The History of Danish Military Music




Mogens Gaardbo (an IMMS Reprint)

Military music was originally just a method of communication. During the course of the 16th and 17th century warfare developed to be more theoretical and complex than it had been previously. The need for unmistakably loud and clear signals for the move forward, retreat or attack was needed. Although the Roman Armies used trumpeters and drummers and the Lur (1) was played by the Vikings, these were mainly used ceremonially.

Originally the Infantry used fifes and drums as their way of signaling and the Cavalry trumpets and the kettledrum. These were also used on ceremonial occasions, especially those of a Royal nature. At a later date the Infantry started to use the bugle and it was often young boys that played both the bugle and the drums and there are not many Danes that have not seen the Monument or -heard of “The Little Bugler”. (Little Hornblower!). During this century the advent of radio naturally rendered the bugle and drum signals superfluous but the sounds of the Reveille and Retreat can still be heard at certain Garrisons and occasionally members of the Royal Family or High Ranking Officers playing them. Many of these Historical  Regimental signals can be found as part of the official march of these Regiments.

During the 16th century the ‘shawm’ began to emerge as a military musical instrument and it was then that the musical side became more important as the rather brittle sound of the shawms could hardly be used as a signal. The shawm was later replaced by the ‘hautbois’, (known now as the oboe) and the musicians that played these instruments were called ‘Hautboys’. Later this term was used to describe all military musicians irrespective of whether or not they played this particular instrument.

The 17th century brought important changes, in that the discovery was made that by adding holes and flaps to a trumpet, tones other than a natural ones could be provided. This meant that melodies could be played using whole and half tones. The other significant innovation was the arrival in Europe of the Turkish musical tradition with its cymbals, rattles, tambourines and drums.

During the beginning of the 18th century all of these instruments were merged together, oboes, trumpets, drums and the Turkish Janizarian music to that which we know today as the wind band. Up until this time Danish military music did not differ too much from the rest of Europe but let us now concentrate on the developments in Denmark. At this time during the beginning of the 18th century -Danish regiments competed with one another in producing the biggest, best and most colorful band possible. More often than not it was the Officers of the Regiment that paid out of their own pocket to maintain the bands. A number of the members of the band were German in origin and many musicians and composers who were later to become famous started their career in a military band. Carl Nielsen and Hans Christian Lumbye to name two of the most well known.

In 1842 guide lines were drawn up by the Danish Government for military music in Denmark, uniforms were standardized   unfortunately at the expense of the many varied and colorful uniforms. But there was also a cut back on the number of military bands. The end result was five brigade bands and the band of The Royal Danish Lifeguards. The complement of the six bands consisted of thirty-five musicians; all were wind bands with brass and woodwind, but there were also twenty battalion bands of sixteen musicians each and these were brass only.  It was here that the very special Danish military music tradition began and has continued until the present day, where the Regimental ‘Musikkorps’ consist of less than twenty members and are still all brass.

Musically there is a disparity when comparison is made with a complete wind band but this meant that a very special Danish military music tradition was provided with its own instrumentation, style and composers. A tradition that was also adopted by a number of civilian bands during the beginning of this century and it should be noted here that the Danish brass tradition cannot be compared to the British type brass bend. Both instrumentation and not least the playing ‘style’ are very different. It is true that in 1842 the cutbacks were critical but at least there were more than six hundred musicians involved in military music – today there are only about one hundred left.

It was the Royal Lifeguards ‘Musikkorps’, the five brigade hands and the smaller battalion bands that were musically to play an important role during the Schlesvig-Holstein wars of 1848-49 and in 1864. After the war of 1864, further cuts were made in the defense budget and once again military music was badly affected; in 1867 the number of bands were halved. The five brigade bands disappeared completely and the Royal Lifeguards remained as the only wind band. Many of the battalion bands were axed and of the remainder, these were reduced to nine musicians. Permission was granted though that two bands could play together ‘on special occasions’.

Changes were also made in 1880. The Royal Lifeguards were retained but the remaining bands were re-organized into ten regimental bands of twenty musicians, apart from the Artillery and the Mounted Bands that only received a quota of ten. Once again apart from the Lifeguards, these were all brass.

Less than 30 years later, in 1909, everything went completely wrong. The Parliament decided that all Danish military music was to be disbanded and that as from 1st April 1911 all Danish military musicians were to be given their discharge.

