Press "Enter" to skip to content

Frederick Fennell and Civil War Music

LISTEN!! To generations of band students that word was engrained into their minds. My first introduction to Frederick Fennell was that admonition printed on the inside of music folders along with a picture of the maestro, arms raised imploring the best from all musicians. The news of the passing of Dr. Fennell came in December 2005 and not only was felt by the band world but also by those of us who perform in Civil War Brass Bands. As the Principal Musician of the Federal City Brass Band and the re-created 26th North Carolina Regimental Band, I had the honor of meeting him, performing for him and giving a lecture with him in the audience. My association with the Fennells went back to the 1990s when I worked as a music engraver for Ludwig Music and had two of my works published by the company.

In the world of Civil War bands Fennell’s death marked the passing of the one man who was instrumental in bringing back to life a musical form that had been dormant for almost one hundred years. His mark was forever made in the world of concert band, symphonic and of course, winds ensemble music. His championing of music education and conducting helped shape the world of music education influencing teachers and conductors worldwide. Maybe not so familiar to many was his love of Civil War music, an art form that is continued today the many brass bands and fife and drum corps that perform at concerts, musters and re-enactments throughout the United States. My introduction to the world of Civil War Brass bands was through the legendary recordings made by the Eastman Wind Ensemble.

Fennell was born on July 2, 1914 in Cleveland, Ohio. His mother was a Putnam, descended from General Israel Putnam of Revolutionary War fame and his father was a fifer with the Camp Zeke Fife and Drum Corps. Camp Zeke (named for an eagle found by an uncle) was an encampment on the family property where a re-created Civil war camp was set up. This was the forerunner of what is commonly called living history camps organized by Revolutionary War, Civil War and now World War II re-enactors. It was only natural for young Frederick to pick up the drum the age of seven and join the family musical group. As told to Robert Simon in his book “Fennell”, “…it all began with a fife and drum corps, and I think it was first of all because my father was a fifer and that fife and drum corps, and it was such a great drum corps and it was a great sound. That really is what got me into it because I couldn’t stay out of it.”
“Into it” he was for the rest of his life although he would not make the mark until the 1950s

Fennell played drums in high school and during the summer attended the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan. He studied at the Eastman School of Music on the University of Rochester campus, earning a Bachelor of Music degree in 1937 and a Master of Music degree two years later. He became a member of the Eastman conducting faculty in 1939, founded the Eastman Wind Ensemble in 1952, and received an Honorary Doctorate from Eastman in 1988. Along the way he recorded over one hundred albums. It was during his tenure at Eastman that he revolutionized the art of wind ensemble music and the ensemble itself.

In 1956 Fennell found himself with his family on vacation in Gettysburg. It was while reading W.C. Storricks’ book “The Battle of Gettysburg” (the then accepted best book on the battle) he came across the following quote from the diary of Lt. Col Arthur Fremantle, a British observer traveling with Lee’s army, “When the cannonade was at its height a Confederate band of music between the cemetery and ourselves, began to play polkas and waltzes, which sounded very curious, accompanied by the hissing and bursting of shells.” It was this quote that led Fennell to make a moonlight trip to the battlefield to try and find the location and identity of the confederate band. He got to thinking about the bands that took part in the historic conflict. Who were they? Whatever happened to their music and instruments? He decided to find out. While on the battlefield that evening was born the genesis of a university project that would result in a two volume, four record set of Civil War brass band music. As he was to relate later, “My relationship to these recordings is intensely personal. The project which produced them began and was sustained by a life-long fascination for the actions of men who could bring themselves to the terrible events of 1861-65.”

A trip to Winston-Salem. North Carolina to the Moravian Music foundation uncovered the original band books of the 26th North Carolina Regimental Band, found to be the music unit in question in Fremantle’s diary. The microfilms of the music plus band arrangements of the Third New Hampshire Band obtained from the Library of Congress provided the basis for the bulk of the music recorded on the album.

An extensive study of the parts (no full scores exist) ensued followed by the procurement of original instruments and finally the recording session that took place in December 1960. Filling out the recording was vocal music, fife and drum music, bugle and trumpet signals, narration and recordings of Civil War weapons ranging from muskets to cannons. The records received Grammy Awards for their special effects, including the authentic artillery sounds Fennell recorded at the Gettysburg battlefield and synchronized with the music. This 4 record set (now available on CD) was one of the first collection of Civil War music and introduced many to a style of music that had passed into history performed on instruments whose use had faded into oblivion.

Today we still hear the same stories Dr. Fennell heard back then about the bands that played waltzes and polkas on the field at Gettysburg. We now know something about who they were and the music they played, but at the time Fennell got his inspiration to research the bands and music of the Civil War, no one had yet done such a thing. He started from scratch, digging through attics and basements in homes, libraries, and museums to find the original handwritten band books and rotary valve instruments. His Eastman students were set to the task of making the old instruments playable and then learning to play them. He somehow managed to scrape together the resources to fund the recording,

In addition the Civil War music, Fennell recorded an album of U.S. Army field trumpet and field music (that preceded the Civil War music recording) that was used after the Civil War. He also published a booklet of the music “The Drummer’s Heritage 1956-A collection of popular airs and official U.S. Army music for fifes and drums with similar piece for field trumpets, cymbals, and drums.”

