Contributed by Jack Kopstein
George Rosenkrans was a noted American composer of concert band music. He was born in Penfield, Pennsylvania on January 17, 1881. His father was the music director of the local Methodist church, where George sang with the choir and learned to play the organ. His first compositions included organ music and hymns. He also played the baritone horn in the town band, and eventually became the conductor. He composed his first march at age seventeen, and was soon turning out as many as eight new marches each year. As interest in his music declined, he would sell new arrangements for as little as fifty cents, or give compositions away outright. In later life, he composed many works for the Grampian Band in nearby Grampian, Pennsylvania, his favorite group, including the Grampian March. He missed a 1948 tribute by the Navy Band because he didn't believe he had any suitable clothes. He died in poverty in Penfield on August 18, 1955. Nevertheless, his music was well-thought-of. His march Triumphant Battalions was played at the liberation of Paris and his dirge Immortal Heroes was played at the funerals of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
In the early 1940s, kids in the small town of Penfield, PA, would sneak into the rundown house of old George Rosenkrans, a squalid and unclean residence piled high with music. Each week the old man would rotate his way around a table set with six plates before doing the dishes. The kids knew Rosenkrans from the local high school, for each year he composed a new band piece for the graduating class, which he wrote out on the back of a calendar, then played in his only suit, with mismatched pants and coat. What they might not have known, however, was that Rosenkrans' marches were played around the world. Indeed, at the parade for the inauguration of Pennsylvania Governor Arthur H. James in 1939, the lead band played one of Rosenkrans' marches. In 1942, soldiers in the Panama Canal Zone asked Rosenkrans to make a band arrangement for his Army V. Song. Three years later, an American army band played his Triumphant Battalions in Paris after its liberation from the Nazis. In the years that followed, bands would play his marches at the state funerals of German President Konrad Adenauer, English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and three U.S. presidents. One of five children, Rosenkrans grew up in a small rented house next to the railroad tracks. In 1898 George became the first member of the family to graduate from high school. His father, a school teacher and then a mail carrier, was also choir director of the Penfield Methodist Church, and it was there that George sang in the choir and learned to play the organ. Soon Rosenkrans began to compose organ music, anthems, popular songs, solos for voice, funeral dirges, and hymns, which he had printed by a church music publisher in DuBois.
The early 1900s were the glory days of American marching and concert bands. Brass bands were by and large a male activity. Multi-generational families of musicians included veterans of the Civil War, Spanish American War, and after 1918, the First World War. Penfield, like towns all across the Commonwealth and the nation, had a town band, for which George played the baritone horn, and then became player-conductor. It was while playing with this band that he fell in love with marches, the first of which he composed when he was seventeen. After his siblings left home, Rosenkrans supported his parents, with whom he continued to live, by turning out a constant stream of marches, overtures, and songs. By his early twenties, Rosenkrans was composing six to eight fully orchestrated band numbers and patriotic marches each year, with names like Sons of the Flag, Liberty Triumphant, With Bands and Banners, and his favorite, Our Glorious Flag.
After his parents' deaths - his father died in 1920 and mother in 1928 - Rosenkrans continued to live in the family home. When his music sales dried up in the 1920s, George picked up some money playing piano in a local band, writing marches for local bands, and teaching band. When he couldn't sell his songs he gave them away. Once he received a request for an arrangement from Siam (known today as Thailand), and completed the new part for just fifty cents. Living alone, he also became increasing eccentric. Stooped and portly, with a bushy head of unkempt hair, Rosenkrans would travel the eighteen miles from Penfield south to DuBois, where he would hand out the music for his latest number to the Grampian Band, the best marching band in the area, and then listen quietly as it played.
Unwilling to take a job, Rosenkrans lost ownership of his house in 1942, but continued to live in it, sleeping under newspapers and a single blanket in the one corner of the living room where the roof did not leak. Neighbors finally convinced him to move to a boarding house, where he worked as a janitor and dreamed that the end of the Second World War and return of the young men who had gone off to fight would bring a renewed interest in band music. It was not to happen. One by one the bands disappeared
In 1949 Rosenkrans returned to Penfield and his little bungalow, now unlivable. Friends convinced him to take a room with a woman in Butler. Lonely, and often depressed, George Rosenkrans died a pauper at the age of seventy-four. At his funeral a mixed quartet sang a number of his songs. Eighteen years later, those who remembered his music gave Rosenkrans' grave a headstone, on which they had inscribed the following epitaph:
Jan 17, 1881 - Aug. 18, 1955
HE GAVE HIS ALL TO MUSIC
His compositions have been played at historical events, including the inauguration of Pennsylvania Governor Arthur H. James in 1939, and his music would be a part of the funerals of German President Konrad Adenauer, English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and United States Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy. Like many other really fine composers, his music was mostly pirated and republished with copyrights, for which he rarely if ever received payment.
- Jack Kopstein