Opening of the first clarinet part for "The
Dakota Waltz," composed and penned by Felix Villiet Vinatieri on June 14,
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
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.
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.
About Felix Vinatieri...
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
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
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
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
"[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
"The Seventh Regiment came into Yankton, Territorial Capital, on the
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
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."
Photograph courtesy of the Dakota Territorial Museum, Yankton,
Vinatieri enlists as Custer's Bandmaster...
"On May 7, 1873, the band rode out of Yankton for Abraham
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."
"On June 26, 1876, General Custer, along with 276 men, was massacred
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,
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
with a notation for good conduct. The family returned to
Yankton where he had organized the Yankton band, serving as its director
1868 to 1873 and 1886 to 1891."
Vinatieri the composer...
"Well-known to all of the orchestra directors and musicians of the
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
Vinatieri's comic operas are America's first...
"As a composer, Vinatieri had to his credit not only a number of
waltzes, and mazurkas, but also two complete light operas, "The American
Volunteer" and "The Barber of [the Regiment]." For these he wrote not
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
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
"[The local newspaper], the Yankton Press and Dakotan, noted
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
American writers of opera. Here is something American enough for
everybody and all it requires is a fair chance to earn the public
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,"
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
Go to Collections
Links to Civil War Era Pages on the National Music Museum
Bucktails Regiment Bass Drum
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America's Youngest Civil War Soldier
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