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Vinatieri Archive

Mosquitos of Dakota Waltz by Vinatieri

Opening of the first clarinet part for "The Mosquitos of Dakota Waltz," composed and penned by Felix Villiet Vinatieri on June 14, 1874.

Highlights of the Archive...

The Vinatieri Archive contains 133 original, handwritten manuscripts from the pen of Felix Villiet Vinatieri (1834-1891), Custer's Bandmaster.  Among these are marches, polkas, schottisches, waltzes, galops, mazurkas, quadrilles, overtures, and two of America's earliest comic operas.  Written by the leader of the Seventh Cavalry Band, many of the compositions pay homage to life on the Midwestern frontier and include titles such as "Dallas, Texas Schottische, in Remembrance of Dallas State Fair, October 1886," "Victoria City [Texas] Redova," "Wandering Minstrels of Texas, 1887," "Dakota State Lancer," "Black Hills Polka," "Evening of the Cricket Grand Waltz," Remembrance of Braun Park, Des Moines, Iowa," Mosquito Bites of Dakota Waltz," "Yankton Waltz," "General Custer, Last Indian Campaign March," "The American Recruit, or, Life on the Plains," "Silver Lake Waltz," "One Summer in Texas," "The American Volunteer," "Anna Vinatieri Mazurka," "Sound from Fort Abraham Lincoln Quadrille," "Uncle Sam Quadrille," and others.

Click links below to hear excerpts from a CD of Vinatieri's music, Custer's Last Band:

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

The Vinatieri Archives were donated to the Museum by his descendants.  The cataloging and preservation of the music was underwritten by a grant from the Mary Chilton DAR Foundation, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 1988-1989. Felix Villiet Vinatieri

About Felix Vinatieri...

His origins...

Felix Villiet Vinatieri was born Felice Villiet in Turin, Italy in 1834.  His father died while Felix was very young.   His mother, Amelia, a harpist, remarried two years later to Enrico Felice Vinatieri, a piano builder.   According to an article in the Yankton (South Dakota) Press and Dakotan (December 5, 1891), the family then moved to Naples where his stepfather encouraged Felix's musical talents.   By the age of ten, Felix was an accomplished violinist.   He graduated from Naples' Conservatorio di Musica San Pietro a Majella in 1853 and subsequently taught there for about a year.

According to notes written on the manuscript score of his composition, "La Nolte del Grillo," Felix became the director of the Queen's Guard of Spagnis, an Italian military band, at the age of twenty.  He held this position for five years, during which time he became well known as a cornetist and performer of various band instruments.

Felix Vinatieri comes to America and enlists...

"In 1859 Felix and his sister Emmelia [an opera singer] migrated to America.  [Two years later] Felix enlisted with the Sixteenth Regiment of Massachusetts at Boston, as musician.  His second enlistment occurred in 1867 as Infantry Musician with the Twenty-second Infantry at Fort Columbus, New York.  He served during the Civil War, was sent west and discharged in December 1870 at Fort Sully in the Dakota Territory.  He chose to settle in Yankton."

Settles in Yankton, Dakota Territory...

"It was in Yankton that Felix met sixteen-year-old Anna Frances Fejfar of a music-loving Czechoslovakian immigrant family.  [The two were united in marriage in 1871.] Vinatieri built a home with a studio in which to teach the young and for the purpose of composing music."

General Custer's Seventh Regiment of Cavalry assigned to Fort Abraham Lincoln...

"[At the same time, the U.S.] government announced that as soon as the disposition of troops would permit, a military expedition would be sent to Dakota Territory for the purpose of exploring the Black Hills country.  For this purpose, General George Armstrong Custer's Seventh Regiment of Cavalry was assigned to duty at Fort Abraham Lincoln opposite the new town of Bismarck, on the Missouri River."

Custer's Seventh Regiment comes to Yankton, Dakota Territory...

"The Seventh Regiment came into Yankton, Territorial Capital, on the Dakota Southern Railroad from Sioux City, Iowa, on April 9, 1873.  They camped at Yankton for a number of weeks while preparing for their long march north to Bismarck.  With Custer were 800 troops, 700 horses, 202 mules, enlisted men's and offiers' families, and aides.  [During their encampment in Yankton,] a ball was given in honor of the general and his officers.  The leader of the band that night was a lithe, trim, thirty-nine-year-old Italian named Felix Vinatieri, who led the band with gusto.  General Custer thought the music sophisticated for a wilderness town and asked to meet the band leader.  He explained that his present leader had requested to be relieved.  The General liked Felix Vinatieri, and offered him the position of Chief Musician."

Seventh Regiment Band at Fort Abraham Lincoln, 1874

Photograph courtesy of the Dakota Territorial Museum, Yankton, South Dakota

Vinatieri enlists as Custer's Bandmaster...

