Trevor Herbert, ed.
The British Brass Band: A Musical and Social History
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000
The brass band was central to British musical life for over a century. The brass band movement arose in the 1840s thanks to the invention of the piston valve and technological advancements that enabled the mass production of brass instruments. Thousands of brass bands then emerged across Britain, which brought art music to popular audiences and fostered a thriving culture of amateur music-making. Brass bands became symbols of civic pride, much like football teams.
The brass band movement has been neglected by music historians and musicologists, however. As a populist, non-establishment phenomenon, it has been ignored by those who do not consider the brass band to be a “serious” musical institution like the symphony or opera, and as a white British phenomenon associated with the days of the British Empire, it has tended to be ignored by Leftist academics as well. The book under review may well be the only book-length treatment of the British brass band. It contains eight essays by various authors, as well as four appendices and a list of recommended recordings.
England has a strong tradition of amateur communal music-making going back centuries. The British brass band grew out of the tradition of militia and volunteer bands as well as the ensembles found in rural churches in eighteenth-century England. There is a large body of written repertoire for church bands, indicating that musical literacy was not confined to professional musicians.
The first brass bands emerged in the early nineteenth century. Stalybridge Old Band, for instance, was founded in 1808, and Besses o’ th’ Barn Band was founded in 1818. By the 1850s, “almost every village and group of mills in the north of England had its own band” (p. 34). Yorkshire and Lancashire were the center of the brass band movement, but there were hundreds of bands in southern England, Wales, and Scotland as well. The movement also spread to Australia and New Zealand in the 1890s; brass bands were particularly common in Newcastle — which was settled by people from northeast England — and “Little Cornwall.”
The standard British brass band’s format is unique: Apart from the inclusion of three trombones, the instruments in British brass bands (the cornet, flugelhorn, saxhorn, and euphonium) all have conical bores, which gives them a rich, mellow sound. Alto and tenor saxhorns, better suited for four-part harmony, are used instead of the French horn (perhaps the French horn’s steep learning curve also explains its omission from the line-up), and the cornet, which blends better with saxhorns, takes the place of the trumpet. The instruments, except for the trombones and percussion, are notated in the treble clef, with the instrument’s lowest note written as middle C, making it easy for players to switch parts.
The British brass band movement is noteworthy in that it was largely a working-class phenomenon. Bandsmen were typically miners or factory workers; the composers and conductors at the trend’s forefront were often workers as well. One textile worker, Edward Newton, wrote and published over 300 marches. Edwin Swift, a leading brass band conductor, worked in a textile mill from the age of nine until he was 32. Brass bands performed at trade union demonstrations, May Day celebrations, the Durham Miners’ Gala, and in Eight Hours Day parades in Australia. This tradition still lives on to some extent; the most recent Durham Miners’ Gala, which drew more than 200,000 people, featured more than 50 brass bands.
The impetus behind this phenomenon, however, was not entirely proletarian. The movement was promoted by middle-class Victorians who saw banding as a respectable form of leisure and an antidote to hooliganism. Brass bands were frequently sponsored by the factories and collieries for whom their members worked; their employers appear to have done this for selfish reasons, seeing banding as a pastime that would divert workers from engaging in politics. The advent of the brass band also undermined the primacy of folk musical traditions at a time when, unfortunately, folk-song collecting did not yet exist.
At the same time, it would be false to characterize the brass band movement as an alien imposition upon British popular culture or to cynically frame the workers who played in the bands as mere pawns. They played an active role in advancing the brass band and made it their own. For bandsmen, playing was far from a frivolous diversion; it gave them a sense of dignity and purpose, and was taken very seriously. As an editorial in the British Bandsman put it,
The brass band is something of a social phenomenon, a brotherhood, part of the British way of life. Truly amateur bands are not merely haphazard groupings of players who happen to enjoy a ‘blow’. (p. 84)
The brass band movement did not extinguish the populist ethos associated with folk culture, however. Banding was approached with an enthusiasm normally reserved for sports and were known for their “exuberant hedonism,” as the book puts it (p. 145). Aspects of the old aural musical culture also persisted; players practiced in groups and generally learned by observing and listening as opposed to rote practicing.
Banding in Britain has been a highly competitive endeavor since the early days of the brass band movement. Historically, brass band contests attracted massive and devoted audiences. The National Brass Band Championships in 1860 drew 22,000 people (p. 64). Audience members would show up wearing the colors of the band from their hometown. Victorious bands were welcomed home with a rendition of “See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes!” played by another local band.
Bands are organized into five distinct sections based on their skill level. The most prestigious rung is the “Championship” section, which contains Britain’s most accomplished bands. These bands compete in the National and Open Brass Band Championships, the latter of which was founded in 1853 and is, to my knowledge, the oldest music competition in the world. Each section is assigned certain “test pieces” on which the entrants are judged; the bulk of works written for brass band originated as test pieces for the National and Open Championships.
