Community Band Spotlight: August 2010 July 29 2010, 3 Comments

Contributed by Jack Kopstein The Repasz Band: An American Treasure The Repasz Band was founded in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in 1831 and is the oldest non-military band in continuous existence in the United States. What could be more American than Mom, apple pie, and a band playing in the park on a sunny summer day? The Repasz Band of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, has been playing out that scene with a proud heritage stretching back over a century and a half. First organized in August 1831 in Williamsport by Jacob L. Mussina, its instrumentation consisted of flutes, clarinets, a piccolo, and only one brass instrument:  a French horn. In 1840, Daniel Repasz became a member of the Band.  Recognized for his dynamic musical character, he became a major force behind the Band’s transformation into a fine brass band.  He was elected as the Band’s fourth director in 1856, and in gratitude for his dedication and accomplishments, the Band members adopted the name Repasz Band in 1859. The Repasz Band has a proud musical heritage, having performed for a variety of civic and military events. Here is a sampling of some of the Band’s more notable engagements: The Band’s first appearance on a national occasion came when it traveled by canal boat to Baltimore, accompanying the Pennsylvania delegation to the Presidential Convention in 1844 where Henry Clay was nominated for President of the United States. In 1861, the Band enlisted in the 11th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, and after three months of service, enlisted in the 29th Pennsylvania Volunteers.  After the Band completed its second enlistment, the greater part of the musicians next enlisted in the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry and served until the end of the Civil War, seeing action in the Shenandoah Valley, as well as at Lee’s surrender. At Appomattox Court House they played the "Star Spangled Banner" and "Rally Round the Flag" alternating with a Confederate Army Band who played "Bonnie Blue Flag" and "Dixie.] The Band performed at the original dedication of President Grant’s Tomb on April 27, 1897, in New York City. One hundred years later to the day, April 27, 1997, the Repasz Band performed for the rededication of Grant’s Tomb.  At the conclusion of the official ceremonies, in which the Repasz Band was one of only two bands participating, the Repasz Band entertained hundreds of people with a concert of Civil War music. During the Spanish American War, the Band played for the Pennsylvania National Guard from 1898 to the end of the war under the directorship of Herdic Wood (plus three enlistments between 1903 and 1912). In 1899, a spectacular pageant called "The Spanish War," featuring a cast of nearly 1,000 was performed in various locations by the Repasz Band. In 1903, the Band became the official band of the 12th Regiment of the National Guard of Pennsylvania, and marched in that capacity in the inaugural parades of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 and Howard Taft in 1909. During World War I, 32 band members (known as the Repasz War Band) joined the Navy on October 17, 1917. Hazel dedicated his composition "Our Blue Jackets" to this impressive band. This contingent of the Repasz Band participated in patriotic parades and toured the country appearing in recruiting drives and Liberty Loan campaigns while stationed at the Pelham Naval Station near New York City.   In 1981, the Band played at the White House to celebrate its 150th anniversary. Frederick E. Manson, in a short article entitled "Personal Recollections of the Repasz," says that "perhaps one of the most splendid personal testimonies to the Repasz came from John Philip Sousa when Sousa's band came to Williamsport in 1915. With his band he was being entertained in the Repasz rooms - the Repasz has entertained every band of prominence visiting Williamsport from Patrick Gilmore's band to Sousa's.  Addressing Mr. Harry Parker, its manager, Sousa said:  'You have what I cannot buy, a loyalty and enthusiasm without which an organization like yours must be mediocre.  Your band has risen above that.'” And it was this loyalty and enthusiasm of the players themselves that inspired the people of Williamsport lately to rally to the support of the old Repasz" when the Lycoming Opera House in Williamsport burned on May 31, 1915.  