Achille La Guardia, Bandmaster of the 11th
Frontier life was the American way in 1885. Big headline news of that year included the death of Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant; Sitting Bull, leader of the Sioux massacre of Custer's cavalry regiment, toured with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show; Apache Chief Geronimo terrorized settlers and eluded 5,000 Federal troops and 500 Indian Scouts. In light of these facts, it is obvious that frontier forts such as Ft. Sully and others had not yet outlived their usefulness, the Army often representing the only form of law and order to the rapidly expanding Western migration.
The 11th U.S. Infantry Band and Orchestra was a pleasing source of entertainment at Ft. Sully, and was always welcomed at social gatherings, dances, and 4th of July celebrations. The post band was first directed by a Mr. Clarke, but he was replaced by La Guardia who, on a concert dated March 26, 1886, programmed two of his own compositions, selections from Verdi's "Il Trovatore," and Suppe's "Waldtenfel."
Col. Richard Dodge, regimental commander at Ft. Sully, was impressed with La Guardia and assigned him and his family to a hillside house separated from the company area. Achille was concerned that, due to the distance from the other buildings, his wife would feel isolated and that she and the children might be in danger from the Sioux Indians. These fears were soon laid to rest. Irene made friends with the Sioux, and as Gemma later recorded,
They brought her all kinds of gifts, such as hand made blankets, moccasins, beads, and Mother, in turn, gave them staples. The Indians spoke a Spanish dialect, Mother spoke Italian to them, and in this manner, they understood each other very well. Mother always said, 'No one is so well protected as I am', and she was right--the Indians would never have done her any harm.1887 - Madison Barracks, Watertown, N.Y.
In the spring of 1887, Richard (named for Col. Dodge) was born. On August 9 of that year the 11th Infantry was transferred to Madison Barracks, Watertown, New York. This was an assignment in "civilized" territory, the Army's policy being to alternate infantry transfers so that not all were to frontier posts.
La Guardia became popular in Watertown. He assembled a local band made up of town's people, taught numerous private lessons, and the Army orchestra offered free public concerts under his baton. A program from an open air concert dated Sunday, June 10, 1888 lists seven numbers played by the 11th Infantry Band, with "chief musician A. La Guardia, conductor." One of their selections, a march entitled "Dodge Hail," was written by La Guardia, most likely in honor of Col. Dodge. Unfortunately, this composition has been lost, the only record of its existence being the reference on this program.La Guardia and his 11th Infantry band were frequently hired by lodges for their social events. The Sackett's Harbor Lodge #135, F. & A.M. held a "Grand Jubilee" Wednesday, April 24, 1889. La Guardia is mentioned in the program as "on music,'' but no reference is made to the band or orchestra. Since it was typical during that period to hire local musical ensembles for lodge or civic events (if no lodge band existed), it may be concluded that the band or orchestra was present for the "Grand Jubilee."
The locals in Watertown tolerated "Professor La Guardia's" fiery disposition, ascribing it to a combination of Latin and artistic temperaments. Such clemency might not have been exhibited had he not brought so much cheer to the community through his music.Fort Huachuca, Arizona Territory, 1890
In the early autumn of 1890, the Infantry was transferred to Ft. Huachuca, Arizona Territory. This was definitely a frontier post. Ft. Huachuca was a dry mudhole of a stockade many dusty miles away from anything important. Accommodations for officer and enlisted man were equally spartan. The La Guardia home was a two-room adobe house with plank sides and floor. The kitchen was detached from the house (for fire reasons), also of adobe and plank, with a canvas roof.
Various desert creatures were frequent and unwelcome guests. Winters were cold and often rainy, reducing the post to a slippery mud-sink of clay and loose rock. The terrain was stark and the summer sun merciless. The only bright spot in the drab routine was daily guardmount, which took place about 8:30 A.M.
This was one of the highlights of the soldier's day. Companies assembled before their barracks and lined up for inspection. At second call, details were marched to an assembly point on the parade grounds and inspected by the post adjutant. As the band played some festive air, like "The Girl I Left Behind Me", or "The Secession Polka", the guard was formed and marched off to the guard house to relieve the old guard. With horses prancing and nickering and guidons cracking in the breeze, guardmount was a stirring spectacle.
The band provided a daily lift of spirits for the troops during guardmount at Ft. Huachuca. Bands stationed at frontier posts may have been appreciated a bit more than those in more genteel surroundings.Fort Whipple, Arizona Territory, 1892
On May 4, 1892, the 11th Infantry received orders to remove to Whipple Barracks near Prescott, Arizona, a mountain town that owed its existence to the discovery of gold in the Pine Mountains during the 1860's. In 1892 there were 2,000 people living in Prescott, and the railroad was scheduled to link the town with Phoenix in 1893. Prescott was a frontier fort, but its cool pine surroundings and developing township made this installation much less dreary than Ft. Huachuca.