"On May 7, 1873, the band rode out of Yankton for Abraham Lincoln.  On the lead horse was a proud Felix Vinatieri.  Following his arrival at the fort, Vinatieri travelled to St. Paul, Minnesota, to enlist for a three year period as Bandleader of the Seventh Cavalry."

Custer's massacre...

"On June 26, 1876, General Custer, along with 276 men, was massacred at the Little Big Horn.  The sixteen members of the band, who were mostly German, were spared, as Custer had left orders with band leader Vinatieri that the band was not to engage in battle, but to remain on the supply steamboat, Far West, moored on the Powder River.  [Subsequently], it served as a floating hospital with all of the band members assisting in placing [the wounded] on the boat.  They served as medics as the Far West turned around and headed back for the fort at Bismarck, making the nearly thousand mile journey in fifty-four hours."

Custer's fondness for music...

"Mrs. Anna Vinatieri, reminiscing about frontier Dakota Territory, often told her grandchildren of life at Fort Abraham Lincoln, and spoke of Custer's love for band music.  She told them how the General and his wife were especially fond of quadrilles.  Mrs. Custer, in writing about the expedition's return, described the travel-battered instruments of the Seventh Cavalry's band."

Vinatieri returns to Yankton...

"Vinatieri was discharged on December 18, 1876, at Fort Abraham Lincoln, with a notation for good conduct.  The family returned to Yankton where he had organized the Yankton band, serving as its director from 1868 to 1873 and 1886 to 1891."

Vinatieri the composer...

"Well-known to all of the orchestra directors and musicians of the United States, Vinatieri had the respect and admiration of everyone in that profession.  [During his lifetime], he filled two trunks with his compositions.  During his quiet hours, he played his violin and cornet, as they were his favorite instruments.  His army personnel records, E-flat cornet, baton, pipe, and heavy Victorian marble-topped studio and sleeping-room furniture, which he had brought by riverboat from St. Louis, are all displayed at the Dakota Territorial Museum in Yankton."

Vinatieri's comic operas are America's first...

"As a composer, Vinatieri had to his credit not only a number of marches, waltzes, and mazurkas, but also two complete light operas, "The American Volunteer" and "The Barber of [the Regiment]."  For these he wrote not only the music, but the complete libretto, including the stage directions.  The dates of these compositions, between 1877 and 1891, would make them two of the earliest of American operas, and the first operas composed west of the Mississippi.  The composer's favorite, "The American Volunteer," he expected to present at the Columbian World's Fair in Chicago in 1893, and plans were underway, but he died of pneumonia in Yankton on December 5, 1891."

An 1891 review of Vinatieri's comic opera, "The American Volunteer"...

"[The local newspaper], the Yankton Press and Dakotan, noted the following about "The American Volunteer", on June 25, 1891, just six months before Vinatieri's death:  'Felix Vinatieri of this city has made a comic opera which is worthy of attention.  He has just completed a work which is another most emphatic evidence of his ability as a composer of music.  After two years of study, he has in readiness for the publisher, what he terms a melodrama, but which is a charming, comic opera.  He has the opinions of eminent opera managers and dramatic critics, that he has produced something that will take popular fancy by storm and rank first among the comic operas of the day.  Mr. Vinatieri's music is widely known.  In commendation of it, there is this to say, it is intensely patriotic.  The dialog is modern and appropriate while the music for the solos, duets, quartettes and choruses is sparkling and very pretty.  The several scenes are so laid as to permit magnificent stage settings and realistic effects which are much necessary adjuncts to pretty opera.  Better than all, it has a plot which points a moral with remarkable force.  The composer considers it his best achievement, and it is certainly in outline much more to be admired than the light operas that the American people are raving about today.  It has long been the hue and cry among opera guests that everything good in the way of light opera comes from abroad, and that there is a sad dearth of American writers of opera.  Here is something American enough for everybody and all it requires is a fair chance to earn the public compliment.'"

Excerpted from "Felix Villiet Vinatieri (1834-1891), Custer's Bandmaster, Yankton, South Dakota," by Corinne E. Vinatieri Heatherly (granddaughter), Yankton, South Dakota, typescript compiled and submitted for publication to Dakota History Conference, Madison, South Dakota, April 11, 1981.  Copy in the Shrine to Music Museum Vinatieri Archives.

Additional information from James R. Gay, "The Wind Music of Felix Vinatieri, Dakota Territory Bandmaster," D.M.A. Thesis, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, 1982.

James R. Gai [sic], "Felix Vinatieri: A Biography," Research Review: The Journal of the Little Big Horn Associates, Vol. 2, No. 1 (June 1988), pp. 16-26.

The music in the Vinatieri Archives is available for examination by appointment (see access guidelines).

Go to Collections Page Index

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
Custer's Last Band: Concert and CD Release
Felix Vinatieri Research Project

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