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What is a March?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 28 August 2016
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The march developed with a practical purpose: to allow large groups of soldiers to move in step, and it was only later that it was used in artistic settings to call to mind the military. Because the march was invented as an accompaniment and a guide to movements of the military, the genre features strong, repeated rhythms, and avoids excessive ornamentation. When this happened, stylized marches developed.

The first marches developed from rhythm patterns originally played only on drums. Slow marches were used for ritualized activities like parades and reviews. Quick march, twice as fast as the slow march, more or less, was used for maneuvers, and the double-quick march was the attack tempo.

Early marches of the 1600’s and 1700’s included both original pieces and works with melodies adapted from other musical genres, including popular tunes and operas. By the end of the eighteenth century, individual regiments and armies were commissioning their own private marches, and British soldiers marched to works of Handel and Haydn, among others, while Austrian troops would, on occasion, step out to marches by Beethoven.

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Many of the marches best known today were written in the nineteenth century. "The Radetzky March" of Johann Strauss, Sr. was written for the 1848 Austrian Revolution, for example. But the most famous nineteenth century composer of marches was John Philip Sousa, an American composer and band leader. Sousa’s marches, such as "Semper Fidelis," "The Liberty Bell," "King Cotton," "The Stars and Stripes Forever," and "The Washington Post," were written in the 1880’s and 1890’s for the United States Marine Band.

Some famous marches are connected with a particular work of art. Kenneth J. Alford, a British composer, is known particularly for his march "Colonel Bogey," which Alec Guinness whistled in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. Felix Mendelssohn wrote a "Wedding March" for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart used marches frequently to establish a military presence in operas such as The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi fan tutte, as did Richard Wagner in Tannhäuser and Gioachino Rossini in William Tell. In symphonic music, funeral marches have a role in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Third Symphony and Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony, where Mahler creates a parodic movement based on the song "Frère Jacques."

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