Not fade away
It happened just as the Michigan Varsity Band began to play at Yost Field House in January 1934. The game was Michigan against Northwestern in basketball.
The band’s director was Nicholas Falcone, 41 years old, regarded as one of the finest college directors in the country.
Falcone turned to face his musicians. He raised his baton, then gave the downbeat. The brassy notes of a march filled the arena.
Then, as Falcone recalled the moment years later, the “band began to sound … as though it had been whisked away as far as the football stadium.”
The next morning, Falcone spoke to his wife. He could not hear well enough to conduct the concerts on his schedule, he told her. She must get on the telephone and place a long-distance call to East Lansing — to Falcone’s younger brother, Leonard.
Nicholas had been the first of seven children born to a barber and his wife in the ancient Italian hill town of Roseto Valfortore. His musical gifts emerged early; he played clarinet in the town band as a boy. Soon enough, little Leonard, seven years Nicholas’ junior, was showing remarkable talent on the baritone horn.
In 1912, Nicholas decided that tiny Roseto was no place to make his name as a musician. Like many of his townsmen, he decided to seek his future in the United States. A friend already in Michigan told him there were opportunities for musicians in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, two adjacent towns that shared a robust interest in the fine arts. Nicholas quickly found two jobs — one as a tailor, the other in the orchestra pit of Ann Arbor’s Majestic Theater. He began to take postgraduate courses with two professors of music at Michigan.
Three years later, in the midst of the First World War, the Italian army was combing the countryside for conscripts. Leonard Falcone, now a baritone virtuoso, was 16. His parents hustled him aboard a ship to join his big brother in Michigan. Leonard, too, found work — by day as a tailor’s assistant, by night as a trombonist.
On Armistice Day in 1918, Nicholas, though bed-ridden with influenza, accepted an invitation to march and play in an impromptu band in celebration of the Great War’s end. When Nicholas awoke the next morning, he heard a ringing in his left ear. For a few days, his hearing faded. Then it returned, and the incident was forgotten.
Taking their room and board together, the Falcone brothers assembled livelihoods in music, piece by piece. It was neither easy nor glamorous.
Nicholas conducted the orchestra of a silent-movie house in Ypsi and soloed on clarinet for the Belle Isle Concert Band in Detroit and the Fordson Tractor Concert Band in Dearborn. He directed school bands in Saline, Belleville, and Wayne. In time, he married and fathered two children.
Leonard took classes part-time in the U-M School of Music and earned his degree in violin in 1926. Meanwhile, he played trombone for his brother’s band in Ypsi; then became manager, conductor, and violinist of the orchestra at Ann Arbor’s Majestic Theater.
By the mid-1920s, both Falcones had established reputations as leading musicians and conductors. They met Joseph Maddy, director of music in the Ann Arbor Public Schools, who soon invited both brothers to play and teach at the prestigious high school music camp he founded in northern Michigan, the forerunner of the Interlochen Center for the Arts.
Through Maddy and other contacts, the Falcones now landed two plum positions.
In 1926, Nicholas accepted an invitation to organize a Reserve Band at U-M. His musicians played so well that he was asked a year later to become director of all University bands and instructor in wind instruments in the School of Music.
At just the same time, there was an opening for director of the Military Band at Michigan State College.
The secretary of the college contacted friends in Ann Arbor: Did they know a man for the job? Yes, they said — Leonard Falcone.
For the next seven years, despite the onset of the Great Depression and falling numbers of students at both schools, the Falcone brothers nurtured strong bonds between the two band programs. There was more friendship than rivalry. They took turns guest-conducting each other’s bands. When the football teams played, there was nearly as much interest in the brothers’ musical battle as in the fight on the gridiron, and after the games, the hosting brother always served spaghetti to both bands.
Then, at Yost Arena in January 1934, Nicholas could not hear his students playing.
Sound and silence
For a few weeks, Leonard drove down to conduct at the concerts on Nicholas’ calendar. They waited. Perhaps the condition would recede as it had in 1918.
It grew worse.
They found a promising specialist in New York. But Nicholas would have to take treatments over many weeks.
Go ahead, Leonard said. I’ll handle both bands.
He stepped into a punishing routine. For six months, Leonard drove back and forth between campuses, teaching and conducting his own students and his brother’s.
He conducted the State band at Farmer’s Week and the Michigan band at baseball games. He taught Nicholas’ students in Ann Arbor studios and his own students in East Lansing. He conducted at both schools’ commencement exercises.
By summer, Nicholas’ hearing improved. He took his family to Charlevoix for a rest and made plans to resume his regular schedule in the fall. Then the weather turned cold and storms swept in off Lake Michigan. Now his hearing faded again and did not return. Nicholas submitted his resignation to the School of Music.
At Michigan State, Leonard Falcone served as director of bands until his retirement in 1967. His Military Band of 60-some students in the 1920s grew into four bands comprising hundreds of musicians. His bands represented Michigan at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and played at three Rose Bowls. He was recognized not only as one of the great college band directors but also as one of the nation’s finest baritonists. Leonard died in 1985 at the age of 86 after a long and active retirement.
In Ann Arbor, Nicholas Falcone’s resignation led to the hiring of William D. Revelli, who became the same sort of leader in the world of college music that Leonard Falcone became at Michigan State.
Nicholas, unable to hear at all, found work writing scores for the Federal Music Project, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s relief programs for artists in the Works Progress Administration. He sought the services of a faith healer, but with no success.
When he and his brother met, they would communicate through pages and pages of scribbled notes. Nicholas would go to concerts with his clarinet in his hands. If the orchestra played pieces he knew, he could finger the notes by watching the musicians and feeling the vibrations of the music. If the music was unfamiliar, he sat still.
Nicholas remained in Ann Arbor, earning his living in a local factory. In 1975, the Michigan Marching Band honored him at a halftime ceremony. The U-M Board of Regents named him director emeritus of University bands in 1978.
Nicholas Falcone died in 1981 at the age of 88.
Sources include: Rita Griffin Comstock, Solid Brass: The Leonard Falcone Story (Blue Lake Press, 2011); Joseph Dobos and William Berz, “Nicholas Falcone, The Band Director You’ve Probably Never Heard Of,” Journal of the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Wind Ensembles; “Tradition, fraternity and the Falcone Brothers,” Interlochen Center for the Arts, http://www.interlochen.org/story/tradition-fraternity-and-falcone-brothers; Michigan Marching Band, “The Nicholas Falcone Years: 1927-1934,” http://mmb.music.umich.edu/node/43353.