-Romagna needed "Italian" marches for the Guardia nazionale that had marched under Austrian music until the end of Austrian rule. In answer to the Piacentine contract, Ponchielli may have been producing marches at an incredible rate when he first arrived in 1861.
The tempo of the marches that had been obviously intended for military functions should be performed in accordance with the military drill of the period. The length of stride was given as "sedici oncie" or "sixteen inches." However, this is an inch based on the "milanese" foot which is equal to approximately twenty one inches of today's modern foot. Thus the "sixteen-inch" stride in Italy was equal to the contemporary American manuals that prescribed a "twenty-eight-inch" stride. The "quickstep" or "passo normale" marching pace was prescribed at one hundred beats-per-minute (100 BPM), slower than the 110 BPM prescribed in American manuals of our Civil War.
All of these marches conform to the "march-trio-march" structure that bespeaks the "dance" origin of the march. One particular advantage of this structure (like its cousin the minuet) is the possibility of continuous music, then considered so important for military drill and morale.
The continually "full" instrumentation of nineteenth-century marches is misleading to modern performers. When John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) was an apprentice in The United Staes Marine Band in 1867, the band had so many Italian members that Italian was the language used for rehearsals. The connection between Sousa and Ponchielli lies in the way in which their march scores were to be interpreted. Sousa (as Ponchielli also likely did) would change the instrumentation of his marches from the podium, thus no two performances of one of his marches was ever the same. Anyone familiar with an edition of Sousa's marches knows that all instruments are playing all of the time. For Sousa (and Ponchielli) the printed parts served only as a palette from which a conductor would define the timbres with directions from the podium. This tradition was passed to Dr. Howey from Sousa through Albert Austin Harding and Mark Hindsley who were directors of the Concert Band at the University of Illinois where Dr. Howey studied.