In the years following the release of the Civil War records, Civil War re-enactment bands formed to play the music rediscovered by Fennell and his Eastman Ensemble. Most groups I’ve talked with attribute their start to that recording along with the interest in Civil War history that started in the 1960s with the centennial commemorations of the war. The First Brigade Band formed in 1964 was the first group to recreate the Civil War Bands on a continuing basis. Originally formed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of General Grants return to Galena, they are still active today. The 5th Michigan Brass Band was formed in 1973 as a State of Michigan Bicentennial project and the Americus Brass Band was founded in 1976 by a group of music students at California State University, Long Beach. Heritage Americana founded by Robert Garofalo and Mark Elrod in 1978 at the Catholic University.

Fennell went on to record more Civil War music albums “Our Musical Past-A Concert for Brass Band, Voice, and Piano” Recorded in 1976 for the Library of Congress and “American Brass Band Journal Revisited-Music from the John F. Stratton Military Band Series” with the Empire Brass Quintet and friends recorded in 1978

Always considered the “Grand Patriarch” of Civil War Brass Band music Fennell found time to guest conduct some of the re-enactment bands and was the Honorary Director and Guest Conductor for the National Civil War Band Festival held in at University in Campbellsville, Campbellsville Kentucky in 2000 and 2003. The festival, billed as “the single most significant gathering of Civil War bands and musicians since the famed Grand Review of the Armies in Washington, DC, May 23-24, 1865” featured fourteen brass bands gathered for lectures concerts, a parade and final review of all the bands in which Fennell conducted a mass concert of over 200 musicians. I presented a lecture on the history of the military bugle and the origins of the bugle call Taps at the 2003 festival in which Fennell sat in the audience. To be in the presence of a great musician and historian was one of the greatest thrills of my life

In July 2003 fourteen Civil War bands from 11 states were invited to participate in the second triennial National Civil War Band Festival at Campbellsville, located about 85 miles southwest of Lexington, Kentucky. As in 2000, host bands are Saxton’s Cornet Band of Lexington, and Olde Towne Brass of Huntsville, Alabama. Other participating bands at the 2003 festival are The Wildcat Regiment Band, Home, PA; The Dodworth Saxhorn Band, Ann Arbor, MI; The 8th Regiment Band, Rome, GA; The 5th Michigan Regiment Band, Novi, MI; The 33rd Illinois Volunteer Regiment Band, Bloomington, IL; The Regimental Volunteer Band of Wisconsin, Dousman, WI; The 5th California Volunteer Infantry Regiment Band, Davis, CA; The New Mexico Territorial Brass Band, Albuquerque, NM; The Frontier Brigade Band, Colleyville, TX; The Heritage Brass Band, Mesquite, TX; The Band of the California Battalion, Long Beach, CA. It was a testament to Fennell’s legacy

On December 7, 2004 , in her message to his friends and musical associates, Fennell’s daughter, Cathy, wrote about his last moments: “A bit before midnight, Dad told me he was “frustrated and disappointed.” When I asked “Why?” he replied, “There’s no drummer here yet. I can’t die without a drummer!” I told him that I loved him and that “Heaven’s best drummer was on the way.” Moments later he said, “I can hear him! I can hear him! I’m OK now.” This was my final conversation with my dad…”

On December 14, 2004, at his memorial service in Siesta Key, Florida, delegations from Eastman, major orchestras and bands gathered to say farewell to the maestro. Jim Smith, drummer who as a youngster studied with William Street at Fennell’s urging, related that the Church Bulletin was rather simple, except that it included the “Prayer of the Company of Fifers and Drummers.” And the service and music followed the Episcopal liturgy with but one exception. It concluded with a drum salute. Performing on old Civil War drums with un-muffled skinheads and loose gut snares, Smith and Craig Toft performed music prescribed by Frederick Fennell for the event: a solemn dirge (52 beats per minute) with muffled snares and specific dynamics. From his notes “…I wrote this for me or Bill (Ludwig) if family and friends gather to celebrate. But I really wrote it for Bill, and the silences throughout it are for all the other drummer boys—who didn’t come marching home. This is to be followed, segue, by Three Camps, beginning ‘p’ with crescendo the first two bars-played with all repeats: this then—to conclude the farewell to the two friends will be followed by Connecticut Halftime. Both musicians added the Downfall of Paris as the final salute to Fennell.

The world of Civil War music is indebted to the legacy Frederick Fennell left. He left a void that may never be filled.

Jari Villanueva,
Principal Musician, The Federal City Brass Band


  1. Tapsbugler Tapsbugler Post author | December 2, 2020

    Thank you!

  2. Jim McDevitt Jim McDevitt December 2, 2020

    A very good article, Jari. Keep them coming! Jim McDevitt

Comments are closed.


Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)