"The President's Own"

A History of the United States Marine Band by Col. John R. Bourgeois (Ret)

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During the last week of the Reagan presidency, the orchestra of the Marine Band was present at the White House for the president's farewell to his staff. After his remarks, he came over to say farewell to the band and I told him how proud we were to have been his band. Since I had heard of his proficiency on the harmonica, I gave him a personalized Marine Band Harmonica and said that now he would always have his own Marine Band to play Hail to the Chief whenever he wished. He took the instrument into his hands and looked at it quizzically. My first thought was that maybe my information was wrong and that perhaps he didn't play! To my relief he put the harmonica to his lips and drew three notes. "Ah," I said to myself, "the Marines' Hymn"; but when he continued I realized he was playing the Red River Valley. How poignant, I thought, as he played the famous western folk song that laments From this valley they say you are going.

In the administration of George Bush, the Marine Band made an 18-day concert tour of the Soviet Union in February 1990 as part of an historic U.S.-Soviet Armed Forces Band Exchange. The band performed in the cities of Moscow, Kiev, L'vov, Minsk, and Leningrad. As the Russians are fond of exchanging souvenirs, we brought Marine Band Harmonicas inscribed in Cyrillic as gifts from the musicians to commemorate the visit.

The first concert of the tour occurred at the same time as the convening of the Plenum of the Communist Party and the huge Bolshoi Military Theater was filled to capacity with visiting musicians from the far reaches of the Soviet Union. Our concert concluded with a joint effort of our Marine Band and the massed bands of the Soviet Armed Forces performing Tschaikovsky's 1812 Overture. The senior music director of all the Soviet Bands, Major General Nikolai Mikhailov, was the conductor.

When played in the non-Soviet world, the final measures of the 1812 Overture conclude with the Tsar's Hymn. However, at this performance-as with all performances in the Soviet Union since 1917-the Soviets had replaced this hymn with a tune by Glinka which fit well into the musical structure. Their performance parts already had a pasted-over insert, and we were given copies of the insert to cover the offending passage in our music.

The tour ended in Leningrad, the home of the October Revolution. Again, at the conclusion of the concert, the Marine Band was joined by massed Soviet Army and Navy Bands for a performance of the 1812 Overture. This time, I was asked to conduct, and it was further requested that the overture be performed, "the way you do it." I advised them that we performed the original Tschaikovsky version which included The Tsar's Hymn. The officials insisted again, "Play it the way you do it." So, I instructed all of the musicians to peel back the pasted-over inserts from their music and, that evening, The Tsar's Hymn was heard in Leningrad for the first time since the 1917 revolution. The audience roared its approval. And later they cried unrestrainedly when, as an encore, we played the old Hymn to the City. (The hymn dates back to when the city was called St. Petersburg, and it remained a symbol of identity and strength to the people especially during the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis in World War II.)

The Marine Band played its first concerts in England at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 15-22 February 1992. As part of the Mountbatten Festival of Music, the U.S. Marine Band and the massed bands of Her Majesty's Royal Marines, performed a joint concert in the presence of Royal Marine Commandant, Lieutenant General Sir Henry Beverly and U.S. Marine Commandant General Carl E. Mundy.

The 250th birthday of Thomas Jefferson was celebrated on 13 April 1993, at the Jefferson Memorial, which the band had dedicated on 13 April 1943. President William Jefferson Clinton gave the birthday address honoring his mentor and namesake. Later the president wrote me: "...the Marine Band's precision and discipline, which prompted a proud Jefferson to refer to it as The President's Own, serve as a standard for aspiring musicians throughout the nation."

There were many occasions during the Clinton presidency when I had the opportunity to speak with the president about music, and I was always surprised about the depth of his knowledge. Perhaps my most memorable event with this musical president was conducting him in a satirical saxophone solo performance during the annual Gridiron Club dinner. The Gridiron Club, which Sousa led as its first music director, is a Washington institution which presents a dinner each spring during which the branches of the government are satirized in skits with parody. That evening, former president George Bush was seated to the left of the Gridiron Club president at the head table. When the Marine Band marched into the room, Bush leaned to his right and said to the Gridiron president, "You know, the thing I miss most about my former job is the Marine Band." Unaware of this comment, President Clinton, seated on the Gridiron president's right, leaned over and said "You know, the thing I enjoy most about this job is the Marine Band."

During the band's 198th birthday commemoration on 11 July 1996 at the Daughters of the American Revolution's Constitution Hall, I was relieved of command by Lieutenant Colonel Timothy W. Foley, who became the 26th Director of the Marine Band.

On 20 January 1997 Lt Col Foley led the Marine Band in its traditional place of honor at president Clinton's second inaugural. One of the highlights of the musical program was the performance by great American soprano Jesse Norman, accompanied by the Marine Band.

At the traditional "surprise" New Year's serenade on 1 January 1998 Commandant General Charles Krulak saluted the band as it entered its bicentennial year. Later in the month the American conductor and director of the National Symphony, Leonard Slatkin, conducted the band at DAR Constitution Hall in a program of contemporary American wind music.

By the end of the twentieth century the Marine Band had come a long way from the original thirty-two drums and fifes. But with 143 musicians and five officers, the band still proudly continues its unique mission " provide music for the President of the United States and the Commandant of the Marine Corps."

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