You hear this iconic trumpet (bugle) call at the racetrack. It’s a quick call that’s sounded as the horses are about to led to the starting gate. What is the origin of this call and how did it become associated with horse racing?
At a U.S. military installation First Call is a pre-reveille “courtesy” signal, sounded around 05:50, originally to assemble the trumpeters to deliver the reveille that would be forthcoming at 06:00. Some locations also sound it a few minutes before retreat (lowering the flag at the end of the day). In other military contexts it may be used (e.g. 5 minutes) prior to sounding Assembly for any particular formation. On ships of the US Navy, First Call is sounded at 0755, five minutes ahead of Morning Colors (raising the national ensign), and 5 minutes before Evening Colors (lowering the national ensign)
The call dates from the French cavalry- “Pour la Reunion des Trompettes”-1804 by David Buhl. The first U.S. usage is found in 1834 as a trumpeters call.
Joseph David Buhl (1781-1860) was a French trumpeter who spent many years revising traditional French military signals. A solo trumpet player in the Musique de la garde nationale de Paris and later of the Musique de la Garde des Consuls, he wrote all the ordinance signals and fanfares of the army (1803-1829), which are still used today in the French cavalry. He became a teacher at the L’école de trumpet the cavalry in Versailles. After 1814 he became the bandmaster of the Music Chapel of the Gardes du Corps of Louis XVIII of France and was awarded the nomination in the French Legion of Honor. He later became 1st trumpet player in the orchestra of the Opéra Garnier and in the orchestra of the Théâtre italien. He wrote a method for cavalry trumpet (1825) and made improvements to the horn and trumpet. At least ten calls utilized by the U.S. Army were created by Buhl and are still in use today, including: “First Call,” “Mess Call,” “Retreat,” and “Tattoo, First Strain”
What should be noted is that Buhl wrote trumpet calls not bugle calls. That is, the calls are written for the cavalry trumpets pitched in Eb and are written in the trumpet notation which is an octave lower than bugle written notes.
In the 19th century many cavalry trumpet calls were rewritten into bugle notation so that those instruments (Clairons and Bugles in G and Bb) could perform them. Many calls were transposed without problem while others had to have pitches altered to be able to play on a bugle. First Call is an example of the original trumpet call was altered pitch-wise but not rhythmically
How did the call become associated with horse racing? At a horse race, Call to the Post (First Call) is a signal that all mounts should be at the paddock exit in order to proceed to the track to begin the post parade. The call is usually sounded by a bugler five to ten minutes before the scheduled start time of the race. It has been called Call to the Post over the years as it describes the action to be taken by the riders.
Certainly trumpet/bugle calls have been associated with horses since the 18th century. Coach horns, which are long conical horns pitched in Ab, were long associated with horse drawn stage-coaches and post horns, circular wrapped cylindrical brass horns, were used on horseback to announce the arrival of mail. Even though they differ in their physical appearance, the two types of horn served the same purpose-sound calls.
Today buglers at racetracks who carry on the tradition will use a coach horn to sound the call. But many use regular trumpets or long-bell herald trumpets. Buglers are dressed in the traditional coach horn outfits of the 19th century although most tend to the uniforms worn by buglers on fox hunts. What is interesting is that those fox hunt buglers use the small hunting horn which can only sound one note.
“The custom of playing some type of horn at the start of equestrian contests is a tradition that can be traced as far back as ancient Rome. During the reign of Henry VIII, a horn was used to sound the start of the fox hunt. This practice had come from France where it had been practiced in the royal courts of Louis X II, XIII, and XIVl.
During the latter part of the 18th centruy contests of speed were frequently carried on between the private coaches of the nobility. At first, these races were between the coaches, with the coach guard and many of the family members riding on the coach. The eventual removal of excess weight lead to the removal of the coaches entirely. This left the coach guards out on the track with nothing to do but sound their horns. It is only logical that they be asked to play their horns to signal the start of the race.”
Since the noble families were no longer riding in the coaches, they had nothing left to do but have an outdoor party. Entire celebrations were planned around these regional events known as race days or “Derby” days. If it were not for the fact that the Coach Guards were able to play loud enough to be able to call attention to the start of each race, the celebratory activities might cause the race to be missed.
Later, it was evident that there was a need for a set of standardized calls or signals, which would indicate exactly what was happening. This was already used in the military for centuries prior. It was only logical to rely on those signals which had already been developed by the military for the same purposes. This explains why such traditional military calls as “Execute the Orders”, “Boots & Saddles”, and “Call to the Post” are considered the traditional signals at race tracks around the world.
-“Coach Horn Playing At Equestrian Events” by Keith Snell an excerpt from his book “A Brief History of the Post and Coach horn”
So Call to the Post may have been first used at races in the 19th century to announce the arrival of the horses on the track. Why this was chosen is unknown. Tom Gilcoyne, historian, National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame mentioned that F.A. Heckler was the first track bugler at Monmouth Park in Jersey in 1885. Perhaps he may have been the first one to use the call.
Michael Veitch, National Museum of Racing Historian, says that in 1879 at Saratoga, in the first known “clanging of the bell” took place, a ritual that informed jockeys it was time to “weigh out” on the way to the post. Also at Saratoga, in 1892, possibly the first organized “post parade” took place. Whether or not these were accompanied by a bugler’s call, he does not know.
But still why is unknown or unexplained. The bugle call originated as a signal to assemble trumpeters and buglers in a location, not to start a horse race. Certainly if a cavalry call was to be used why not use the call of Boots and Saddles? Le Boutee Selle, (Boots and Saddles) is a French cavalry trumpet call for mounted troops. The call signals troopers to mount and take their place in line. Below is the original call in trumpet notation.
Boots and saddles was incorporated into the US Cavalry manuals of the 1830s and was also transposed into the bugle notation for use by buglers in the Civil War.
It is interesting to note George “Bucky” Sallee, bugler at the historic Keeneland racetrack in Lexington Kentucky for more than 50 years, used Boots and Saddles as well as Assembly to announce race at that track.
Back to First Call.…
The call remained in the US Cavalry manuals as Assembly of the Trumpeters until 1890 when it re-designated First Call. The Infantry manual, which underwent a major revision by Major General Emory Upton in 1874, included the call for Assembly of the Trumpeters (replacing the French originated Assembly of the Buglers) with the notation that the call was to be used for gathering trumpeters (buglers) and as a call to precede Reveille, Retreat and Tattoo and as a first signal for all ceremonies.
John Philip Sousa in his 1886 manual for Trumpet and Drum wrote a drum part to accompany the call.
Around 1890, the designation of the call changed from Assembly of the Trumpeters to First Call. This changed in both Army and Navy manuals.
In researching this call I found a variation of the call in the manual for the US Marine Corps. This change can be found in the Manual for Field Musics 1935 (revised in 1942)
The call has remained in subsequent Band and bugle manuals. The 1971 Manual for Drummers and Buglers included the call with this admonition, “First Call-The sixteenth-note groupings are not triplets. They should sound like the last three notes of a sextuplet.”
There is no historic basis for this rhythmic change. All manuals have it written that way with the exception of the 1935 USMC Field Musics book and later Marine bugle manuals which altered the rhythm for some unexplained reason.
It has remained that way in the USMC manual to this day and is even recorded by the US Marine Band with those rhythms.
So, an interesting call that is familiar to most Americans as Taps.
If you have any information or ideas why the US Marines changed the call a bit, please comment below or send an email to jari@tapsBugler.com