The band had been based there and lost 84 years' worth of records and memorabilia, its music library, trophies, and most of its uniforms and instruments. Still the band filled an engagement the day after the fire, and in two weeks filled another with "all new equipment made in Williamsport." As described in Edwin L. Suter's article, "Priceless Relics and Famous Library Destroyed by Fire," during the first year of its existence the Band began to gather a collection of music copied by hand into books for each instrument.  In process the "library" of the Band grew to great size.  It was said to be the largest collection of hand copied music in the country.  It represented the work of hundreds of men . . .  Groping among the ruins the other day Mr. Parker extracted an old singed, water-soaked book many years old.  It was all that was recoverable of the famous "library."  In the list of the burned notes of melody were seven sets of instrument books, leather bound and dating back to 1831, and reaching down to the seventies [1870s].  There was no such thing as printed band music when the making of these books was begun and there was no such thing for many years after.  The musical collection of the Band grew with the organization. Another precious relic lost was a banner that the "lady friends" of the Band gave it in 1837.  Back in the days of canal travel, the Band journeyed to Bellefonte by packet boat.  Its musical achievements on that occasion were commemorated by the banner.  Then there was an oil painting, Daniel Repasz and the Village Orchestra, by C. Lawrence, an original member of the Band in 1831, and it's first and only "brass" player at that time (French horn).  There were also a baton and portraits of Captain W. N. Jones, one of the famous drum majors of Civil War days. The organization had sacredly preserved an ancient key bugle, the first brass instrument used in the Band by Daniel Repasz.  Mr. Suter stated that "somewhere in the ruins there is probably a lump of brass representing the old time maker of melody.  The late Herdic Wood, director of the Band for many years, had contributed to the list of things valued - the Lord's Prayer done in scroll work.  The prayer represented the labour of various odd times that, pieced together, made a month of continuous work.  It was destroyed by the flames. A massive cut glass vase, presented to the Repasz musicians by the Corning Band, of Corning, NY, was lost with the rest.  The roster of the Band in Civil War days and other valuable records were burned.  The Band had a collection of portraits and letters of prominent bands and great bandsmen of this and other countries.  These represented Patrick Gilmore, John Philip Sousa, Innes, the Kilties of Hamilton, Ontario, and the "Bess o the Bairnes" from Scotland, and so on, and with them portraits and letters of commendation from United States Army and Pennsylvania National Guard officers.  The art collection comprised about 200 pictures.  They faded and shrivelled in a minute in the furnace of flame that took possession of the band room. During the Depression, with nowhere to rehearse and no money to rent a room, the Repasz Band merged with the Elks Band.  Many of the members played in both anyway, and the Elks offered a home.  From the 1950s through the early 1990s, the Band became known as the Repasz Elks Band. In the late 1940s the Band languished.  Rehearsals were held intermittently, and attendance was poor.  The future was in doubt.  A man named Earl Williams took on the task of saving the Band.  Occasionally referred to as "Mr. Repasz," Earl has been a member since 1938 (an impressive 65 years). Gene Bardo in "The Legacy of the Repasz Band" notes that when the Band was founded in 1831, there were no school bands, and the group was already 74 years old when the first high school band was founded in Connersville, Indiana in 1905.  Modern military bands and their music evolved over a long period of time and also includes groups like the Allentown Band.  Since the time when Daniel Repasz moulded his organization, others headed by such men as Patrick Gilmore, John Philip Sousa, Arthur Pryor, Edwin Franko Goldman, and Harold Bachman came, had their hey-day, and faded into history.  Only the Repasz Band has continued its lineage and to this day looks forward to a promising future. Bibliography taken from the History of the band Gene Bardo, "The Legacy of the Repasz Band," The Instrumentalist, January 1983. InSites, Vol. 5, No. 1, Williamsport-Lycoming Chamber of Commerce Newsletter, 1989) "A Short History of the Famous Repasz Band, The Oldest Band in America, 1831 - 1931" from the Repasz Band's 100th Anniversary Programme; 1931) Edwin L. Suter, "Priceless Relics and Famous Library Destroyed by Fire," Repasz Band booklet (Grit