28 Feb 2011

Lost Capitol Hill: The First Leader of the Band

When the Marine Band was formed in 1799, the position of leader was given to the drum major, with a fife major as his second in command – and responsible for the training of the fife-players. It was not until 60 years later that the band was reorganized and a true leader was put in charge. His name was Francis Maria Scala, and he had been a member of the Marine Band – and a Capitol Hill resident – for many years.

Francisco Maria Scala was born in 1819, in Naples Italy. In 1841, he heard that the US Navy cruiser Brandywine, which was docked in Naples, was seeking musicians. Scala applied and was immediately accepted. After cruising around the Mediterranean for several months, they made the passage across the Atlantic to Norfolk. Scala was so seasick on the voyage that he vowed never to return to sea, and eventually found himself in DC where he joined the Marine band, and was made fife major shortly thereafter. In 1855, he was made drum major, and thus was in charge of the whole band.

As a leader of the Marine Band, Scala met all the presidents from Tyler to Roosevelt, and in an article in the Washington Times of April 26, 1903, a reporter captured a number of these stories for posterity, including a description of the explosion of the Navy gun that killed Tyler’s Secretary of State and numerous others, just barely sparing the President himself.

When Lincoln arrived – under cover and alone – in DC in 1861, he was taken to the Willard hotel. It was here that his supporters finally came to welcome him to the Capital. While crowds surrounded the hotel, the Marine Band came and “serenaded” the president-elect. The band played at the White House frequently, and Scala became well-acquainted with the President and his family. When Scala’s brother wanted to join a California regiment as a lieutenant, Scala asked the President for an order allowing for this. Lincoln signed a card, which Scala gave his brother – who rather than turn it over to the appropriate authorities, saved it as a souvenir and served throughout the war as a private.

It was during the Lincoln administration that the band was reorganized, with a position of “Leader of the Band” being created. Scala, as current drum major, was the obvious choice. He served in this capacity for another 10 years, and when he retired from service in 1871, he had led the band for 16 years, the longest anyone had held that position up until then.

Scala’s insistence that the band contain both woodwind and brass has served the band well in the intervening years, without a doubt enabling John Philip Sousa – who had played in the band under Scala – to write for them music that is still loved and played today.

Scala's grave in Congressional Cemetery (CongressionalCemetery.org)

Scala died in 1903 and was laid to rest – accompanied by the Marine Band, of course – in Congressional Cemetery.



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