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History

Although the Band was formed in 1762 the earliest mention of music or musician in the Royal Artillery is given in the list of the army, despatched to St. Quentin in 1557, where a drum and fife were used known as the Trayne of Artillery.

Although many regiments had bands of sorts for marching and parade purposes, it was during the Seven Years War (1756-63) that the Officers of the Royal Artillery serving in Germany, felt that they wanted a more musical combination to play on social occasions.

It was during the six months at Minden, and at the instigation of Captain William Phillips, that the Royal Artillery Band and Orchestra was formed. He had the Articles of Agreement drawn up so that the original eight musicians could be engaged to provide the Regiment’s Music. The nine original Articles were written in both English and German, the first Article reads:

‘The Band to consist of eight men, who must also be capable to play upon the violoncello, bass, violin and flute, as other common instruments.’ 

The Musicians were capable of performing as a parade band or orchestra as required, a double-handed tradition which has been maintained to this day. With the signing of the Peace of Paris in 1763, the British Troops were withdrawn from Germany and the newly-formed Band and Orchestra returned with the regiment to Woolwich, where the Band has been ever since, making The Royal Artillery Orchestra the oldest established Orchestra in Great Britain.

The most drastic change happened in 1801, when the Royal Irish Artillery Band was amalgamated with the Royal Artillery Band, the number of personnel increased to 22.  In 1810 the then Master Musician, George McKenzie (1810-45) being a Leader Violinist devoted a lot of attention to the Orchestra, which he brought to a high state of efficiency, and he may fairly be claimed as the father of the Orchestra. 

Sometime between 1810 and 1815 the famed Royal Artillery Concerts began, they were to become a regular feature of London musical life for well over a century. It was the dawning of a great musical organisation, an Orchestra of unsurpassed ability, even in those days. It soon grew in size, to around 40 and in musical excellence during the following decades. After McKenzie came the reigns of Master Musicians William Collins (1845-54), James Smyth (1854-81) and Albert Mansfield (1880-81). 

Under Smyth many first performances were given. The most notable of these, in 1868, was the overture to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger which was not performed by the Philharmonic Orchestra until 1882. 

The programmes of this period contained the symphonies of Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Spohr and Schumann. Following Albert Mansfield came the man whose brilliance was to lead the Band, or more specifically the Orchestra, to its most celebrated heights, Ladislao Zavertal (1881-1906).

Under his leadership, the 88 person strong Orchestra attracted audiences and distinguished guests from all over London to winter concerts in Woolwich. Such was the orchestra’s standard of performance that on a number of occasions Queen Victoria, who was a very competent musician herself, engaged the Orchestra by Royal Command to play during and after state banquets. 

The Band and Orchestra had many famous admirers; not least amongst these were Sir Edward Elgar and Sir Edward German. Each had good reason to thank Zavertal for he had performed their works whilst they were still in relative obscurity. There were many other composers whose works were first brought to notice in Britain through interpretations by Zavertal. Smetana’s overture to Prodana Nevesta and other excerpts from this opera and Vitava are typical examples.

Zavertal was also good friends with Anton Dvorak, who visited Woolwich and the Orchestra’s rehearsal room a number of times to try out his pieces. It’s highly likely that Dvorak’s New World Symphony was first played by the Royal Artillery Orchestra. Not content with this, Zavertal sought a yet wider audience, organising a series of concerts in London, at the Albert Hall, the Queen’s Hall and St James’s Hall. 

Over the years countless musicians from the Royal Artillery Band and Orchestra, particularly from around the 1950s, have taken their place in the higher echelons of the music world.  Notably Guitarist Julian Bream, French Horn players Alan Civil and Denzil Floyd, plus composers Harrison Birtwistle and Gordon Langford.  Some of the fine Orchestras in the country and pit bands of shows, some of them in the West  End, have been graced by many past and present members of the  Royal Artillery band, even up to this day. The Band and Orchestra has toured with Sir Harry Secombe, Anne Shelton and Semprini, accompanied world class soloists such as Nigel Kennedy, Stephen Isserlis, Carlos Bonnell, David Russell, John Ogden and more recently Hayley Westenra in a showcase concert at Salisbury Cathedral. 

The Band continues to perform around the world supporting the Royal Regiment of Artillery and the wider Armed Forces. The Band has also played in different parts of the world; New Zealand, America, France, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, Africa, Switzerland, China and more recently Russia representing Great Britain in the 2011 Moscow Tattoo.  The most recent trip was to India in support of UK defence diplomacy.

The Band has now relocated to Tidworth Garrison as part of the restructuring of Army Music.

 

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