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Famous Wind Band Composers - The History and Literature

This author has been an educator, conductor, and trombonist for the past 40 years. His experience qualifies him as an expert in this field.

The Wind Band is a medium for performance that has a long history in the evolution of music. This article will explore the Famous Wind Band Composers — The History and Literature who helped build this special niche in the music world.

To quote Arthur Fiedler, (past conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra) “As music director of the World Symphony Orchestra when it was organized in the fall of 1971, I was faced with the perplexing problem of selecting appropriate program material. I had before musicians from 66 nations. To recognize the sponsoring country, the United States, I decided to begin the concerts with Aaron Copland’s - Fanfare for the Common Man and end with John Philip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever.

Two of the finest American composers were Copland and Sousa. Their music is performed on a regular basis throughout the world. Both are considered among the most Famous Wind Band Composers.

Original Compositions or Arrangements?

For clarification, it is important to distinguish between original compositions and musical arrangements. A composer creates original music compositions for specific ensembles.

A musical arranger is one who takes original material and arranges it in his/her own distinct style. This might mean changing or enhancing the rhythm, harmony, and or the form of the original composition. Out of the Five Basic Elements of Music that they can not change is the melody.

As an example, George Gershwin composed Strike Up The Band! Over the years, many arrangements of this composition have been musically arranged for different performance mediums. These performance mediums include:

  • orchestra
  • symphonic band
  • choir
  • jazz ensemble

What is a Musical Transcription?

A musical transcription is a music composition that was originally written for one performance medium and transcribed or re-orchestrated for let’s say a Concert or Symphonic Band. The transcriber or orchestrator stays within the parameters of the original composition set by the composer. Note for note.

Mozart, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, and many other composers from past centuries have had their famous compositions for orchestra transcribed for the wind band. This includes the different types of the wind band. (Brass Band, Concert Band, Wind Ensemble, and Symphonic Band) This is done by adapting to the instrumentation giving it a different timbre or tonal quality.

So, to recap, we have - a composition that is original music, an arrangement is an original composition re-written by an arranger, and transcription is an original composition re-orchestrated for another medium for performance.

Below is a list of some of the most famous wind band composers.

  • Gustav Holst
  • Percy Grainger
  • Ralph Vaughn Williams
  • Robert Russell Bennett
  • James Curnow
  • Philip Sparke
  • Aaron Copland
  • Alfred Reed
  • Clifton Williams
  • Frank Ticheli
  • William Shuman
  • Vincent Persichetti
  • David Holsinger
  • Karel Husa
  • John Barnes Chance
  • Norman Dello Joio
  • Roger Nixon
  • Robert Jager
  • Gunther Schuller
  • Claude T Smith
  • Peter Graham

List of some of the most popular composers of marches

  • John Philip Sousa
  • Henry Fillmore
  • Julius Fucik
  • Edwin Franco Goldman
  • Russell Alexander
  • Robert B Hall
  • Fred Jewel
  • Karl L King
  • W. Paris Chambers
  • William Rimmer

There are hundreds of composers from this medium. I have mentioned but a few to give you an idea of some of the more famous wind band composers and how they differ from orchestral composers

Composer - Gustav Holst


Gustav Holst (1874 - 1934)

Best known for his orchestral piece called The Planets, Gustav Holst was an English composer who had a profound influence on what we know today as the wind band. Two pieces of music that he composed are staples in the literature for the wind band world wide.

First Suite in E flat for Military Band and Second Suite in F for Military Band can be found in just about every high school and college or university music libraries across this country.

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These two suites are made up of three movements each and based on English folk music. And, as they are not extremely difficult to perform they do make ideal choices for teaching the fundamentals of high school and college band performance. Below, is a performance example of the Second Suite in F. Please click on the video and listen to a distinct style of British music.

Second Suite in F for Military Band, Gustav Holst


John Philip Sousa

The name John Philip Sousa is synonymous with bands worldwide as he was affectionately called the “march king”. Mr. Sousa set the standards for excellence in performance as he was the model many wanted to follow.

He was the music director and conductor of the United States Marine Band in Washington DC from 1880 to 1892. During those twelve years, Mr. Sousa served presidents Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, and Harrison. As a conductor, Sousa brought the Marine Band to an unprecedented level of excellence.

Mr. Sousa was known mostly for his music. He wrote his music during the late Romantic and early Modern periods of music history. He was one of the most popular figures of the day as he composed in every style, but notably for his marches. Below is a list of the various types of compositions he composed.

  • 15 Operettas
  • 5 Overtures
  • 11 Suites
  • 24 Dances
  • 28 Fantasies
  • 137 Marches

Along with these compositions, Sousa also wrote 322 arrangements of 19th Century Western European Symphonic works.
Today, every band in the world has performed or is performing a March written by Sousa. Below is a shortlist of some of his more popular ones.

  • Washington Post
  • Semper Fidelis
  • King Cotton
  • The Directorate
  • Hands Across the Sea
  • Fairest of the Fair

The most popular of all of his marches is the Stars & Stripes Forever. This March was adopted by the congress as the National March of the United States of America.

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Percy Grainger (1882 - 1961)

Another composer that found a place as a Famous Wind Band Composer, was Percy Grainger. He was Australian-born and started his career in London, England as a pianist, then composer. Grainger eventually moved to the United States where he spent the rest of his life. Many of his musical pieces were based on folk music.

Much of his music was written for both the wind band and later transcribed for the orchestra. Percy Grainger’s music is unique in that he has a special and most beautiful harmonic style of writing for wind instruments. His music and orchestrations demand the most out of the instrumentalist and or conductor. His use of complex rhythms is challenging for any musician.

Below are two compositions by Percy Grainger I am sure you will enjoy. The first is a beautiful ballad called Colonial Song that he wrote for the memory of his mother. The second piece is called the Gum - Suckers March. The story behind the title of this delightful and most challenging piece is “gum-suckers” which refers to the leaves of the eucalyptus tree. These leaves have a cool refreshing taste to them and people suck on the leaf for the liquid. Please listen to these compositions below to gain an appreciation of Mr. Grainger's style of writing.

Claude T Smith (1932 - 1987)

Another extremely talented and popular composer for the wind band during the 1970s and 80s was Claude T Smith. American born composer who grew up playing the Horn in F and composing an array of very exciting compositions that are still being performed today. His short career and life gave us a fantastic sampling of some great music for this medium.

Mr. Smith composed 110 compositions for concert band, 12 orchestral works, and 15 choral works. His unique composing style is full of vitality and fresh new sounds he created with his palette of wind and percussion instruments. His harmonic and rhythmic style was so different from other composers of his period that his music soared with exuberance. Many of Claude Smith's works are of the higher level of difficulty, and as a result are a fulfilling experience for musician and audience alike. Below is an audio recording of his Festival Variations that I think you will like.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Reginald Thomas

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