Sunday, August 20, 2000
Washington On an August afternoon 200 summers ago, Marine bandsmen in blue-trimmed red coats mustered on a hill overlooking the Potomac River, lifted their instruments and began an enduring musical tradition.
The Marine Band's director, Lt. Col. Timothy W. Foley, says no record remains of that first concert, conducted by Drum Major William Farr. Nor does anyone know the precise size of Farr's band. It is known that by December 1800 the band included two oboes, two clarinets, two French horns, a bassoon and a drum.
"They almost certainly played 'Hail Columbia,"' Foley said. "It used to be called 'The President's March' and it was played at George Washington's first inaugural. It was extremely popular just about 1800."
"Hail Columbia" is now the official honors music for America's vice presidents, the veep's version of "Hail to the Chief."
The Marine Band, which prides itself as "The President's Own," was organized in 1798 when Philadelphia was still the capital. It moved to Washington when the capital did in the summer of 1800.
The first Washington concert did not go unnoticed.
Anna Maria Thornton, wife of the Capitol's first architect, wrote in her diary for Aug. 21, 1800, that the couple went to hear the band "playing at the tents which are fixed on the ground intended for an University." That was Camp Hill, now headquarters of the Navy's surgeon general.
Workmen were scrambling that summer to ready the Capitol and the White House in time for the arrival of Congress and President John Adams in November. The place was little more than a messy construction site.
Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott wrote of Washington at the time:
"There are few houses in any one place, and most of them small, miserable huts, which present an awful contrast to the public buildings."
Brightening the scene, the Marine Band became known as "The President's Own" probably because it was favored by President Jefferson, who played the violin and harpsichord.
Jefferson took a lively interest in recruiting instrumentalists for the band and extended his search to Italy. Sixteen Italian musicians arrived in Washington in September 1805, only to learn that a new commandant hadn't been told they were coming. Most didn't stay long. But one, Venerando Pulizzi, later rejoined and served as the band's director from 1818 to 1827.
Since then, the musicians have increased in number and versatility, providing whatever music the White House needs: a jazz combo, a harp soloist, rock, a German oompah-band, an opera singer, a classical string quartet. One recent occasion featured a rap performance, but not at the White House.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln listened to concerts on the South Lawn from a sofa in the White House Blue Room. Once he ventured onto the portico and was spotted by the audience who clamored for a speech. He turned back, saying he wished they would let him sit quietly and enjoy the music.
Poet Walt Whitman, for whom Lincoln was a hero, gave an enthusiastic review to a Marine Band concert at the White House for the Sunday Herald newspaper, reporting:
"The preponderance of ladies, most of them young, and in gay attire, and all full of animation; the soft turf to walk upon; the vista of trees, and the distant outlook; the circle of promenaders, with the sparkling eyes that meet one everywhere; the strains of Verdi, Meyerbeer or Strauss wafted to the ear."
President Theodore Roosevelt's daughter, Alice, was the first to ask the band to play a jazz number and the tune she asked for, Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," is still in the repertory.
President Harding sometimes played his cornet at rehearsals.
Then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton joined in on tenor sax at a dinner for governors in 1991, the year before his election as president.