Drummers Fifers and Music of the Kings Guard

An interesting feature of the French King's retinue were the Guard Regiments, and the Kings household. The Troops of the Royal Household (Maison du Roi) were:
the Gardes du Corps (body guards)
the Cent-Suisses (hundred Swiss, dresed similar to the Swiss Guards Vatican)
the Gentilshommes à bec de corbin
the Gardes françaises (regiment created in 1563)
the Chevau-légers (light cavalry) (1593)
the Gendarmes de la garde (1609–1611)
the Gardes suisses (1616)
the Musketeer (two compagnies, 1622 and 1660)
the Gendarmerie d'ordonnance (1660, suppressed in 1788)
the Grenadiers à cheval (1676)

This article is concerned with the music of the Guard. For information on uniforms of the French during the ancien Regime see, here.

When considering military music we distinguish instruments used to transmit commands - drums, fifes, bugles and trumpets - from those of the band with its variety of instruments to enhance military ceremonials and entertain the soldiers. The differences also marked by bugle calls (signals) being sounded by company personnel, whereas the band musicians are administered by the unit headquarters, with their own rates of pay and terms of service.

Armies have always used instruments for orders and field calls. During the Burgundian Wars of 1474-1477 mercenaries of the Swiss Cantons were organized as regimental units which were sub-divided. The unit was the Banner and the sub-units the Fahnlein, numbering from 50 to 150 men. Each banner was accompanied by 3 musicians who played the fife, the drum and the bagpipes. These were paid by the Commanding Officer. The wind instruments for the cantons of Lucerne and Uri were, however, the ‘harsthorner’.

Although German mercenaries were the first to adopt the fife, it was also used by Swiss mercenaries in France. It is also generally agreed that the fife was re-adopted in France for the regiments of Francis I (1494-1547). The ‘tambourin was encased in wood and was about 2 feet in diameter: carried on the left side of the body, this was also adopted. Although used in earlier times, it was in the reign of Francis I that the French military forces were supplied with fifes and drums from ordnance.

It is clear that from its formation the French royal household Regiment of Swiss Guards had drums and fifes. In March 1640 there was one instrument of each kind per company. Twenty-five years later these were augmented by three drums (May 1665). Later the establishment became 1 drum and 5 fifes. In May 1692 the ‘Mercure Galant’ reported the presence of 40 drums of the Swiss Guards at the siege of Namur.

In spite of successive ordinances regulating salutes and signals for the Corps of Drums in French regiments, the Swiss Guard retained their own original ones and were thus distinct from other Royal troops. Precise details of the established ordnance of the Corps of Drums in the Regiment are lacking but by an Order of May 1754 a Corps of Drums was made obligatory for all French regiments. An earlier Order of 6 June 1745 records the establishment of a drum-major for each headquarters. However, it must be recognized that such an appointment had existed before that date, the title having been given to the chief drummer of a regiment by a decree of 4 November 1651.

When the Swiss Guard carried out Guard Duties ‘Outside the Louvre’ a company of 100 Swiss (Cent Suisses not part of the Garde Suisses) also formed a part of the guard ‘Inside the Louvre’. In their magnificent Spanish style uniforms (there would come a time when they would be vilified as ‘untellable lackey-soldiers’), the hundred Swiss would march in front of the King with their fife and three drums. They played when the King attended Mass; on the mornings the sovereign took Communion, usually on the eves of Easter and Christmas; and when he attended the ceremony of touching the sick. The General Salute was beaten only for the Blessed Sacrament and for the King and the Queen. The drums were beaten, without rolls, for the Dauphine and Marshals of France.

In 1758 the drum-major was paid 600 livres (1 livre = 1 franc), a sergeant-major 540 and a captain 6000. By an ordinance of 25 April 1767 the size of the drum was defined as 33 centimeters high and 37 in diameter. In future the barrel would be of brass, weighing 3½ kilograms.

It was on 24 August 1762 on the recommendation of the colonel, the Duc de Brion, that the King authorized the formation of a band of musicians for the French Regiment of the Guard, which already had a small band of 4 oboes(haute bois), 2 bassoons and 2 horns. Officially the band would in future comprise 4 oboes, 4 clarinets, 4 horns and 4 bassoons. It is possible that the Swiss Guard had maintained some musicians, but no unit could include musicians in the rolls of authorized personnel. Musicians, whether supernumerary or under contract, were paid by the colonel and/or from officers’ contributions.

