The summer of 1940 saw almost 3,000 British pilots take to the air in the Battle of Britain, a major turning point in World War II and the first major crusade to be fought primarily in the skies. The 50th anniversary of this spectacular defeat of the German Luftwaffe inspired concert band composer David Holsinger to pen his epic "To Tame the Perilous Skies" at the behest of the 564th Tactical Air Command Band of Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. Holsinger dedicated the work to the spirit of the modern military aviator, "taming perilous skies that all men might live free of oppression." The work wasn't just a piece of music in honor of the aviators; it was conceived as literally depicting two opposing forces colliding in battle. As such, it provided a perfect vehicle for the drum corps field, with the added stimuli of the visual of a color guard members representing the flyers. This second-place show by the Cadets of Bergen County came within half a point of tying the Cavaliers for first place at the 1992 DCI World Championships; remarkable considering the corps placed fifth at the DCI Preview of Champions just three weeks earlier. When I reflect upon witnessing the corps rehearsing at a stop-off site in the Chicago area, a week prior to the World Championships, the grit and determination of the members makes me wonder what might have ultimately happened had the season lasted one week longer. The show commenced with the brass section in the simple two-arc form of a bird, seen as if drawn by a child. The inversion of the wings of the bird during the mega-loud opening fanfare gave the instant impression of the creature taking flight, largely encircled by the color guard members attired in flight suits and aviator goggles. Several seconds later, seemingly out of nowhere, the corps morphed into the image of an airplane, with eight members of the guard spinning propellers as the form rotated to the runway along the 50-yard line, ready for takeoff. A musically dramatic flurry of vicious stabbing brass exclamations and a minor musical mode that kept ascending toward the sky was the introduction to the bitter dogfights that defined the aerial assault in Europe during World War II. A sudden switch to a major tonality for yet another fanfare motif demonstrated triumph in the skies, but that was just one battle out of many to yet come. An 18-count full-flag color guard feature at the very front of the field, accompanied by total silence from the rest of the corps, allowed the aviator-attired combatants to release some steam after the successful sortie. Some angst permeated the music that followed, as the pilots took off on another mission, tumbling on the ground (sans equipment) as if putting their planes through evasive barrel rolls and using their fingers to "shoot" at the enemy aircraft. With a continual heavy emphasis on the color guard to convey the antics of the heroes of the theme, this may well have been one of the most fun shows for guard members to perform on the field ever.
A backward marching, pivoting block parallelogram drill formation comprised of all the drums and horns finished off the first part of the presentation, leading into a poignant respite of calm before the next storm of attack. With the pealing of hand bells, perhaps as distant church bells tolling in honor of those killed in the air, the ballad that followed was as haunting as it was peaceful. All knew the tranquility was transient and there would only be so much time for reflection, remembrance and relief. Compositionally based on the same intervals as the far more melodramatic motifs from earlier, this pacifying moment was thoroughly engrossing in its capacity to pull audience members forward in their seats, like a reverse of the G-forces encountered upon takeoff. Some members of the guard gently "flew" through the air, supported by the aerodynamic force of lift supplied by other members. This remains one of my favorite, "ahhhhhh" moments in DCI history. Rest is fleeting for fighter pilots, and all too soon, it was time to go back into battle and face unknown odds and potential life-threatening circumstances. There was no lack of optimism as the pilots took off once more, but soon, frequent cries of the middle-brass voices penetrated through the sounds of combat to highlight the urgency of the aerial confrontation. Following a clanging of percussion, like gunfire hitting a fuselage, the opposing forces in the music engaged in the most terrifying dogfight yet. Anxiety filled up every moment until success was achieved, and then the pilots were brought home to receive congratulatory adulation. At first, the proclamation of victory was extremely subdued, with the guard spinning flags emblazoned with images of fluffy clouds. The horns passed through the flags as if aircraft descending below the clouds on the final glide path to base, where anxious well-wishers awaited. A triangular block reprise of the slow-motion strobe light effect from the corps' "Les Miserables" show from three years earlier led into a company front and one final assertion of victory, achieved through much hard work and bravery. This week only, you can save on 1992 World Championship Audio and Video Performance Downloads on the DCI Fan Network. Buy the 1992 Cadets Video Performance Download. (Available this week only for $3.99. Regular price: $4.99.) Buy the Audio Performance Download bundle of all 12 Finalists from 1992. (Available this week only for $15.99. Regular price: $19.99.) Offer ends Monday, March 19 at 8:30 a.m. ET.
Performance excerpt of the 1992 Cadets.
Michael Boo was a member of the Cavaliers from 1975-1977. He has written about the drum corps activity for more than a quarter century and serves as a staff writer for various Drum Corps International projects. Boo has written for numerous other publications and has published an honors-winning book on the history of figure skating. As an accomplished composer, Boo holds a bachelor's degree in music education and a master's degree in music theory and composition. He resides in Chesterton, Ind.