FITCHBURG – The Fitchburg Military Band is returning to the stage this weekend with a merry and joyful holiday concert.
Conductor Bill Williams has put together the band’s inaugural annual holiday concert, which will be held at the Fitchburg Senior Center on Sunday, Dec. 3 at 2 p.m.
“The music is ready, the musicians are hired,” he said. “Santa has the senior center entered into his GPS and a great concert and a healthy serving of holiday joy should be had by all.”
The band was formed in 1861 by a small group of musicians who were part of the Fitchburg Fusiliers, soldiers of the day who served as Company B of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry during the Civil War.
“It has been around for a while,” Williams said. “We are (part of) the fabric of Fitchburg.”
The conductor spoke about the band performing concerts at various spots around the city after its inception, places like the Upper Common and Coggshall Park gazebos and other gazebos such as one in Moran Square that has since been dismantled.
“At the time there was no radio or television,” Williams said. “People had to make their own music, so it took the form of bands. There were many bands in the city at that time, a postal band and West Fitchburg and Italian bands that represented different parts of the city.”
He has a picture taken at the Upper Common in the late 1860s of a community event that the Fitchburg Military Band and other bands performed at, a gathering that drew many dignitaries and crowds of people.
“Everyone was there to welcome back the soldiers from the Civil War,” Williams said.
He also has other vintage photos and ticket stubs from concerts of yesteryear, “cotillions and formal balls given at the old City Hall, newly renovated now.”
“When I took over the position, I also became the keeper of its scrapbook, which has news articles and sundry bits of information, such as a ticket to one of their cotillions and a dance card from one of their events,” Williams said. “It was customary in the good ol’ days to schedule each dance, be it a waltz, a polka, or whatever, with the man of your choice, and at the end of the evening you would have a remembrance of the event. That meant, of course, that the band published their music ahead of the dance. After all, a young lady wouldn’t want to partner up with a person with two left feet if the dance was a fast one.”
The retired music educator was born in Fitchburg at the Lucy Helen Hospital “where the post office is now” and went through the school system there. He has lived in Ashby since 1970 and started his career teaching in Sterling at the Butterick and Houghton elementary schools before teaching in Fitchburg and then Clinton, where he retired as the music director at the high school.
Williams has been the Fitchburg Military Band conductor for 10 years. He took over for Carlton Thorne, who was the director of music at Fitchburg High School and the band’s conductor for 45 years.
Williams reported that there have been many “illustrious conductors over the years,” including one that was associated with John Philip Sousa,” the well-known American composer and conductor of the late Romantic era known primarily for his military marches. He talked about a gentleman named Gustave Patz, the band’s conductor in the late 1800s and early 1900s who “was responsible for developing the Fitchburg band into a nationally known band.”
“We were quite a big deal then,” Williams said.
He said Patz would take Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) arrangements and customize them for the band. Since there were no violins and such in the military band Patz would assign parts to instruments that were in the band.
Williams said, “there were a few years that were pretty sparse as far as our performances go” following a fire at the Freeman Block on lower Main Street in 1946 that destroyed all of their uniforms and music but that “the community came through with donations and we rebuilt.”
While he is not a veteran himself, Williams disclosed that he “chose to serve by teaching peace to people” and is proud to be the leader of the military band. He said he has always wanted to put on a concert “similar to the annual Christmas concert” that the Leominster Colonial Band does each holiday season.
“What’s wonderful about that concert is it kind of flips a switch and I get into the Christmas mood and mindset,” Williams said of the Leominster Colonial Band’s holiday concert. “Upon leaving the concert one time with a warm fuzzy feeling of a job well done, several of us thought wouldn’t it be nice if Fitchburg had a tradition like this.”
He said one band member “had the ear of Mayor (Stephen) DiNatale” and approached the mayor about using City Hall as the holiday concert venue.
“We thought it would be good opportunity to showcase the new City Hall,” Williams said. “The mayor offered us the senior center, which has a fine hall and stage that the band played on for the Fitchburg Armory’s 125th anniversary back in 2018.”
He hopes that the concert on Sunday afternoon will be well attended, like the Leominster Colonial Band’s holiday concerts are, and was recently on Mayor-elect Sam Squailia’s show “Discussing Fitchburg Now” to promote it.
“It is very lonely being on stage playing for a handful of people,” the clarinet player said. “Hopefully we will get a good audience. Live music really needs that element. It causes the performers to play better.”
Williams said they are able to offer the concert free of charge thanks to sponsors including the Fitchburg Cultural Council and Aubuchon Hardware, who “have been great supporters of the band for several years.” He also mentioned they are supported by the Music Performance Trust Fund and are affiliated with the American Federation of Musicians international union – and that “admission cost has been paid for by these organizations.”
The band is currently comprised of 33 musicians, “all top, professional musicians,” some who have played with the Boston Pops and Boston Symphony Orchestra.
“They are not chopped liver,” Williams said with a chuckle. “I am really looking forward to conducting this particular group.”
The holiday concert will start off with a piece of music commissioned by The Concord Band, “Overture to a Winter Festival,” which includes snippets from many different Christmas carols.
“There’s a little something for everyone, from medieval Christmas 500 years ago and a timeline that eventually ends up with the Mariah Carey hit ‘All I Want for Christmas is You,’ William said.
City resident, pastor, Sentinel columnist, and talented singer Wil Darcangelo is slated to sing “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire),” the beloved holiday standard. He will also lead the audience in a singalong of all the traditional, well known Christmas carols including “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Deck the Halls,” “The First Noel,” “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” and more, with words to the songs printed in the program.
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