Established by an Act of Congress in 1798, the United States Marine Band is America’s oldest continuously active professional musical organization. Its mission is unique—to provide music for the President of the United States and the Commandant of the Marine Corps.
President John Adams invited the Marine Band to make its White House debut on New Year’s Day, 1801, in the then-unfinished Executive Mansion. In March of that year, the band performed for Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration and it is believed that it has performed for every presidential inaugural since. In Jefferson, the band found its most visionary advocate. An accomplished musician himself, Jefferson recognized the unique relationship between the band and the Chief Executive and he is credited with giving the Marine Band its title, “The President’s Own.”
Whether performing for State Dinners or South Lawn arrivals, events of national significance, or receptions, Marine Band musicians appear at the White House an average of 200 times each year. These performances range from small ensembles such as a solo pianist, jazz combo or brass quintet to a country band, dance band or full concert band. The diversity of music often presented at the Executive Mansion makes versatility an important requirement for Marine Band members. Musicians are selected at auditions much like those of major symphony orchestras, and they enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps for permanent duty with the Marine Band. Most of today’s members are graduates of the nation’s finest music schools, and more than 60 percent hold advanced degrees in music.
In addition to its White House mission, “The President’s Own” performs an annual season showcase series of indoor concerts and a popular outdoor summer concert series on the National Mall. Musicians from the band are frequently highlighted in solo performances and participate in more intimate chamber ensemble recitals that feature a wide range of smaller instrumental groups. Marine Band musicians also perform in many different types of ceremonies and events throughout the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area including the Presidential Inauguration, Full Honors funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, Honor Flight ceremonies for veterans at the National World War II Memorial, Friday Evening Parades at Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C., and educational programs in schools throughout the National Capital Region.
Each fall, the Marine Band travels throughout a portion of the continental United States during its concert tour, a tradition initiated in 1891 by “The March King” John Philip Sousa, who was the band’s legendary 17th Director. As Director from 1880–92, Sousa brought “The President’s Own” to an unprecedented level of excellence and shaped the band into a world-famous musical organization. Since Sousa’s time, the band’s musical reach has extended beyond America’s borders on several occasions with performances in England, Norway, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Singapore, and the former Soviet Union. During Sousa’s tenure, the Marine Band was one of the first musical ensembles to make sound recordings. By 1892, more than 200 different titles were available for sale, placing Sousa’s marches among the first and most popular pieces ever recorded.
While the Marine Band is firmly dedicated to preserving the unique musical traditions established over its long history, it is equally committed to serving as a leading ensemble in the development of new repertoire for winds. In 2000, “The President’s Own” commissioned David Rakowski’s Ten of a Kind, a piece honored as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in music in 2002. In 2007, the band commissioned “Scamp” by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Melinda Wagner, and the Marine Band premièred Scott Lindroth’s Passage at the 2010 Midwest Clinic in Chicago. In 2011, the band commissioned and premièred Flourishes and Meditations on a Renaissance Theme by Michael Gandolfi at the American Bandmasters Association’s annual convention in Norfolk, Va. Most recently, music written for the Marine Band has included Gerard Schwarz’ Above and Beyond, Jacob Bancks’ The Information Age and Laurence Bitensky to write Fearsome Critters, the latter of which was premièred at the Texas Bandmasters Association Convention in San Antonio in July 2012.
On July 11, 1998, the Marine Band celebrated its 200th anniversary with a command performance at the White House and a gala concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington attended by President and Mrs. Clinton. Also during its bicentennial year, the Marine Band was the only ensemble inducted into the inaugural class of the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in Cincinnati.
Given its status among American musical organizations, “The President’s Own” continues to attract prominent guest conductors from major orchestras around the globe, including Osmo Vänskä, Leonard Slatkin, José Serebrier and Gerard Schwarz. On July 12, 2003, the Marine Band returned to the Kennedy Center to celebrate its 205th anniversary in a concert featuring guest conductor John Williams, renowned composer of American film and concert works and laureate conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra. Williams returned to the podium in 2008 to conduct the final concert of the Living History concert series celebrating the Marine Band’s 210th anniversary. In honor of the Marine Band’s 215th birthday, John Williams composed and dedicated an original work to the Marine Band aptly titled “For ‘The President’s Own.’”
The Marine Band’s integral role in the national culture and in the government’s official life has affirmed the importance of the arts as a bridge between people. Since 1798, the Marine Band’s mission has been to provide music for the President of the United States and the Commandant of the Marine Corps. As the only musical organization with that mission, the Marine Band looks to the future, viewing its history and tradition as the foundation upon which to build its third century of bringing music to the White House and to the American people.