The body of works written for brass band is relatively small due to the medium’s idiosyncratic format and its isolation from the classical music establishment. The first major work written for brass band was Percy Fletcher’s Labour and Love, which was commissioned for the 1913 National Championships. Fletcher followed up Labour and Love with his three-movement Epic Symphony, a staple of the brass band repertoire and arguably his most significant composition. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Fletcher was self-taught. It was not until 1928 that a prominent English composer wrote for brass band, when Gustav Holst penned A Moorside Suite. It’s a curious irony that Holst was the first established composer to write for the medium and that A Moorside Suite, inspired by the moors of Yorkshire, was simultaneously the first brass band work influenced by English folk song.
The 1930s saw the addition of several notable pieces to the repertoire: Edward Elgar’s Severn Suite (1930), John Ireland’s A Downland Suite (1932), and Comedy Overture (1934), Granville Bantock’s Prometheus Unbound (1933), Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Henry V (1933), and Herbert Howells’s Pageantry (1934) — all of which are masterpieces of brass band music and great works in their own right. Vaughan Williams went on to write two more pieces for brass band, Preludes on Three Welsh Tunes (1955) and Variations for Brass Band (1957), and Howells wrote one other: Three Figures (1960).
Much of the original repertoire for brass band consists of marches. Notable composers in this genre included William Rimmer, James Ord Hume, George Allen, and Shipley Douglas. A number of its composers also emerged from the Salvation Army, which developed a culture of brass band playing in tandem with the secular brass band movement. These included Eric Ball, Dean Goffin, Ray Steadman-Allen, Edward Gregson, and Wilfred Heaton. Ball, along with his contemporary Denis Wright (who also excelled as an arranger), was a prolific composer of accessible yet musically compelling brass band music that remains at the core of the repertoire. His works, like the tone poem Resurgam (1950), often draw upon his Christian faith.
A surprising number of compositions for brass band have been written over the past several decades, some of them quite colorful and imaginative: Gilbert Vinter’s Spectrum (1969), Malcolm Arnold’s Fantasy (1974), Wilfred Heaton’s Contest Music (1980), John McCabe’s Cloudcatcher Fells (1985), and Philip Sparke’s Variations on an Enigma (1988), to name only a few. The brass band’s partial integration into the conservatory in recent decades likely explains this development.
There is a diverse and extensive body of arrangements for brass band spanning classical works, “light” music, hymn tunes, patriotic songs, Christmas carols, and so on. The growth of the sheet music industry in the mid-nineteenth century led to a craze for musical arrangements. Selections from operas and operettas were in particularly high demand. The book notes that a brass band arrangement of the overture to Verdi’s La forza del destino was published within a few months of the opera’s premiere in 1862. There were also brass band arrangements of classical and Romantic symphonies. The Cyfarthfa Band, comprised of Welsh iron workers, played complete symphonies by Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn.
The sonorous, organ-like character of the British brass band’s sound lends itself to hymn tunes, which are staples of the repertoire. The strains of “Abide with Me,” “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,” or Gresford, which was written to commemorate the deaths of 266 miners in a mining accident in 1934, could melt even the coldest of hearts when performed by a brass band.
A fascinating consequence of this movement’s relative distance from the classical music establishment, as well as its composers’ and arrangers’ ignorance of the conventions of orchestral brass writing, was that they wrote parts which were often more technically demanding than their orchestral counterparts. The book includes an excerpt of the ophicleide (a precursor to the euphonium) part, taken from a brass band arrangement of Wagner’s “The Rhine-Daughters,” that was played by the Cyfarthfa Band, and which looks devilishly difficult. It has the appearance of an instrumental solo, whereas a lot of orchestral writing for low brass instruments consists of boring ostinati.
The book puts forth several possible explanations for the brass band’s decline in prominence in British popular culture, including the rise of radio, which undermined the brass band’s role as a disseminator of music; the Americanization of British popular culture and the accompanying rise of swing and jazz bands; banding’s old-fashioned military ethos, which lacked appeal for Britain’s post-war youth; and deindustrialization, which has hollowed out much of rural Britain. The collapse of the coal mining industry was a huge blow to the brass band movement.
The seriousness and earnestness that characterized the brass band movement and the intense pride instilled in bandsmen stand in stark contrast to the ethos of irony that prevails today. British patriotism has been replaced with a tongue-in-cheek, mawkish faux-patriotism that upholds Doctor Who, Paddington Bear, apologizing for British history, and tea-drinking as the preeminent symbols of British culture. Ed West of The Spectator has termed this trend “British twee.” Similar to the “Stuff White People Like” phenomenon, “British twee” combines insecurity and self-loathing with self-congratulatory smugness and ironic detachment. The self-confidence and dignity of nineteenth-century Britain have all but vanished from British public life.
A culture of communal music-making could provide an antidote to this. Music is unique among the arts in its ability to stir the soul and slice through irony. The Salvation Army’s founder, William Booth, understood the power of music and saw brass bands as a means of converting people to Christianity.
The brass band has become a symbol of an England that is rapidly disappearing. Yet it has still endured, albeit in a weakened form, despite the collapse of the industries that spawned it and the ongoing assault on white Britons and their way of life. In his video on this topic, Morgoth brings up the image of the Shinto shrine that survived the bombing of Nagasaki. It’s a reminder that even amid modernity’s cultural wasteland, we don’t need to look very far to find living traditions worth preserving.
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