Achille quickly became popular both on the post and especially in town, where he was regarded as something of a celebrity. Prescott had not previously seen the likes of "Professor La Guardia." He was dark-complected and handsome, well built but not tall at 5'6 1/2". His hair and eyes were black as were his magnificent beard and mustache, which he kept meticulously trimmed. In his dress uniform La Guardia looked like an Italian Duke. He was fluent in English, French, German, and Italian. Unshakable confidence was evident in all of his actions including his "grandiloquent signature.
Popularity and social status are not synonymous. In Prescott, La Guardia was highly esteemed for his music and culture, but at Ft. Whipple, his music provided him with popularity only. One source refers to Achille a "Major La Guardia"; however, all other sources indicate that he was a non-commissioned officer. At his third enlistment in 1895 at Whipple Barracks he was listed as third highest ranking N.C.O. at the post. This status placed the La Guardia's at a social disadvantage, as there was a clearly defined line of distinction between the West Point officers and the enlisted men. Although he taught music lessons to some of the officers and their families, La Guardia could not cross the social barrier. This discrimination carried over into the families as well, the officer's children and their wives remaining aloof from those of the enlisted men. This schism placed the La Guardia's in a unique position. Achille was not the typical sergeant. He was a musician--quiet, contemplative and serious. He had nothing in common with the other enlisted men who spent much of their free time (and paychecks) pursuing the various frontier amusements available on Prescott's "Whiskey Row."
Thanks to Irene, the La Guardia's was a middle-class home, with pictures on the wall, drapes at the window, rugs, books, a piano, and various stringed instruments. Cultured guests from town visited frequently. Irene and Achille considered themselves to be superior to all of the enlisted men, even though the quartermaster sergeant and the sergeant major outranked the chief musician.
Inside the La Guardia home, spoken Italian was prohibited, but Italian music was not. Melodies of the great classical operas rang through their home nightly. Fiorello reported that,
Father lived for music, and began teaching Gemma and me as soon as we could distinguish one note from another.
Achille taught Gemma the violin and mandolin, Fiorello the banjo and cornet, and Richard the piano. Usually relaxed in discipline, La Guardia became a severe task master when it came to music lessons. He demanded much and criticized often, shouting at his children when they fell short of his expectations. He seldom admitted error, rarely complimented, and showed approval grudgingly. He instructed students and ensembles through criticism and wielded authority with harsh confidence.
La Guardia wanted his son, Fiorello, to be a second John Phillip Sousa. He may have viewed Sousa as the ultimate success as he performed for presidents and toured the world. Achille provided music for military functions in all sort s of weather, usually for audiences of grumbling soldiers. Sousa's music became popular world wide, whereas, La Guardia's remained unknown except to the musically illiterate residents of frontier towns. La Guardia, who lived only in the vicinity of fame, undoubtedly viewed Sousa's fame with envy and admiration. When asked at one point to name his greatest desire, La Guardia replied, "to be renown." Perhaps his second Sousa ambition was fueled by prospects of becoming "renown" vicariously through Fiorello, whose mistakes spelled doom to the goal.
Although La Guardia never became famous, he was a successful teacher, composer, and band director. The brother and sister team of Fiorello and Gemma often played duets and solos in the school auditorium. On one such occasion, billed as "An Evening with Russia," Fiorello
Whipple Musical Club
Achille formed a musical club comprised of his students and children, which presented many of his original compositions at local functions. The club had twelve members, and may have been "The Whipple Musical Club," the group for which he composed a piece bearing that title. The Army Band also performed at social gatherings, often providing dance music for "all who desire to 'trip to the light fantastic' [of] music by the Whipple orchestra."
Achille La Guardia may never have recognized his success; however, local newspapers indicate that he was quite successful. Early in his military career, a Lowville, New York newspaper identified him as the most "competent director and composer of music in the U.S. Military service." Some years later, the Daily Arizona Miner-Journal compared La Guardia to Sousa, naming him a "remarkable counterpart [who] is rapidly reaching the front rank as a composer and leader." He was an excellent sight reader, capable of great accuracy and expression. He was also a prolific composer and derived great pleasure from rendering his own compositions. Old Prescott newspapers mention original compositions played by his students and musical ensembles at social events.
There was a musical program delightfully rendered...a cornet solo was played by Master Fiorello La Guardia. It had been composed by his father and was entitled 'Eastern Star Polka,' and was dedicated to Gold- en Rule Chapter 1, Order of the Eastern Star of Prescott.
When an exceptionally talented musician was transferred into the 11th Infantry band, La Guardia was quick to utilize him. Such appears to be the case with alto saxophonist William Gehle. Concert programs for June and July of 1897 mention solos featuring him. La Guardia composed "Grand Fantasia," and arranged the popular song, "Pensez a Moi," most likely for Gehle.
