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SHSU Music Professor is Ponchielli Detective

Howey and statue
Howey with Ponchielli Statue in Cremona.

Amilcare Ponchielli lived, composed, and performed in Italy from about 1856 until his death at the age of 52 in 1886. In 1876 he wrote La Gioconda, his one great opera.

Within it is the Dance of the Hours, which even non-opera fans recognize as the hippo dance in Walt Disney's Fantasia. He had one student who outdid him as a composer--Giacomo Puccini.

So why would Sam Houston State University music professor Henry Howey find him of such interest that he has spent 13 years and an estimated $40,000 of his own money studying Ponchielli?

One reason, perhaps, is that Ponchielli is a hybrid. He made his living writing and performing band music for 13 years, yet is most famous for that one opera and that one student. To someone who studies how the public band movement began, in Italy, Germany, England, and the United States, that can pique an interest.

We have heard of the Big Band Era of the 1930s and 40s, but even a century earlier bands were playing music for the common folk.

Bands were often composed of amateurs. Even those who were professionals, like Ponchielli, had to relate to and interact with everyday people and their lives.

Howey is probably the world's foremost authority on the funeral marches of Ponchielli. He said that Ponchielli and his band sometimes performed at up to 40 funerals in a year, many for infants and children.

The funeral music that Ponchielli wrote was "bright and clear," Howey said. It had to be to sound good as the musicians marched and played through the narrow streets of the small Italian towns.

With so many immigrants coming to America from countries where bands were known, it is no surprise that outdoor bandstands and band music were considered to be for those who could not afford tickets to the great concert halls.

Boston music journalist John Sullivan Dwight wrote in 1868 that "the common people are the listeners to the concerts on the Common," unlike "the class who patronize the great organ, the opera and the oratorio."

It is a tradition that continues, in Huntsville, Texas, even, on March 23, 2006. The U. S. Air Force Band will give a free concert at 7 p.m. that evening at Sam Houston State University's Johnson Coliseum, sponsored by the Huntsville Item.

Audience members can get tickets early at the Item for premium seating, or show up 15 minutes beforehand for general admission.

The fact that the band that performs Thursday is connected to the military is also no accident. John Phillip Sousa, who wrote marches for the Marine Band, is America's best-known pre-Big Band Era bandmaster. Many of the men who played in Sousa's band were Italian immigrants, trained in the Ponchielli style, Howey discovered.

And even before Sousa, bands were important to the military, to both sides during the Civil War. Bands even took their music into the trenches.

Lieutenant S. Millett Thompson of the 13th Regiment of New Hampshire described an incident occurring just after the battle of Cold Harbor on June 8, 1864:

"This evening the Band of the Thirteenth goes into the trenches at the front, and indulges in a 'competition concert' with a band that is playing over across in the enemy's trenches," Thompson recorded in his diary.

"The enemy's Band renders Dixie, Bonnie Blue Flag, My Maryland, and other airs dear to the Southerner's heart. Our Band replies with America, Star Spangled Banner, Old John Brown, etc.            

"After a little time, the enemy's band introduces another class of music; only to be joined almost instantly by our Band with the same tune.

"All at once the band over there stops, and a rebel battery opens with grape. Very few of our men are exposed, so the enemy wasted his ammunition; while our band continues its playing, all the more earnestly until all their shelling is over."

Howey knows the military band business first hand. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Illinois and his doctorate at the University of Iowa and served with The United States Army Band in Washington, D.C. before coming to SHSU in 1976.

Primarily a trombonist, he also performs on euphonium and tuba with the Sam Houston Brass Quintet, which he founded.

He has also used his knowledge of computer technology and the Italian language as keys to his research efforts. Band music and its heroes, like Ponchielli, are not appreciated, he said.

"The band has been under-represented in the realm of music history," said Howey. "Its role in the popular dissemination of music has been accorded a second place due to its public and patriotic functions."

In the 19th century Italian bands were the source of popular entertainment and education, spreader of civil values and the ideas in a movement for Italian unification. Now with radio, television, satellite networks, compact discs and such, there is a danger that it will be all but forgotten.

Howey's work began after an Italian music historian named Licia Sirch prepared a catalog of music thought to be mainly operatic in scope. She became aware of a paper Howey had presented in Paris at a meeting of the Historic Brass Society, and invited him to a program on Ponchielli's band music that was being held in Italy.

Howey began making trips to Italy, poring over published concert programs, primarily in small town newspapers. He came up with about 400 titles that had been performed, and through what he has described as "a sort of detective story," has "found" some 200 of them.

Much of the work has been done at the state library, the Biblioteca Statale, and the School of Musicology and Philology of the University of Pavia in Cremona, Italy.

"Capo-Bando" Amilcare Ponchielli
Ponchielli was the capo-bando -- the chief of the band, the maestro, the master--in Piacenza and Cremona from 1861 to 1873.

Howey estimates Ponchielli was paid the equivalent of $60,000-$80,000 per year, and was responsible for preparing music, for rehearsing, and for performing. His musicians were paid the equivalent of $20,000 per year, and had other jobs as well. One of their primary duties was to teach young musicians.

The work was hectic, especially in the performance-packed days of April to September, before computers, copy machines and inkjet printers. When Ponchielli would complete a piece, it would be hand-copied by a "copyist/editor."

Some "autograph" or composer first edition manuscripts, and especially copies of compositions, are unclear. Whether a note was on a line or in a space, for instance, can be difficult to determine.            

Howey has made great use of his digital camera to show the actual work of Ponchielli and enlarging the digital images to help decide note position questions.

"A computer software program called Finale can reproduce sounds so a wrongly interpreted note in one part can be heard, and the remainder of the score can be used to find a double of the note in error," Howey explained.

"When no doubling is found, the harmonic context provides the means to make the 'line or space' controversy disappear."

Sometimes it takes photographic trickery to uncover the whole truth.

"Ponchielli often filled the margins of a page with notes," said Howey. "When the longest cadenza in the work was covered at a later date by someone binding the score, the 'hidden' notes reappeared only when this scrap was photographed with a light source behind it."

Howey has found other "mistakes," notes that he knows because of his familiarity with Ponchielli's composition patterns were recorded incorrectly by a transcriber, or by Ponchielli himself.

Among Howey's credits is a chapter in Sirch's book, Ponchielli e la musica per banda, entitled Death in Cremona: Ponchielli's Funeral Marches for Band.

Sirch thanked him in the foreword of that book "for having given us his technological and musical know-how--especially his database and his fabulous digital transcriptions before they were published."

He and Sirch co-authored an online article entitled The Doctrine of a Critical Edition of the Band Music of Amilcare Ponchielli, complete with "autograph" scores to view and sound files to hear. That article is at

Publication of a critical edition of a music figure's work is the ultimate accomplishment for a music historian, and as the online article suggests, Howey is well his way to completing that task. He has applied for a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to enable him to complete a critical edition on Ponchielli.

Even if that should not happen, Howey's Ponchielli detective story has been professionally gratifying. This past week, while many of his colleagues and students were on spring break, he was teaching a course at the University of Pavia's Musicology School.

While he is not of Italian descent, Howey has certainly become a fan of that culture as well as Amilcare Ponchielli.

"He was denied a place in opera history by his premature death," said Howey. "It is only right that he should be remembered by a repertoire he wrote for the first citizens of a new Italy, full of hope, patriotism, and Italy's gift to the world--music."


SHSU Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
March 20, 2006
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