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TRADITION : Stop the Music! British Budget Cuts Out Many Military Bands

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Many British army bands, whose spirited marches and anthems accompany their fighting forces around the world, soon will be reduced to playing “The Last Post,” the Commonwealth version of the farewell “Taps.”

That’s because the Ministry of Defense, as part of an overall cutback in the armed forces, has said that 34 of the army’s 63 bands, each with its own colorful regalia, will be disbanded within two years; the musicians will be reduced from 2,000 to 1,100.

But there was good news for tourists: The famous “state” marching and mounted bands of the Guards Division will remain intact to perform--in bearskin hats--the daily Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace and the annual Trooping of the Color.

Most regiments and corps of the British army now have their own bands. But these, like the regiments themselves, will be amalgamated and deployed to larger units.

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Scottish bands have been particularly hard hit: Seven regimental bands will be consolidated into two divisional bands. This was bitter news for the bagpipers of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards band whose rendition of “Amazing Grace” once topped the charts.

“We’re tailoring the musical requirements to meet new military requirements,” a defense official explained.

Some bureaucrats view military bands, indeed military music, as an anachronism with little place in the modern scheme of defense planning. But military traditionalists insist that regimental bands are an important factor in maintaining troop morale and spirit.

Richard Morrison, arts editor of the Times of London, points out, “One of the oddest statistics about British cultural life is that the Defense Ministry spends more to maintain military bands than the government spends on all the professional orchestras and opera companies in the country.”

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Army musicians themselves serve as front-line medics when deployed in battle; they fulfilled this function in the Falkland Islands campaign. In the Persian Gulf War, musicians participated and, when not playing, manned military hospitals.

The band cuts are part of a move that will see British army manpower reduced from 156,000 to 119,000 by early 1995. Under the new arrangements, all army bands will have at least 35 musicians, since with fewer than 20, as is sometimes the current situation, a band “is not musically viable,” according to defense official Archie Hamilton.

“It’s a gloomy time for those of us in the military music business,” said Lt. Col. Roger Tomlinson, director of the army’s music school.

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