The Marine Band has played at every inauguration since Jefferson, and the tradition will carry on this year
By MICHAEL E. RUANE | The Washington Post | Published: January 19, 2021
Shortly before 10 a.m. Wednesday, a group of about 60 men and women clad in black wool overcoats will assemble on a platform just below the Capitol inauguration stage where two weeks ago a mob egged on by President Donald Trump's incendiary words pushed through barriers and forced their way into the historic building.
At 10 sharp, they will lift musical instruments and, if all goes as planned, will play "Washington's Grand March," a jaunty old tune that dates to the early days of the country and honors George Washington.
Thus will begin the Marine Band's "prelude" to the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, and the opening piece by a musical institution that has provided healing in times of national distress for more than 200 years.
Next will come "Fanfare on Amazing Grace," by African American composer Adolphus Hailstork, and, among other pieces, a march by John Philip Sousa and Irving Berlin's "God Bless America."
Abraham Lincoln once prayed that "the mystic chords of memory . . . all over this broad land . . .[would] swell the chorus of the Union."
Wednesday, in locked-down Washington, the Marine Band takes on a similar task for a nation shaken by mob violence and a global pandemic.
"Music is always an important factor in gluing our nation together," Col. Jason Fettig, the band's director, said Sunday. "It is a binding factor. It is something that . . . reminds people that there are more bridges between us than there are divisions."
"Music is something that can help get us through these times," he said.
The Marine Band has played for incoming presidents since Thomas Jefferson, according to its website. "We have been involved, we believe, in every inaugural in Washington since 1801," retired band historian D. Michael Ressler has said.
The band played in wind, sleet and snow at Ulysses S. Grant's second inaugural parade in 1873.
In 1937, during the Depression, it performed in the pouring rain at Franklin D. Roosevelt's second inauguration, and played "Happy Days Are Here Again."
The inauguration "is such an important part of our identity as a nation," Fettig said.
"I want people to feel proud of what they're witnessing," he said. "I hope that it is good for the country. I hope that we are able to do our jobs and do some good."
The pandemic forced the band to cancel its fall tour of the Southwest, along with hundreds of in-person performances since last March.
"So we are excited to have a sliver of live performance and try to provide that source of inspiration that will help remind people that we are all here, we're all Americans, we are all working to get through this," he said.
He said the band's usual 80-member inauguration complement will be fewer than 60 this year. The musicians will be spread over a larger, 90-foot platform and separated from each other by clear protective shields.
They will wear black masks between songs.
Fettig said the inaugural area, which teemed with rioters and their banners on Jan. 6, looks pristine now.
"I don't know specifically if there was any damage done," he said. "I can tell you, when we went over there for a recon just a few days ago, it had been fully restored, if there was damage done."
The band has been able to rehearse cautiously in small groups in recent weeks in its headquarters hall, at Seventh and K streets in Southeast Washington.
It has not rehearsed on Zoom.
"It would be impossible," he said. "When you try to get 60 musicians together over the internet, that's not going to work."
Fettig said he selected music for the inauguration that touches on tradition - "some of the earliest pieces of music that were written for George Washington" - and music that is more modern.
The program includes seven Sousa marches, including "The Washington Post March," written in 1889.
Fettig also asked four living composers for permission to use pieces they had already written or to write new music for the occasion.
Composer Hailstork, 79, who studied at Howard University and lives in Virginia Beach, said he was happy that Fettig chose his 2005 "Fanfare on Amazing Grace."
In an interview Monday, he said he took "that famous melody, and I built a pretty active fanfare around it."
"The one thing we want at an inauguration is something uplifting," he said. "I'm honored that it's being used."
Founded in 1798, the Marine Band has witnessed national joys and tragedies. It marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in the funeral cortège of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, and it played the Navy hymn at John F. Kennedy's grave in 1963.
The slain president's widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, had asked the band to lead the funeral procession, Fettig said.
On Wednesday morning, the band, known as the "President's Own," will perform a 13-song prelude, from 10 to 11:30 a.m., when official events begin, according to the band's program.
After the swearing-in of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, the band will play the stately "Hail Columbia," a tune dating to 1798 and that for many years was considered the national anthem. Today it honors the vice presidents.
After the swearing-in of Biden, the band will play, "Hail to the Chief," the traditional salute to the president. And after his address, the band will join entertainer Lady Gaga to perform the "The Star-Spangled Banner."
"There have been so many of these moments throughout our history that you wonder, are we going to be able to get through this, are we going to be able to persevere," Fettig said. "And we do."