Victory march: 100 years of echoes

Author: William Schmitt

Upon reaching the age of 100, the task of simply waking up might pose challenges for the average person. The “Notre Dame Victory March” has no such trouble. This anthem of enthusiasm and loyalty, composed by Domers in 1908, continues to wake up the echoes on campus and off—and is getting some volley cheers of its own this year.

The University of Notre Dame Band invited its alumni to attend a celebration of the Victory March’s 100th anniversary on October 4, during the Stanford football weekend. Fans can celebrate with a new book, 100 Years of the Notre Dame Victory March, designed, written and published by the band staff and filled with photographs of memorable halftime shows and other performances. The band has also released a CD, 100 Years: The Notre Dame Victory March 1908–2008, with historic recordings of the piece that Murray Sperber, in Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football, calls “one of the nation’s four best known songs.” The others are “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “God Bless America” and “White Christmas.”

A highlight of the CD is the original score, with music by Rev. Michael J. Shea, class of 1904, and words by his brother John F. Shea, class of 1906, played on the organ, the instrument on which the song was born. The Shea brothers, who both also earned master’s degrees at the University, had decided Notre Dame needed a fight song, but seemed to think that their product was mediocre—merely the beginning of a process of musical evolution, says Larry Dwyer, assistant director of bands.

The “Victory March” did indeed grow in stature, gradually. It was not immediately identified with football. Baseball was much more prominent at the time, as attested by the other classic sports song written in 1908, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” An illustration on the cover of the march’s first published score actually pictured a bat and a ball. But the rise of the song’s popularity coincided with the rise of football prowess at Notre Dame in the 1920s.

A pivotal moment came in 1928 when then-band director Joseph Casasanta wrote the richly textured arrangement of the march that is still used today. “It would never have caught on the way it has” without Casasanta’s virtuoso touch, says Ken Dye, director of bands. Now the arrangement is sacrosanct, at least for game day performances: “We don’t dare change the ‘Victory March.’”

That’s not to say the song has ceased to evolve. A few lyrics have changed since the original publication. For example, the first score urged fans to send a “volleyed cheer.” Some key words have not changed, particularly “her loyal sons,” although Dye points out that female students have started a tradition of pumping their arms at the word “her” to counterbalance the focus on Our Lady’s “sons.” The sound of the song, too, has changed as musical instruments have changed; drums and French horns, to name two, are designed differently today, says Dye. The new CD’s multiple renditions, recalling the band directors of the past as well as concert and jazz arrangements, capture the old and new sounds.

The flip side of the song’s adaptability may be its timelessness and impact. “It means different things to different people,” Dye says, evoking powerful memories and, not uncommonly, tears. Students hear it first during freshman orientation and last at the end of commencement ceremonies. It’s the only song played pregame, postgame and at halftime in Notre Dame Stadium, Dye adds.

High schools around the country claim the music for their own fight songs. Dye himself remembers being a seventh grader in California, attending a school assembly, hearing the student band play the “Victory March,” and letting that experience inspire him to join the band. “I guess I wouldn’t have gone into it if it weren’t for that song,” he muses.

Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, ‘39 has famously spoken of the song’s annual impact on him. On the first day of band practice in August, hundreds of student musicians strike it up as they are passing the Hesburgh Library, where the president emeritus has been an attentive listener through the years. At that point, says Father Ted, he knows Notre Dame is “back in business.”

At 100, the “Notre Dame Victory March” is still what’s new about Notre Dame. It’s about hope, energizing the young and old alike, waking up echoes and shaking down thunder. “You always have to take it seriously,” says assistant band director Sam Sanchez ’98, ’05M.A. “You always have to play it as well as you can because somebody is always hearing it for the first time.”

William Schmitt is communications manager in the Office of Public Affairs and Communication at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame Marching Band photo by Matt Cashore