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Custer's Last Band

Vinatieri's Music Played, Compact Disc Available

Felix Vinatieri, Courtesy of Dakota Territorial Museum

Based on rare manuscripts from the Museum's archives, a first-ever compact disc recording, Custer's Last Band: Original Music by Felix Vinatieri, Custer's Legendary Bandmaster, was released nationally by the Museum, at a concert by Steve Charpié and The New Custer Band, based in Los Angeles, held at the Summit Center Auditorium in Yankton, South Dakota, on June 13, 2001. General & Mrs. Custer reenactors Steve and Sandy Alexander of Monroe, Michigan, were among the celebrities in attendance.

Photo: Hand-colored photograph of Felix Vinatieri, Courtesy of Dakota Territorial Museum, Yankton, South Dakota.  

Felix Vinatieri (1834-1891), the first musician of note to have lived and worked in Dakota Territory, was an immigrant Italian bandsman who came to the United States in 1859. He served as an infantry band leader during the Civil War, was later sent west, and was discharged in December 1870 at Ft. Sully in Dakota Territory. He settled in Yankton, where he met Anna Frances Fejfar, the daughter of an immigrant Czech family, and the two of them were married by Dr. Joseph Ward, founder of Yankton College, in 1871.

A couple of years later, the Federal government decided to send a military expedition to Dakota Territory to explore the Black Hills. General George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry Regiment was assigned that job. The troops would headquarter at Fort Lincoln.

On its way to that post, Custer and the 7th Regiment arrived in Yankton, the capital of Dakota Territory, on April 9, 1873. Complete with the families of the officers, they camped on the east edge of town. On April 13, it began to rain and sleet. Two days later, they were subjected to the worst April blizzard in Dakota history.

On April 24, the citizens of Yankton held a grand reception ball to honor the officers and their ladies. The local musicians were led by Vinatieri. Custer was impressed and asked Vinatieri to join him as Chief Musician. On May 7, they headed north to Fort Lincoln. Viniatieri had signed up for a three-year hitch. In addition to providing music at Ft. Lincoln, the band accompanied Custer, when he explored the Black Hills in 1874.

General George A. Custer, portrayed by Steve Alexander
Photo: General George A. Custer, as portrayed by Steve Alexander of Monroe, Michigan, the foremost living Custer historian. Photograph courtesy of Steve Alexander.

In 1876, when Custer headed west toward the Little Big Horn, the band went along, but remained on the steamboat, the Far West, on the Powder River. After the battle, the bandsmen served as medics (a traditional role for bandsmen, carried over from the Civil War) for the 51 wounded soldiers from Reno's detachment that were brought back to Fort Lincoln aboard the Far West.

In December, Vinatieri was discharged and he and his family returned to Yankton, where he spent the rest of his life, although he accepted engagements elsewhere with the Ringling Bros. Circus Band and others.

Although he was Custer's band leader and a virtuoso cornet player - judging by the difficult music that he wrote for the instrument - Vinatieri's legacy is rooted in the music itself: marches, polkas, overtures, waltzes, schottisches, and other works, typical of the period, yet harmonically daring and advanced for their time. He was a gifted musician. His wonderful titles make frequent reference to Dakota Territory and the Black Hills.

Fortunately, Vinatieri's manuscripts survive in the Museum's archives. They were cataloged in 1988, as part of a project supported in part by a grant from the Mary Chilton DAR Foundation in Sioux Falls. Since then, the fragile manuscripts have rested quietly in the Museum archives.

It's long been obvious, however, that Vinatieri's music needed to be heard again - as it would have been heard in the 19th century - both in live performance and for world-wide distribution on CD.

Steve Charpié, Cornetist
Photo: Steve Charpié, cornetist, arranger, and leader of The New Custer Band, holds Vinatieri's original E-flat cornet, preserved in the Dakota Territorial Museum in Yankton. Photograph Courtesy of Steve Charpié.

Steve Charpié is a reknowed trumpet player who, among other things, works with Los Angeles-based professional musicians who specialize in performing 19th-century brass band music on original instruments of the period.

In the serendipitous way characteristic of much of the Museum's rise to international preeminence, Charpié recently learned about the Vinatieri archives and volunteered the necessary leadership to bring the music to life once again, using eight professional musicians (six brass and two percussion). The Museum provided xerox copies of the manuscripts, which Charpié put on computer, so that readable copies could be produced.

He also constructed a score for each piece (Vinatieri, having written the music, needed no director's score, and, in fact, perhaps did not write parts for all of the players, if a musician already knew his part by heart [Vinatieri was writing music for immediate use, with little thought of posterity!]). It was during this laborious process that Charpié came to realize just how harmonically advanced some of the music is.

Realizing, too, that the summer of 2001 marks the 125th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, it was obvious that the music needed to be recorded, so that a CD could be produced and made available in conjunction with that anniversary. It was also obvious that the live, premier performance of this music - which has not been heard for more than 100 years - should take place in Yankton, where General Custer and Felix Vinatieri first met and Vinatieri's E-flat cornet, played by Charpié on the CD, is on exhibit at the Dakota Territorial Museum, along with other family artifacts.

Excerpts from:  André P. Larson, America's Shrine to Music Museum Newsletter 28, No. 2 (May 2001), pp. 1-2.

Click links below to hear excerpts from this CD:

Sound From the Black Hills Polka
Royal March
General Custer, Last Indians Campagne March, Composed expressly for General Custer by F. V. Vinatieri, April 1 [1876]
Sweet Home, arr. by Charpié, based on Vinatieri

This CD is available only from the Museum's Gift Shop


Links to Civil War Era Pages on the National Music Museum Website:

Bucktails Regiment Bass Drum
Cabinet Card Photograph and Story of Musician Avery Brown (1852-1904) America's Youngest Civil War Soldier
Civil War Instruments on Exhibit at Museum
Civil War Drums and Brass Instruments
Three Civil War Era Drums
Violin Played by Civil War Soldier
Felix Vinatieri Archive
Felix Vinatieri Research Project

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