William H. Santelmann was born into a family with a long musical heritage on Sept. 23, 1863, at Offensen in Hanover, Germany. Santelmann began studying the violin at an early age and progressed rapidly. After less than a year of study he was invited to perform with a 10-piece orchestra that visited Offensen. He soon began study of the clarinet and by age 15 composed his first piece of music.
Santelmann joined the 134th Infantry Band in Leipzig and, upon completion of his service, studied at the Leipzig Conservatory. He finished his studies in three years and then left his native land to come to the United States to perform with the Royal Stuttgart Orchestra near Philadelphia.
In 1887, Santelmann decided to audition for the United States Marine Band. He applied to John Philip Sousa and auditioned for him on violin, clarinet, and baritone. He was accepted on all three instruments and joined the band Sept. 24, 1887. His first two years with the Marine Band included the first two concert tours ever taken by the band. He remained with the band until 1895 when he left to join the Lafayette Theater Orchestra.
Santelmann soon formed his own orchestra and performed at many of the social events held by Washington’s elite. The following year, when Washington’s Columbia Theater was built, he was hired as music director of the orchestra. In 1898 the position of leader of the Marine Band became open and he was named 19th Director on March 3, 1898.
Santelmann brought his excellent training and strict personal discipline to the rehearsal hall of the Marine Band. The quality of the band improved rapidly and its reputation grew throughout the country. He decided to create a full symphony orchestra within the band and required all new members, as well as all current members with less than nine years of service, to learn a stringed instrument in addition to their wind instrument. After four hard years of rehearsal, Santelmann was satisfied with the new ensemble and they began performing regularly at the White House in 1902.
In 1916, Santelmann began keeping a daily log of the band’s activities. He continued this log throughout his career and it continues to this day, providing a detailed and valuable source of information about the organization’s activities.
Santelmann was a strong leader and a talented musician who was able to lead the band into the 20th century. The band’s schedule became very demanding. Concerts were held on almost every day of the week with regular concerts at the White House on Saturday afternoons. In addition to the busy concert schedule the band began a series of weekly radio broadcasts in 1922.
Santelmann brought his career with the Marine Band to an end on May 1, 1927. He was formally commissioned a captain in the Marine Corps and then passed the baton to Taylor Branson.