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In Samuel Barber’s ‘Commando March,’ subtexts of stealth and concealment

Corporal Samuel Barber with BSO conductor Serge Koussevitzky in 1944.US Air Force

On Feb. 28, the Metropolitan Wind Symphony performs a program including Samuel Barber’s 1943 “Commando March,” written shortly after Barber was drafted into World War II. With his burgeoning compositional career interrupted (and his available time drastically curtailed by his Army clerical work), Barber turned his attention to projects that might advertise his musical abilities to his new employer. The “Commando March” became a staple of service band programs. (Conductor Serge Koussevitzky promptly requested an orchestral version for the Boston Symphony.) On its surface, the work updated John Philip Sousa’s martial legacy into a just-modern-enough idiom. But it was also, perhaps, engaged in a more stealthy mission.

The march intriguingly combines vigor and misdirection. The main theme is jaunty; the harmonic underpinning is sneaky. The cadences are modal, sidestepping back to the home key of E-flat. The contrasting theme explores unsecured territory, borrowing chords from nearby keys but flipping them from major to minor (or vice versa), setting up alternate key centers (especially C-flat major, the flatted sixth scale degree, an old Romantic feint) only to deceptively resolve in the other direction. The middle of the march traverses a maze of subtle syncopations, downbeats downplayed and camouflaged. Every musical assertion comes with seeming plausible deniability.


It was, on the one hand, a clever musical parallel to commandos, the secrecy-and-subterfuge special forces that were, at the time, the latest thing in soldiering. (The British Commandos were formed in 1940; US Army Rangers followed in 1942.) Barber turned Sousa’s bright forward advances into covert operations. Conductor Frederick Fennell later called it a tribute to “a new kind of soldier, one who did not march in straight lines.”

One wonders if there was more to it than that. Barber was a gay man serving in an Army that officially decried homosexuality — in 1941, homosexual “proclivities,” not just acts, became grounds to reject inductees — but wasin need of willing, skilled recruits. Gay and lesbian service members found themselves navigating a dangerous zone between camaraderie and concealment. It was an atmosphere of imposed discretion and careful role-playing, wariness and shrewdness, codes and disguises.


Maybe that’s why Barber chose to pay homage to a type of soldier whose specialty was (to cite another wartime innovation) flying under the radar. The “Commando March” put a spotlight on the epitome of the new warfare — but also could be heard as saluting those who, by necessity, served in partial shadow.

Matthew Guerrieri

The Metropolitan Wind Symphony performs at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum, Lexington, on Feb. 28 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets: $6-$18. 978-419-1697; www.mws-boston.org.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.