It was not particularly wise that more than a year was to pass before this was implemented, as this time was naturally used in protesting against the decision. These protests came not only from the military musicians themselves but also by prominent people from all walks of life. Military music was for a lot of people, their first taste of ‘live’ music. Radio and records were still in their infancy and most people could not afford to go to Symphonic Concerts and to the Opera but the march through the town by a military bend, followed by concerts in the market place or the local park could be enjoyed by everyone and were extremely popular and fulfilled the musical requirements of the population; and they were free! The protests against the decision by the Government culminated in January 1911 in a huge demonstration through the streets of Copenhagen to the Parliament at Christiansborg

The Government refused to bow to the wishes of the demonstrators and protestations. Military music was to be abolished and in March 1911 the regimental bands gave farewell concerts throughout the land. Amazingly, when the dismissals had already come into effect, telegrams were sent out from the Ministry of War on the 1st April to all military musicians saying that their discharge had been cancelled. Military music in Denmark had been reprieved.

Reductions though, were inevitable and the regimental bands were reduced to nine musicians and three in reserve (either conscripts or musicians on contract). The Mounted Band and the Artillery had to make do with just nine permanent musicians. This situation was to continue for some ten years and caused a number of problems. Notwithstanding the individual musicians prowess, how could 10 – 13 band members produce a sound that really carried a forceful sound? This was felt in particular during the celebrations of the re-unification of the South of Jutland with Denmark in 1920. The local population had been used to the big German military wind bands numbering over fifty and these were now being replaced by a Danish military band, all brass, of only thirteen musicians! An agreement was reached that resulted in two regimental bends playing together to form a more acceptable 25 – 26 piece band. During 1922 conditions improved a little in that the number of musicians were increased to fifteen. This meant that some bands could expand with a couple of clarinets and a flute.

Then in 1932, the situation from 1909 was finally realized and this time there was no reprieve. One hundred and seventy-four musicians lost their jobs, only the Lifeguards Band were allowed to continue as before. This period was to last for ten years and both the population and the National Defense Forces sorely missed their military music. This was a time when one could meet a company of soldiers marching behind a loudspeaker van playing marches, an undignified sight and a parody of military pride.

1941 brought the re-introduction of military music in Denmark, possibly as a counter balance to the presence of the big, well playing bands of the occupying German Forces, Four regimental bands were formed, each of fifteen musicians. During the last Sunday in April 1941, a concert was held in a park in Copenhagen to celebrate the return of military music and was seen by over fifty thousand people. on the 1st May, the bands were re-united with the Garrisons and they were welcomed wholeheartedly.

During the period from the 29th August to Liberation in 1945, these bands continued to function but as ‘Civilian’ bands.  In 1953 one more band was re-established, but in 1973 another one was disbanded. The tradition from 1842 of all brass bands have been kept, apart from the Royal Lifeguards, which has survived all these crises.

The situation today is that Danish military music consists of The Royal Danish Lifeguards Band in Copenhagen, the band of The Life Regiment of Zealand in Ringsted, the band of the Life Regiment of Funen in Odense, the band of the Slesvig Regiment of Foot in Fladerslev and the band of The Princes Life Regiment in Viborg.  Apart from this, the Navy has a Fanfare Band, which in spite of its name is in fact a complete all-brass band. These musicians are either conscripts or on short-term contracts. This also applies to the Fifes and Drums of the Royal Danish Lifeguards.

Since its formation in 1949, the Territorial Army or Home Guard have formed a number of ‘Musikkorps’, some as wind bands and others as all brass. Many have a high musical standard and often fill the gap left by decades of reductions of the professional bands and it is not unusual to see a military parade being led musically by a Territorial Army Band. It should also be noted here that the only band associated with the Danish Air Force is in fact a Territorial Band, as is the Women’s Naval Service Band and the Women’s Army Corps, who have their own Fife and Drum Band.

Finally it should be mentioned that many amateur orchestras, company bands, Boys and Girls Guard Bands, Boys Brigade and Scout Bands often play military music, though of varying quality. One of the most distinguished, is of course, the Boys Band of the Tivoli Guards, with a very high musical standard.

This article first appeared in The Danish Newsletter – Reveille. Our thanks to Phillip Markham the National Delegate for Denmark for translating it.

1 The lur was a trumpet dating from the late Nordic Bronze Age. It consisted of two sections of tubing, some 2 – 3 meters in length and twisted in the shape of an S. Some had small metal plates hanging from the rings near the mouthpiece making a jingling noise. A large number have been recovered from the peat bogs in Denmark and southern Sweden. They appear to have been made in matching pairs (rather like the horns on an animal).

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