The real Colonel Bogey

Do you remember Major Ricketts? Major who?

Well then, let me ask a different question. Do you remember the movie, Bridge on the River Kwai? Yes? That was a WW-II story of a British Officer caught in a brutal Japanese Prisoner-of-War camp. Using Gandhi-esque psychological warfare, he prevails on the Japanese Commander to treat the Allied PoWs more humanely. The essenceof the movie was “Mental courage over physical power”. Now tell me: do you remember the theme song of the movie? (Colonel Bogey March—the theme song–  captured the spirit of the movie so beautifully!) Of course you do. Ah, Major Ricketts composed the music for the movie. Well, not exactly. Ricketts composed the March much earlier, but the music director adapted it aptly for the mood of the movie and went on to win awards.

Back to Ricketts and Colonel Bogey March. One distinguishing feature of the March was Ricketts’ fine use of the musical technique called counterpoint. What is a counterpoint? Before I explain counterpoint, kindly listen to the Coldstream Guards play the piece.

If you observed carefully, there are actually 2 tunes being played. One tune is played by woodwinds (e.g. flute, clarinet) and the “light” instruments. Another, very different tune is played by the heavy brass (e.g. horns, trombone etc). Sometimes the “light” instruments take the lead; sometimes the “heavy” instruments take the lead. One acts as the “counterpoint” to another. Sometimes both the tunes merge and there is an explosive “climax”. The composer has thus harmoniously stitched the 2 tunes together into a masterpiece. Counterpoint as a device has often been used in Western music. The baroque composer JS Bach was a master of this technique. But none has handled counterpoint so effectively in martial music as Ricketts has.

The other wonderful thing in the Colonel Bogey March is that every instrument has a little solo piece somewhere in the song. Apart from being very “democratic”, this technique provides a pleasing variety to the whole piece. Other bandmasters, notably Philip Sousa of the US Marines Band, have also used this approach, but I rate Ricketts’ treatment a tad higher. Now listen to the March again and may be you will appreciate his genius more.

Why fuss about a bygone Bandmaster? Let me end this  on a personal note. I grew up in a suburban village which had only 3 precincts: The Army camp, the Air-Force camp, and the Para-military Police camp. My father was the Commandant of the Police camp and our house was next to a Parade Ground. Every morning I was woken by the bugler’s call; at sundown the bugles played a special tune for the lowering of the National flag. Almost daily, the Battalion’s Band played Martial Music as different platoons marched by.  My father even composed  an ode to the battalion in Kamaas Raga and the band played the Commandant’s tune! So you see, martial music was my gateway to the world of music.

It was still early days of our Republic, so the band mostly played tunes left behind by our erstwhile colonial masters. In the band’s small repertoire, the most spectacular was the Colonel Bogey March. How then could I ever forget Major Frederick Joseph Ricketts of the Royal Marines?

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