French President Emmanuel Macron, his wife Brigitte Macron, U.S. President Donald Trump, U.S. First Lady Melania Trump, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and French Defence Minister Florence Parly watch a joint army band during the traditional Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris, France, July 14, 2017. REUTERS/Christophe Archambault/Pool
In Paris on Bastille Day, a French band treated the US president to a perfectly executed medley of Daft Punk hits as well as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ © Reuters

The Ministry of Defence reportedly plans cuts to 14 ensembles as the UK government seeks savings that will avoid affecting frontline troops. Nobody would dispute that combat soldiers are more essential to defence than trumpeters yet military musicians represent a country’s face to the world.

Look at Saudi Arabia. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the independent resource on global security, says the kingdom spent 10.4 per cent of gross domestic product on defence in 2016, much more than Iran, which spent 3 per cent. Saudi Arabia also outspent every western nation: according to Nato, in 2016 the US spent 3.6 per cent, while the UK spent 2.2 per cent and France 1.8 per cent.

Indeed, for the past two decades Saudi Arabia has been on a spree, with expenditure never falling below 7.2 per cent of GDP. Yet when Donald Trump visited the desert kingdom last year, a military band received him with an excruciating rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

Weeks later, a French band treated the US president not just to an in-tune national anthem but to a perfectly executed medley of hits by the French electronic musicians Daft Punk as well. And should Mr Trump’s official visit to the UK take place, the president is likely to hear equally flawless performances by at least one of the British armed forces’ bands.

The British Army has 22 ensembles: eight symphonic wind bands, one other wind bands, six multi-capacity wind bands, three brass bands, three pop bands and one string orchestra.

A country’s military music-making matters and reflects its military prowess. In countries such as France, Britain and the US, military music is not an afterthought but a bona fide career for accomplished musicians. Although they are trained soldiers, the musicians spend most of their time rehearsing and performing.

That is also the case in Russia, which maintains an impressive line-up of top-notch ensembles including the Central Military Band of the Ministry of Defence of Russia.

India, a mid-size power of growing importance, has decent military bands. So does North Korea, which makes no secret of its ambitions and whose bands have acquitted themselves well performing with Russian colleagues. By contrast, a video of President Vladimir Putin’s 2015 visit to Egypt went viral due to the Egyptian military band’s mangling of the Russian national anthem.

Arab and Asian tonalities are, of course, different from western ones. But good military music is not about imposing western sounds. China has bands to match its fighting clout — and which can perform any country’s national anthem without causing embarrassment.

Music is to the military what broken windows are to crime: if you let standards slip, the whole ship sinks. That is happening in Venezuela, a once successful country with plenty of talented musicians. During a 2014 visit, President Xi Jinping suffered a rendition of the Chinese national anthem that mostly resembled a bunch of children trying out trumpets for the first time. China’s president only had to listen to the military band to discern that Venezuela is in a bad way.

A head of state being received by a mediocre band suggests that the host country’s combat capabilities are not particularly good. Saudi Arabia’s military skills do not yet match its extraordinary arms purchases. Despite large armed forces, Egypt is likewise not a global power.

Military bands provide visiting dignitaries with their first impression and are often citizens’ only exposure to the armed forces. Many can tell excellent musicianship from second-rate. It would be a shame if the UK’s military musicians could not muster the world’s best rendition of “God Save the Queen”.

The writer is non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council

Letter in response to this article:

Don’t forget pipe bands / From Greg Knox, London, UK

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