Viewpoints vary on the authorship of 'The Victors'
Presently, a small tremor - kick-started by band alumnus Jim Henriksen - shakes U-M's Little House, William D. Revelli Hall, home of the Michigan Marching Band.
Twenty-five years ago, in a presumed, non-controversial interview, U-M Marching Band alumnus George Anderson dropped a music bombshell.
Anderson matter of factly noted the trio (a portion) of Elbel's The Victors is nearly identical, note for note, to a march composed seven months earlier by George (Rosey) Rosenberg , a ragtime composer out of Tin Pan Alley, entitled The Spirit of Liberty.
"There is legal proof (Library of Congress) that the familiar trio portion of The Victors was copyrighted by Rosey (April, 1898) before Elbel's composition (copyright, June, 1899)," comments Mark Petty, a former U-M band member, "The two versions are so similar that there is no doubt that one came from the other. That the remainder of 'The Victors' is composed by Elbel is not disputed. The real question is how (and why) did Elbel use Rosey's material?"
The melody of a "trio" is a music term for a subordinate division of a piece of music that is usually in a contrasted key and style. Every composed march has its own "trio."
In his paper, "The Authorship of The Victors March," Henriksen writes, "Several theories have been advanced as to just how the melody for the trio of The Victors got into Louis Elbel’s head. While fascinating to ponder, none of these theories is likely to be proven, and they serve only to mitigate Elbel’s offense by explaining that any influence on The Victors by The Spirit of Liberty was most likely subliminal."
Petty adds, "The reason that this issue should be publicized is that The Victors is an important part of UM's heritage and George Rosey's contribution has been overlooked."
"There is no co-authorship of The Victors," counters Joseph Dobos, a fellow band alumnus and past president of the U-M Band Alumni, "And whether or not he (Elbel) realized it, he used Rosey's melody for the trio of The Victors. But the final phrase of Elbel's march has a slightly different ending than the 'Spirit of Liberty."
Dobos adds this footnote: "The history of music is filled with such 'borrowing' and 'quoting.' Palestrina, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Mahler are just a few of the great composers who used tunes and motifs from pre-existing musical works written by other composers."
Bill Studwell, who authored "College Fight Songs: An Annotated Anthology," concurs with Dobos. Studwell states, "Who composed what and when isn't always clear when it comes to music, especially college fight songs. I have no problem with Elbel being credited for 'The Victors.' He was a talented, inspired young man and a musician, so he had the credentials."
He continued, "Back then, everybody copied Sousa (John Phillip Sousa), but George Rosey was a small, insignificant composer and a self-publisher, not close to Sousa’s stature. I doubt that Elbel would have ever heard of Rosey, least of all talked to him and be familiar with his work."
Petty, Henriksen, Dobos and Studwell do agree emphatically that The Victors-regardless of its solo or dual authorship- is one of the most stirring marches ever written.
Photo - Above, ticket from the momentous U-M vs. Chicago football game with Michigan as the victor. Notice the price of the ticket: $2.00. Photo below is the U-M Marching Band in peformance at MSU Spartan Stadium when the Wolverines last visited in 2007.