James Barnes didn't fully understand the appeal of Paganini until he joined the ranks of composers who have written variations.
"The tune wouldn't go out of my head," the composer recalled. "I'd wake up at 2 o'clock in the morning and run down to the piano and sketch out another variation."
Barnes, assistant director of bands at Kansas University, came up with a total of 20 variations for his "Fantasy Variations on a Theme by Niccolo Paganini," which the U.S. Marine Band premiered last year. The work will be included in the band's concert at 8 p.m. Monday in Hoch Auditorium.
"It's such a wonderful idea, and I just wonder why nobody else ever did it before for wind band," the composer said.
COL. JOHN BOURGEOIS, director of the Marine Band, commissioned the piece from Barnes in 1987, about a year after they had first talked about the possibility for a new work.
Once Barnes got started writing, the composition didn't take long.
"Now, this may sound like bragging, but I sketched the whole thing out in a week because I couldn't stop," he said.
"I've had that piece in my head for 10 years. I was just waiting for the right band to write it for."
The U.S. Marine Band, which counts some of the best musicians in the country among its members, was just the one.
"I wanted to write it for a superb band, and the Marine Band is the best in the world," Barnes said, adding that it was like getting a commission from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
THE MARINE BAND is also important because it regularly commissions new work, as do all the service bands, Barnes said. He has just finished a piece for the Air Force Band: "Now, there's a scary group."
Barnes said that because military bands offer steady work and good pay, they are able to attract top players.
"There are so few jobs, great wind players go there," he said.
Other great musicians have been drawn to services bands as well. The Marine Band's most famous leader was John Philip Sousa, who led the group from 1880 to 1892. His "Washington Post" march opens Monday's concert, as a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the work's premiere. Sousa's "Looking Upward" suite and, of course, "The Stars and Stripes Forever" are also on the program.
THE U.S. MARINE Band was officially begun by an act of Congress in 1798 and performed publicly for the first time in August 1800. Its first presidential inauguration was that of Thomas Jefferson in 1801 (he dubbed the band "The President's Own") and it has played for every inauguration since.
Though Monday's concert is free, admission is by ticket only until 7:45 p.m. All available tickets have been taken, but starting at 7:45 p.m., if there is room, the auditorium will be opened for non-ticketholders.