The Royal Artillery band is surely one of the most ancient and celebrated military bands in the world. There were supposedly drums and fifes attached to the English Artillery train during the siege of Calais in 1557. An artillery band is thought to have existed at Woolwich during the reign of Charles II. Chariot mounted Kettledrums drawn by white horses were known in Ireland in 1689 and, more notably in the Low Countries during the Seven Years War. A wonderful painting by David Morier clearly illustrates one of these chariots in 1757.
The Band, formed in 1762, consisted of eight musicians at first and it’s official existence during its early years was a matter of some controversy. A band apparently went to America in 1770 but it’s return was never noted. By 1800 the band was firmly established and was present at many Royal functions as their reputation grew. It must be said that most of the members including the Masters, were foreign. The band became well known as the century progressed and gradually home born members became members, including the Bandmaster in 1810. In 1820 the Royal Artillery Band was the only army band paid for by the annual estimates. By 1845 the band consisted of 47 musicians and in 1854, the band was considered the premier band of the army having played at such functions as the Crystal Palace opening and the funeral of the Duke of Wellington.
In 1857 the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall was established. This was established to train bandmasters for the entire British Army. At the same time the Royal Artillery Band came under the auspices of a Band Committee which, henceforward would govern the accounts, activities and the uniforms of the band.
By 1881, the bands of the British Army were regulated to be either “Regimental” or “Staff” bands. The Royal Artillery (as well as the Royal Engineers) came under the latter designation.
This gave them more flexibility and allowed them to appoint bandmasters. A regulation had been made that all Bandmasters should be British, which as we will see, was ignored by the RA Band committee.
In 1854, James Smyth had been appointed Bandmaster and had maintained and even enhanced the reputation of the band. He decided to retire in 1880 and after a year with an acting bandmaster (Albert Mansfield) a new bandmaster was appointed. This was Cavaliere Ladislao Joseph Philip Paul Zavertal. He was an Italian national of Bohemian origin with a successful career as a composer and conductor. Under his leadership the band would reach new heights of influence and perfection. He would also have an impact on the dress and accoutrements of the band.