China has more than 2 million soldiers in its army. North Korea has more than 1 million. Both Russia and the United States have fewer than half a million each. But no other army in the world — not the Chinese, the North Koreans, or the Russians; not the British, the French, or even the Germans — has an ensemble like the United States Army Field Band and Soldiers’ Chorus. All of those countries have army bands and choruses to march and parade and give concerts for their troops, but none of them has a band and chorus that bill themselves as “musical ambassadors.”
The United States Army Field Band and Soldiers’ Chorus have performed in all fifty states. They toured Central and South America in 1970, performing in Guatemala and Nicaragua. They toured in the Far East in 1987, performing in Korea and Japan. They toured Europe in 1994 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Normandy invasion, performing in Britain, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany. They performed in Hawaii in 1995, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the defeat of Japan. And, of course, they recently performed at the state funeral of Ronald Reagan. In all these places, the United States Army Field Band and Soldiers’ Chorus have acted as representatives of the traditions of the United States Army.
Armies have been allied with music for thousands of years. The Old Testament tells us that the armies of Israel used trumpets to destroy the walls of Jericho. The ancient Scots used bagpipes and drums to shock and awe their enemies. And during the Napoleonic Wars, in countries across Europe, bands played newly composed national anthems to rouse patriotic spirits and to raise armies.
The Field Band in its present form was founded in 1946 under orders “to organize a band that will carry into the grassroots of our country the story of our magnificent army, its glorious traditions and achievements, and . . . the great symbol of American manhood — the ground soldier.” These days, under the direction of colonel Finley R. Hamilton of Richmond, Kentucky, the repertoire of the Field Band and Soldiers’ Chorus extends far beyond the national anthem and other patriotic hymns. Along with “America the Beautiful” and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” they will perform Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” Ellington and Strayhorn’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” and even Manilow’s “Let Freedom Ring.”
Still, the core of their repertoire is drawn from America’s rich repertoire of military marches, including Sousa’s immortal “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” “The Washington Post,” and “The Gallant Seventh.” And, naturally, they play a medley of the hymns of all the armed services — although they represent the army, they are also the musical ambassadors of the nation.
The Field Band and Soldiers’ Chorus perform at Hill Auditorium on Friday, July 2.