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Civil War music no longer gone with the wind

After more than two years of work, David Diggs is finally reaping the rewards of his efforts. A project recreating Civil War wind music for wind ensemble culminated with both a concert at Lehigh last spring, and a CD titled Echoes of Glory that continues to generate sales through word-of-mouth marketing only.

David Diggs

“It’s sort of amazing that the orders continue to roll in,” says Diggs, a lecturer in the music department who left behind a 25-year career as a freelance musician in New York City to come to Lehigh six years ago.

But a conversation with Diggs clearly establishes that the reward lies not in the external affirmations on the finished product, but also in the engaging process that led to its creation.

It began about two years ago, when Diggs unearthed an old LP of Civil War music while thinning out a collection stored at Zoellner Arts Center.

“It intrigued me,” he says. “I liked the sound, I always liked the marches, and I was fascinated with that era.”

”Holding history in your hands”

Diggs pursued the topic of Civil War-era marches by traveling to Concord, N.H., where he was able to access not only original sheets of music performed by Civil War bands, but the original instruments as well.

“It’s hard to describe, but when they place that instrument in your hands, it’s electrifying,” he says. “You can’t believe you’re holding history in your hands. It was incredible.”

Echoes of Glory CD cover

Upon further research, Diggs learned that the instruments that belonged to this New Hampshire band were played at Fort Sumter on April 14, 1865—ironically, he notes, one of the few notable Civil War dates he remembers. Diaries and personal journals also acquainted Diggs with the day-to-day routines and habits of the soldiers, who suffered not only the risks of the battlefield, but of debilitating illnesses such as dysentery and malaria.

“It was an incredibly challenging existence,” he says. “You can’t help but get caught up in it as you read these accounts.”

Diggs began researching the topic through other journals housed at small historical societies around the country, and began conducting his own research. “Instead of reading Shelby Foote, I read the sources Shelby Foote would have referenced,” he says.

In the process, he amassed a library of more than 100 books, and collected a 5-foot tall stack of sheet music that was used by the Civil War bands as they marched in front of their regiments, performed at funerals, serenaded troops at sundown, and literally provided the background music for the bloodiest and most divisive war in the nation’s history.

Great experience for students

For the concert performance of the music he selected for his CD, Diggs looked for pieces that he could place at specific battles and key moments of the war. For instance, he chose the version of Dixie that was played when the president of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis, was inaugurated in 1861, or the march played at the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln that same year. He then wove them together as a four-movement suite that highlighted the main functions of the bands.

Both the concert, which was performed by the Lehigh University Wind Ensemble, and the CD debuted to positive reviews. It was also, he says, an extraordinary experience for the students, who were not quite sure what to make of the project at the outset.

“In the end, they really enjoyed it,” he says. “And that was particularly gratifying to me. I’ve always liked marches, and the music itself is so strong and so energetic. The harmonies themselves aren’t that profound. I mean, it’s not like listening to Wagner, but there is a structure that resonates. I’m glad the students had an opportunity to experience that and to see that it’s appreciated by others as well.”

Diggs’ research will continue through ongoing consultations with the Moravian Music Foundation in Winston-Salem on another CD, and he is compiling a cross-referenced thematic catalog of Civil War band music from all over the country.

“My wife seems to think I’ve become obsessed with all this,” he says. “But it’s hard not to have it take over your life. The music, the stories, the history—it’s all so compelling.”

For a full track listing and to listen to samples of the songs on Echoes of Glory, click here.

To purchase the CD for $15 (including postage), call the Zoellner Arts Center box office at 610-758-2787 (7LU-ARTS).

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Thursday, January 22, 2004

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