The following is excerpted from an article written by Captain Frank Byrne,
USMC, (Ret.), November 1989:
Francis Scala was born in Naples, Italy. Due to inconsistencies within various historical documents, there is some discussion among scholars regarding the exact year of his birth but it is generally placed at 1819. An article published in a Washington newspaper around 1894-1895 entitled Scala’s Glorious Past contains personal accounts of Scala’s life in his own words:
“My family was not a musical one but I had loved music and had been trained at the musical college in Naples. I was about twenty years old when I went aboard the old Brandywine of the Mediterranean fleet in 1841 and enlisted [in the Navy] as a 3rd class musician.”
During his voyage aboard the Brandywine, Scala (who had been born Francisco Maria Scala) adopted the English form of his first name and became known as Francis. Scala continued, “I spoke no English but the Executive Officer of the Brandywine spoke Italian. I was soon playing clarionette [sic] in the band on the Brandywine. I had only been one month on the Man-of-War when the Executive Officer told me he would place me in charge of the band.”
In spite of his musical talents, the seagoing life did not agree with Scala. He wrote, “Finally we reached Norfolk. I was determined that I should never again go near salt water and I soon secured my discharge not having been a year in the Navy. Then I was asked to become a bandmaster in the Army, stationed at Fortress Monroe. I was about to accept it, but then I looked at all the salt water around the fort and declined the position.”
Scala’s decision set the stage for his joining the Marine Band. “I journeyed up the Chesapeake to Baltimore and came to Washington. Soon I secured a place in the Marine Band.” Official Marine Corps records show that Scala enlisted in the Marine Corps on Aug. 11, 1842, at Washington, D.C. with the rate of Musician. He was described as being 22 years old, 5 feet 6 inches high, with grey eyes and dark hair.
However, Scala found an organization much different than the one we know today. “It was a small reed affair then. We had one flute, one clarionette [sic], one French horn, two trombones, one bugle, one bass drum, and one cymbal player. The nations represented in the band’s makeup were America, England, Germany, Spain, and Italy.” Scala noted, “Congress had made no provision for the band, so the…members were enlisted as fifers and drummers.”
His musicianship was immediately noted and he was promoted to Fife Major on May 22, 1843. (N.B. Another account of Scala’s promotion to Fife Major dates the promotion to Oct. 19, 1854, to be effective from Oct. 7, 1854) At that time, the Marine band had both a Fife Major and a Drum Major. Both were of equal rank and wore identical uniforms, but the Drum Major was considered to be the leader.
On the retirement of Rafael Triay in 1855, Scala was put in charge of the band. Scala would become the first man to hold the title of “Leader of the Band” but this position was not established until the Act of July 25, 1861, which abolished the rank of fife major, and created the positions of “Leader of the Band” and “Principal Musician.” Scala reported that at that time, the Leader of the Marine Band was paid $16 a month.
During his 16 years as Leader, Scala increased the size of the band from the ten or so musicians he found when he joined the band to approximately 35 pieces at the time of his retirement. More importantly, he established and maintained a full compliment of woodwinds in the band during the Civil War period, a time when many bands were dominated (if not composed entirely) by brass instruments. Scala’s foresight in keeping the balanced instrumentation of both woodwinds and brass gave the Marine Band a continuity matched by few other organizations and set the stage for the further developments which were accomplished under the leadership of John Philip Sousa.
As Leader of the Marine Band, Scala became close to all the Presidents of the United States for whom he provided music at the White House. He provided colorful descriptions of the Presidents such as “General Taylor was an old-fashioned soldier who put on no airs whatsoever” and “Fillmore was a handsome man and a pleasant gentleman” and “Pierce was a man of pleasant personality and I have many kind reminiscences of him.”
