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Fritz Brase: Ireland's Prussian Bandmaster

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Friedrich Wilhelm Anton "Fritz" Brase was born in 1875 as the son of a miller at Egestorf, near Hanover. His formal musical training commenced at the age of four with the study of piano, and he later studied at the Leipzig Conservatory and the Berlin Academy of Music; he was also briefly a pupil of Max Bruch.

Brase entered the old army in 1893, and by 1906 had risen to the rank of Stabshoboist and Musikmeister of Infanterie-Regiment 13 at Münster. In 1911 he was appointed conductor of the 'Kaiser Alexander' Garde-Grenadier Regiment Nr. 1 at Berlin, one of the most prestigious positions in the world of German military music. A high point in Brase's career came in 1917,  when he conducted the massed-bands of the German army in a concert attended by the Kaiser, Generals von Hindenburg and Ludendorff and members of the General Staff.

Discharged from the service in 1919, Brase conducted a police band in Berlin until 1923, when the Minister for Defense of the Irish Free State, General Richard Mulcahy, invited him to Ireland to take over the military music branch and musical training of that country’s defense forces.

Colonel Fritz Brase in the Uniform of the Irish Free State Army

Arriving in Dublin on 1 March 1923, and accompanied by a friend and colleague who had performed with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (the professional musician Friedrich Christian Sauerzweig, a man who, like Brase, spoke very little English), Brase established the Irish Army's School of Music at the Curragh Camp in Kildare and began casting about for students. As an indication of the importance his superiors accorded to his assignment, he was commissioned with the rank of colonel, while Sauerzweig was commissioned captain.

From the best of his initial recruits, Brase assembled a band that was able to present its first recital before Mulcahy and the army staff a mere two months after his arrival. The Minister of Defense was well pleased with the performance of this ensemble, which was henceforth designated the Irish Army"s "No. 1 Band." Its musicians later made their first appearance before the general public in Dublin's Theater Royal on 13 October 1923; after their well-received debut, both the band and the Army School of Music were relocated to Beggars Bush Barracks in Dublin.

In total, Brase and Sauerzweig set up four Irish military bands in the period from 1923 to 1928. In 1925, the army's No. 2 Band was formed and allotted to the Southern Command at Cork; later establishments included the No. 3 Band (stationed at the Curragh) and the No. 4 Band, a training organization initially intended for the Western Command. A fifth band was later formed as a reserve, while six pipe bands were established and allocated to selected battalions. During this period, Brase and Sauerzweig also instituted a program of instruction for boy trainees in order to ensure a steady supply of musicians for the future.

Starting in 1924, the band toured widely throughout the country, presenting a series of well-received programs that included military marches, selections from the classics and Brase's own arrangements of Irish folk airs, the most successful of these being his Irish Fantasia No. 1; he is known to have written at least six such pieces. As conductor of the No. 1 Band, Brase's early gramophone recordings in Ireland attest to the high standard of skill and coordination achieved by the Irish musicians and their director within a comparatively short period of time. 

In 1927, Colonel Brase presided over an outdoor concert and tattoo in Dublin featuring three massed bands; repeated in 1929 and 1935,  this event - now dubbed the "Dublin Military Tattoo" - was staged with an increased musical complement that garnered considerable public acclaim for the grandeur of its spectacle and skill of its performers.

Fritz Brase quickly came to love his adopted land, and on at least two occasions he declined offers of prestigious musical appointments in Germany that would have entailed his permanently leaving Ireland. He was one of the founders of the Dublin Philharmonic Society Orchestra in 1927 and conducted this ensemble in its regular concerts, but he resigned in 1936 as a result of differences with its board. The Irish people were by then used to referring to him as "Fitz Brassy," and he continued his work as conductor of the No.1 Band and Director of the Army Music School.

In May 1935, on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday and in recognition of his lifetime work in Germany and Ireland, Brase was officially awarded the title of "Professor" by Adolf Hitler; the honors were presented personally by the German envoy to Dublin, Wilhelm von Kuhlmann. At approximately this same time, Brase (an NSDAP member and leader of a de facto Ortsgruppe consisting of German expatriates) sought official permission from the army chief of staff to establish a branch of the National Socialist Party's Auslandsorganisation in Ireland; after receiving the cordial but firm answer that he must choose between the party and his work for the army, he resigned his political position in favor of the service.

Illness finally forced his retirement in 1940, and he was succeeded as Director of the Army Music School by Christian Sauerzweig, who was promoted from captain to colonel and remained in charge of that institution until 1947. Fritz Brase died within one day of hanging up his uniform; he was buried in Dublin's Mount Jerome Cemetery, with musical accompaniment provided by the No. 1 Band.

General Mulcahy March

In addition to the acclaim he received for his best-known work, the march Große Zeit, Neue Zeit (AM I, 94) - which came in second in a Berlin musical competition in 1912 - Brase also achieved lasting recognition for his fanfare-march Der Gott, der Eisen wachsen ließ, the German Luftwaffe march Himmelstürmer, the Irischer Armeemarsch, the General Mulcahy March, the Irish National March and his numerous orchestral arrangements of Irish folk music. Brase's contribution to Irish military band music continued to be valued by many in the Emerald Isle long after his passing, and his achievement was perhaps best appraised by Dr. Esmonde in the Dáil Éireann in 1952:

"When musical broadcasts were first organised in this country, under the late Colonel Fritz Brase, a German, he did not import a whole lot of foreign musicians. He recognized the fact that there was a fund of musical talent latent in the Irish people and he set out to develop that talent... I think it is a pity that his policy was not continued...."

This Pathé Newsreel of 1930 features Fritz Brase conducting the "No. 1 Band" of the Irish Free State Army in his aforementioned Irish National March, which is based on the Irish traditional airs O'Donnell Aboo, Shule Agra, The Boys of Wexford and Let Erin Remember.

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