We can date the organization of the band of the Swiss Guard from the end of 1762. Brigaded with the French Royal Guard, the Swiss also had 16 musicians and the authorized number of instruments. In an ordinance of 28 April 1763 and a regulation of 1 June determining the reorganization of the Regiment, one notes the mention of the drum -major, whose pay was 800 livres. Also the establishment of 16 musicians in the headquarters, each to be paid 900 livres a year, plus 166 livres as clothing, instrument maintenance and heating allowances - making a total budget of 2666 livres for the allowances. We note for 1769 the mention of Cholet as drum-major and his son as junior drum-major. We now find the marching column being headed by the regimental pioneers (in 1808 to be designated sappers) and the artillery, with the drums, fifes and band following. This change is illustrated in the pictures of Noreau the Younger and in the water colors of Louis La Paon.

With those of the French Guards, the bands of the Regiments took part in official festivals, notably those of 16 May 1770 for the marriage of the future Louis XVI. Chroniclers noted that the two bands of the Brigade of guards rendered fanfares and were dressed in Turkish fashion and ‘making a great noise’. The bands of the Turkish Janissaries was very much in vogue in Europe at that time and had been copied to some extent by the addition of cymbals, triangle and the ‘Jingling Johnie’ - all visible in the bands, but not in the rolls of accounts of the Treasury.

Records of the band organization are contradictory. In 1774 the headquarters company held 16 official musicians (and 21 instruments) quartered at Versailles but, on the other hand, one finds that the band accompanying the guard mounting numbered 21 musicians, including 10 clarinets. Yet it is also stated that in 1774, the same year, there were 12 clarinets, 2 trumpets, 4 or more flutes, horns and bassoons, led by the music-major. In another document we read of 16 authorized musicians of the headquarters company and also the military band comprising 23 men. After 1774, however, the names of 16 instrumentalists are recorded.

Around 1780 the journals refer to evening concerts given by the bands of the French and Swiss Guards on the terrace at Versailles and in Paris; also of ‘serenades sur le boulevart’(sic). This custom was a foretaste of music ten years later for the great public festivals which were to be so dear to the revolutionaries, aiding the development of the military band and leading to improvements in the making of wind instruments. Both Guards bands took part in the rendition of the Te Deum in 1783 at Notre Dame de Paris on the occasion of a consecration service for the treaty which granted independence to the young American Republic. Louis S. Norean (1740-1814) in his ‘Nouveau Paris’, published in 1799/1800, records that the Swiss Guard took part in the preparation of the Champ de Mars for the festival of the Federation on 14 July 1790, saying "they arrived to the sound of their band". By then the regulation drum had been re-standardized. In the Regulation of 1 October 1786, well known to uniformologists for military dress and details, we read that the bass drum must be 32.5 cms high and 37.9 cms in diameter. In referring to the drum we mention that the children of members of the Guards were, from the age of 7, ‘enfants de troupe’. Clothed in the colors of the colonel, they were fifers or drummers and subject to military discipline.

The repertoire of the bands of the Guards was chiefly derived from arrangements of music from opera-comique or songs, such as ‘a Belle Gabrielle, Malbrouk, Au pres de ma Blonde and others. The Swiss Guard marched past to the sound of rolls ‘a la Suisse’ and then to La Marche de Colin-Tampon, whose slow rhythm corresponded to that slow tempo for a march past which endured for many years but is now used only by the French Foreign Legion.

We know of several marches played by the band of the Swiss Guard, including two by Andre Philidore (curator of the Royal Music Library); two by Michel De la Lande (1657-1726); one by Michel Corette (1709-1795); one by an officer of the Regiment, Christian Zimmermann of Lucerne, and one by Martini (under his real name Schwarzendorff - 1741-1816) composer of the famous Plaisir d’Amour. His march gained a prize, having been won in competition when chosen by the Duc de Choiseul (8) It was forbidden, under the pain of death for members of the Swiss Guard to sing the celebrated Ranz des Vaches because this melancholy song, recalling their homeland caused nostalgia which might encourage desertion or even suicide. This fact (9) is confirmed by J Rousseau (1712-78) in his Dictionnaire de La Musique. (who also wrote the socail contract and who is vilified by me elswhere in my blog)

In 1792, 12 musicians were quartered at Courbevoie. The band was not present in the Tuileries on 10 August. Not so the drummers and fifers attached to the companies, who suffered the cruel destiny of the massacre. The musicians were then imprisoned in the Palais Bourbon, but we may suppose that they were later freed. A famous bandmaster in Revolutionary and Napoleonic times, Michel Gesture, had entered the band of the Swiss Guard as in instrumentalist at the age of 14. He was a Chapel Royal alto at 20 and in 1791 was a member of the band of the Paris National Guard. Later he became bandmaster of the Consular Guard and then of the Grenadier Regiment of Foot of the Imperial Guard. He served in all the campaigns of the Corps but was among those lost in the Russian Campaign of 1812. He composed over 200 works for military band.

From World Military Music Bands.

The prints in this article are from the New York Public Library Digital collection. 1740-1750

Vive Le Roy,
de Brantigny

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