In 1964, when the Beatles boarded a plane for the USA, they did what many touring boy bands have done since, played one-night stands in different venues, introducing their music to thousands of fans.
100 years earlier, between 1863 and 1880, a very different boy band toured Europe and the USA. The ‘Mountaineers of the Apennines’ wowed audiences all the way from Rome to Vienna, and even to the Tsar’s Palace in St Petersburg. These seven young men from Budrio in Italy, dressed in Robin-Hood-style costumes, grabbed their music and Ocarinas and took to the stage playing folk music from home, and classical themes by popular ‘modern’ composers such as Giuseppe Verdi; all in seven-part harmony
In those days, before radio, television, flights, or even the invention of the car, a seven-piece band from a far-off country was a great novelty; the fact that they played weird instruments, ‘submarine-shaped’ Italian Ocarinas that were described as looking like ‘large potatoes’, added to the mystery. The group performed in major centres of entertainment alongside fire-eaters, ballet dancers and even animals. And in 1874, they appeared at London’s magnificent Crystal Palace.
Over the August Bank Holiday, 1874, the Crystal Palace attracted 36,489 visitors in a single day – and over 1,000 of those visiting chose to attend the Ocarina concert, which was fully reported at the time. Here are a few newspaper quotes:
“The difficult overture to William Tell was given with all the fire and precision of a full orchestra.”
“The members of the troupe are dressed in full picturesque costume… with sugar-loaf hats, peacock’s feathers, velvet jackets, leggings and all the rest of it. Those who are not fond of music contented themselves with admiring several handsome men in extremely picturesque costume.”
So whilst a Victorian audience did not consist of teenage girls screaming their undying love for the band, there was nonetheless considerable interest in the ‘Mountaineers’ music and a good deal of admiration for their appearance as well.
And as this boy band filled major venues with thousands of people, the Ocarina was born as a ‘proper’ musical instrument. Although the Ocarina has never quite taken off in the same way as electric guitars and drums, Ocarinas did offer these lads a passport to travel, fame and fortune for a few years at least; though not quite on the same scale as the fame achieved by the Fab Four from Liverpool!