Undoubtedly, Scala established his closest relationship with President Lincoln. He wrote, “Lincoln I always remember with affection. He was so delightfully plain and honest. ‘Old Abe’ liked music and was my friend. I have many personal souvenirs of him.” Scala had conducted the Marine Band in a serenade for Lincoln the evening the President-elect arrived in Washington. Scala wrote, “The night he arrived in Washington, the band serenaded him at the National Hotel and I see him now as he stood at a window and addressed the great crowd on the street below.” Scala and the Marine Band also accompanied Lincoln to Gettysburg for the dedication of the National Cemetery when Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg address.
As a composer and arranger, Scala was prolific. His personal music collection, now housed at the Library of Congress, contains more than 600 titles ranging from original compositions (marches, quicksteps, waltzes, etc.) to major transcriptions and arrangements of operatic repertoire, particularly that of Italian composers Giuseppe Verdi and Gioacchino Rossini. This music was used by the Marine Band under his directorship for concerts, ceremonies, and White House events. Also included in the Scala Collection is the composition which he described as “the most important achievement of my musical career…the march composed for the Inaugural Ball of General Grant.” Norman P. Scala, son of Francis Scala, donated the collection to the Library of Congress in 1952. In addition, through the bequest of Norman P. Scala, a trust fund has been established at the Library for the study and promotion of the music of Francis Scala and his period.
In her book Music at the White House, Elise Kirk documents the impact that the Marine Band and Scala had upon the popular music of the day. The occasion was an outdoor White House concert for the Prince of Wales in early October, 1860. The featured selection on the concert was the première performance of Scala’s arrangement of “Listen to the Mockingbird,” which he dedicated to Harriet Lane, niece of bachelor president James Buchanan. An unidentified news clipping in the Scala Collection relates the story:
On the afternoon it was first to be played in public, Scala came to the
grounds with a handsome program of the selections. On it was painted a
mocking bird. Miss Lane did not know of the honor, and was not there; but
a messenger was sent after her…and she was on hand when the
‘Mocking Bird’ was played. There was a good crowd present, and much
applause followed. Miss Lane bowed and bowed; and Scala bowed and
bowed; but it had to be repeated. In less than a week, every man was
whistling, and every lady who could play it was playing and singing it. But I
don’t think I ever heard it played as well as it was played that afternoon.
Scala was discharged as leader of the band on Dec. 13, 1871. He remained in Washington for the rest of his life, residing in his home on South Carolina Avenue, Southeast. He died there on April 18, 1903. Funeral services were held at his home and at Saint Peter’s Catholic Church. The Marine Band played “Nearer My God to Thee” (Scala’s favorite hymn) as the body was carried from the house.
At the church, the band played Scala’s arrangement of the funeral dirge from Verdi’s opera Il trovatore. This is significant because it is the same arrangement which had been played by Scala and the Marine Band when the Prince of Wales visited the tomb of George Washington. On that occasion, the music had such a profound effect upon both President Buchanan and the Prince of Wales that Scala reported seeing tears in the eyes of the President. Following the requiem mass, the body was interred at Congressional Cemetery.
It is believed that while under the leadership of Scala, the Marine Band first played the melody “Potpourri-Fantasie of Geneviève de Brabant,” from Jacques Offenbach’s opera Geneviève de Brabant. This melody is now known asThe Marines’ Hymn.
Clark, Allen C. “Francis Maria Scala: A Leader of the Band, U.S. Marine Corps.” Unpublished transcript of a paper read before the Columbia Historical Society. 21 March 1933. Washington, D.C. U.S. Marine Band Archives.
“Congressional Cemetery.” Pamphlet published by Congressional Cemetery Association (1801 E Street, SE) Washington, D.C.
“Francis Scala, Director of Famous Marine Band for Thirty Years.” The Morning Times (Washington), 26 April 1903.
Ingalls, David M. Francis Scala: Leader of the Marine Band from 1855 to 1871. M.A. Dissertation, Catholic University of America, 1957.
Kirk, Elise K. Music at the White House. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
“Scala’s Glorious Past.” Undated newspaper clipping. Washington, D.C. U.S. Marine Band Archives.
Washington, D.C. U.S. Marine Band Archives.