The Whipple Orchestra frequently provided music for Prescott's Elks Lodge, and the band appeared in parades for holidays. The Friday, May 28, 1897 Daily Arizona Miner-Journal includes instructions for parade line up order, with the Whipple band as the first unit, followed by various civic groups. The article continues to describe the plan for the Memorial Day service to be held at the cemetery with music by the 11th Infantry Band.
In addition to performances at civic and lodge activities, the 11th Infantry band and orchestra presented outdoor concerts twice weekly, a tradition carried through from at least the Ft. Sully period. At Ft. Whipple, La Guardia and his band performed on Tuesday's and Friday's, with evening performances June through mid-October, and afternoon performances mid-October through June. Programs printed in the Daily Arizona Miner-Journal during 1897 offer insight into the diversity of the 11th Infantry band. The played transcriptions, dance music of all varieties, and military marches, some of which were composed by La Guardia.Spanish-American War, 1898
In February of 1898, the telegraph office in Prescott brought grim news: the U.S.S. Maine had been blown up in Havanna Harbor. War clouds brewed on the horizon and the 11th Infantry was placed on alert. Prescott's intrepid mayor, William Owen "Buckey" O'Neil, mustered volunteer troops to Ft. Whipple and in the last days of April, the Infantry plus twenty "Rough Rider" volunteers shipped out for war. The trains stopped first in St. Louis at Jefferson Barracks to settle families prior to moving on, the volunteers to Mobile, Alabama for further training, and the regular troops to Tampa, Florida.
Leaving family behind is never easy, but with war's uncertainty, the prospect of soldiers not returning to loved ones touched many hearts deeply. The La Guardia's were not unaffected. Achille settled his family in Jefferson Barracks. Having only a few hours until time to board the train for Tampa, he was compelled by duty to say good-bye hastily. Gemma was Achille's only daughter, his "sunshine." Not being able to bear not seeing her father one last time, she dashed out of the house. Following the sound of the cornets and drums, she soon located the band as it played happy music to distract the people from their grief. Not waiting for the march to end, Gemma rushed into her father's arms, weeping.
Fiorello, at age fifteen, was both too young and too small to enlist either as a soldier or a volunteer. He was successful, however, at persuading a newspaper to employ him as a correspondent, and he proudly departed for Tampa with the 11th Infantry. As events in Tampa unfolded, it was fortunate for the elder La Guardia that his son was with him.
For many years, Achille had suffered from nose and throat irritations and some digestive problems. While in Tampa, he contracted malaria. Although these were problem enough, the final blow to his once hearty constitution was dealt by the Army. Corrupt contractors had sold tins of contaminated meat to the Army. Preserved with boric acid and nitrate of potash, this "embalmed beef" killed more American soldiers than Spanish bullets. Among the casualties was Achille La Guardia. After eating the tainted rations he was hospitalized with severe food poisoning. When he recovered enough of his strength, he and Fiorello returned to Ft. Whipple where Achille was given a medical discharge on August 22, 1898 due to "disease of stomach and bowels, catarrh of head and throat, and malarial poisoning." For this impressive list of miseries he received a pension of $8.00 per month.
Father and son rejoined the family at Jefferson Barracks a few days after Achille's discharge. Now a weak, broken man, he took his family to New York City. Poor health prevented him from finding work. Frustrated, La Guardia moved his family to Trieste to live with his wife's widowed mother.Return to Europe
Achille found work in the cartage business in Trieste, but this proved too strenuous for his deteriorating health. He then worked as a ship's provisioner for about two years, but this was not to his liking. In 1900, Achille leased an empty seaside hotel in Capodistria. Within a short time he was operating a successful business. The venture became quite profitable, and in October of 1904, arrangements were being made to purchase the hotel. These plans were abruptly discontinued, however, due to La Guardia's sudden heart attack and death on October 21, 1904.
Achille's grave is located in the Anglican cemetery in Trieste and is marked by a tombstone bearing the Masonic emblem, and reads: Achille La Guardia/ 1849-1904/ R.I.P.
The known works of Achille La Guardia were published primarily by the now defunct Rudolph Wurlitzer Company in the late 1890's. Of the nineteen known works, only twelve are available as band or piano arrangements. The others are either in fragments or are known only by title in articles or programs. Much of his music was lost or destroyed after the family returned to Europe. One of Gemmas's children, in a letter to the author, related the following explanation:
In Budapest, [where] I came from, there was a young man who was my brother's pupil, got hold of all my grandfather's music on the pretense that he is going to publish it. I never saw it again.
La Guardia was a versatile musician. He was a talented composer and arranger, a band master, and cornet soloist. Had circumstances fallen in his favor, his name would be found among those of Gilmore, Pryor, Sousa, and Cappa, and he would have satisfied his desire to be "renown."
Music of Achille La Guardia is found on the CD recording, DISTANT HORNS, performed by Territorial Brass - ''Arizona's Official Historical Brass Band''
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