Felix Villiet Vinatieri was born Felice Villiet in Turin, Italy in 1834. His father died while Felix was very young. His mother, Amelia, a harpist, remarried two years later to Enrico Felice Vinatieri, a piano builder. The family then moved to Naples where his stepfather encouraged Felix's musical talents. By the age of ten, Felix was an accomplished violinist. He graduated from Naples' Conservatorio di Musica San Pietro a Majella in 1853 and subsequently taught there for about a year.
Felix became the director of the Queen's Guard of Spagnis, an Italian military band, at the age of twenty. He held this position for five years, during which time he became well known as a cornetist and performer of various band instruments.
In 1859, Felix and his sister Emmelia [an opera singer] migrated to America. In 1861, Felix enlisted with the Sixteenth Regiment of Massachusetts at Boston, as a musician. His second enlistment occurred in 1867 as Infantry Musician with the Twenty-Second Infantry at Fort Columbus, New York. He served during the Civil War, was sent west and discharged in December 1870 at Fort Sully in the Dakota Territory. He chose to settle in Yankton, Dakota Territory.
While living in Yankton, Felix met sixteen-year-old Anna Frances Fejfar of a music-loving Czechoslovakian immigrant family. The couple was married within the year in 1871. Vinatieri built a home with a studio in which to teach the young and for the purpose of composing music.
The US government announced that a military expedition would be sent to assess reports of gold in the Black Hills country. George Armstrong Custer's Seventh Regiment of Cavalry was assigned to duty at Fort Abraham Lincoln which was being established along the Missouri River in the northern half of Dakota Territory.
The Seventh Regiment arrived in Yankton on the Dakota Southern Railroad from Sioux City, Iowa, on April 9, 1873. With Custer were 800 troops, 700 horses, 202 mules, enlisted men's and officers' families, and aides. They camped there for a number of weeks to prepare for their long march north. During their encampment in Yankton, a ball organized to honor the officers.
Seventh Regiment Cavalry Band at Fort Lincoln
The leader of the band that night was a lithe, trim, thirty-nine-year-old Italian named Felix Vinatieri, who led the band with gusto. Lt. Colonel Custer thought the music sophisticated for a wilderness town and asked to meet the band leader. He explained that his present leader had requested to be relieved. Custer liked Felix Vinatieri, and offered him the position of Chief Musician.
On May 7, 1873, the band rode out of Yankton for Fort Abraham Lincoln. On the lead horse was a proud Felix Vinatieri. Following his arrival at the fort, Vinatieri travelled to St. Paul, Minnesota, to enlist for a three year period as Bandleader of the Seventh Cavalry.
Mrs. Anna Vinatieri, reminiscing about frontier Dakota Territory, often told her grandchildren of life at Fort Abraham Lincoln, and spoke of Custer's love for band music. She told of George's and his wife Libbie's fondness of quadrilles (i.e. an early 19th-century ballroom dance, performed by sets of four, six or eight couples.)
Opening of the first clarinet part for "The Mosquitos of Dakota Waltz," by Vinatieri on June 14, 1874
On June 26, 1876, General Custer, along with 276 men, were killed during the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The sixteen members of the band, who were mostly German, were spared, as Custer had left orders with band leader Vinatieri that the band was not to engage in battle, but to remain on the supply steamboat, Far West, moored on the Powder River. The steamboat served subsequently as a floating hospital, with the band members serving as medics as the Far West raced back to the fort, making the nearly thousand mile journey in fifty-four hours. Later when Libbie Custer wrote about the expedition's return, she noted the travel-battered condition of the instruments of the band.
Vinatieri was discharged on December 18, 1876, at Fort Abraham Lincoln, with a notation for good conduct. The family returned to Yankton where he had organized the Yankton band, serving as its director from 1868 to 1873 and 1886 to 1891.
He was well-known to and respected by all of the orchestra directors and musicians of the United States. He played his violin and cornet, as they were his favorite instruments. His army personnel records, instruments, and personal furnishings, which he had brought by riverboat from St. Louis, were displayed at the Dakota Territorial Museum in Yankton.
Vinatieri was credited with marches, waltzes, and mazurkas, in addition to two complete light operas, "The American Volunteer" and "The Barber of the Regiment." For these he wrote not only the music, but the complete libretto, including the stage directions. These compositions were two of the earliest of American operas, and the first operas composed west of the Mississippi. He expected to present "The American Volunteer" at the Columbian World's Fair in Chicago in 1893 but he died of pneumonia in Yankton on December 5, 1891.
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