The history of the Bangor band is rich with triumph, tragedy, burgeoning ranks and precipitous decline in membership and attendance. Yet, throughout the 156 years of its existence, the Band has found the means and the determination not only to survive, but to thrive in the face of wars, depression, fire, and changing musical tastes. The advent of the 20th and 21st centuries has seen a decline in community or town bands. Indeed, many bands have disappeared from view with advancing age of members, declining membership, and community apathy to the literature of the concert band. Yet, the Bangor Band has found the means to continue its legacy as one of the oldest continuous community bands in the United States. As they approach their 156th anniversary, they are mindful of those who have proceeded them and the contributions they have made.
In the winter of 1859, the first incarnation of the Bangor Band was formed under the direction of William Standish. Instruments were obtained from another recently defunct organization and a band was assembled. Billed as the Bangor Cornet Band (which was re-named in 1877 as the Bangor Band), the group performed in no fewer than sixty engagements during its first year, from cotillions to soirees to parades. Community interest and support quickly grew and the hand-me-down instruments were soon replaced by brand new ones, thanks to the sponsorship of a local womens’ club.
During the era of the Civil War, the band became a regimental band attached to first the Second Maine Infantry and later the Fourteenth Maine Regiment. It was in its latter obligation that the band had the distinction of having been present in February 1865 when Union forces recaptured Fort Sumter from the confederacy. The band would maintain military connections, both with active duty engagements and later with the Maine National Guard, until the end of WWI. The band has performed for many dignitaries over the course of its history- from William H Seward, General George McClellan, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Howard Taft, to Admiral Peary and Margaret Chase Smith.
To date, the baton of the Bangor Band has been held by approximately twenty-six conductors. Membership has always been contingent on obtaining the best local musicians available, from all ages. It was Harvey J. Woods (a conductor of the band in 1897) who saw the importance of passing the band music tradition on to younger generations by including talented high school and college students into the band. In his History of the Bangor Band, Adelbert Sprague (conductor for 41 years) asserted:
The young members develop musically through working contact with experienced players, while those seasoned members are inspired to the maintenance of high standards through the eagerness and ambition of youth. It is a potent circle, making for constructiveness and vitality, and permanency (Sprague).
The repertoire of the band has always changed with the needs of the community. At its inception, marches, quick steps and quadrilles were the order of the day; however a visit to the band’s music library confirms the presence of classical, operatic, swing, foxtrot, Broadway musical, movie and popular selections. An all male organization for its first 100 years, the band welcomed women to its ranks in the 1960’s, reflecting the social history occurring in the US at that time.
As musical tastes have changed throughout its existence, the band had come to the brink of extinction on several occasions. Yet with the musical vision of its conductors and the can-do attitude of its membership, the band has never failed to offer a concert season in its history.
While the band originally used the old bandstand at Davenport park in the early years, the current band of 50 musicians was proud to call the Bass Park gazebo their summer home where they entertained audiences in the summer shadows of Paul Bunyan. However, due to the construction of a new arena and conference center at Bass Park, the Band and its audience now eagerly await announcement of a location that will include building a new gazebo for their summer home.
In addition to the busy summer schedule, the Band is also active throughout the year, performing on Veteran’s Day, at the Christmas holiday and again in the spring with an annual Memorial concert where they honor their members both past and present.
As they look forward to their future, Adelbert Sprague offered both admonition and advice for future generations of band members and audiences of the Bangor Band. He stated:
The remuneration for the civic bandsman is not commensurate with the price and effort essential to satisfactory accomplishment, when reckoned in terms of the cost of high grade instruments and uniforms, the maintenance of adequate quarters, the upkeep and development of a music library, and the hours of study and rehearsal demanded.
The future of the Bangor Band must rely on and grow from the objectives of civic pride, music for music’s sake, and good fellowship. To a greater extent than in the past its spirit of effort must be that of the fraternity, and school, and college bands. The constant purpose must be to assemble the best musicianship and the most promising young talent available, and the goal must be a high musical standard as a concert and marching band. Interlocking memberships with fraternity and institutional organizations should be valued for the wider experience it gives the personnel, but care should be taken that such affiliations and loyalties do not interfere with the band’s program and aims.
The best talent should come from the school and college bands. These are the feeders, the blood stream of the civic band. The civic band, on the other hand, is an outlet and attainment for the school musician. Many school and college activities cease with graduation, but music can be pursued for a lifetime. The bandsman practices his art for his personal enjoyment and benefit and contributes his effort toward the building of a civic asset. (Sprague, The History of the Bangor Band, 1949).
Indeed, it is this lifeblood of future generations that will keep the Bangor Band and its legacy alive. Living history is a rare but precious commodity and the community of Bangor should consider itself fortunate to have such an institution as the Bangor Band.