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The Brass Band in Britain - Arthur Butterworth - July 2008

A hundred years ago the brass band was a very popular musical institution in Britain, especially in the industrial parts of northern England. In almost every civilised country of the world there had existed wind bands from the earliest times. Perhaps as much as four or five hundred years ago wind music, of a rudimentary or even coarse kind, had given pleasure and simple entertainment to peoples of many countries in Europe. It is not intended that this commentary shall be an exhaustive history, but it might suffice to outline some historical details which could have had an influence on the eventual rise of the brass band as it evolved in Britain in the nineteenth century and later.

Compared with orchestral music, opera, chamber music and music for religious purposes, the wind band seems to have been primarily an outdoor pursuit; its purpose to do no more than entertain an unsophisticated populace without pretence of seeking in any way to stimulate any intellectual or subtle spiritual communication through music, other than that of the most obvious kind: encouraging the martial instinct or physical stimulation through the dance. In this it seems to have been different from what came to be termed ‘serious’ music; an essentially indoor activity which sought to stimulate the deeper emotions and even some kind of intellectual insight which composers sought to convey through their art.

While many of the great composers - Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and others - composed wind band or wind ensemble music in a light style for pure entertainment, this was subtly different from the more serious forms of musical expression: music for the church; opera, chamber music (especially for strings and keyboard instruments), and of course the quickly evolving orchestra through which the symphony ultimately came into being. This more ‘serious’ music was certainly not at first intended to appeal to the large, uneducated masses of the population; but, because it was always (and still is) expensive to promote, remained for a considerable time, the privileged pursuit of the aristocracy.

In this way, perhaps, there grew a recognisable, but probably unsuspected or even less an intended dichotomy between music expressly for light entertainment and that of a more intellectual or spiritual kind intended to provoke and stimulate a deep emotional response in the listener. This situation has many times been most thoroughly explored by musical historians. Where to draw the line between that which is light and ephemeral - even trivial - and that which is profound will perhaps ever remain difficult to define.

The brass band, with all the foregoing historical considerations contributing to its appeal, arose - roughly speaking - in the earlier part of the nineteenth century. Much the greater part of its appeal and its one time remarkable success arose because of the sensational development of a means to make what had once been somewhat intractable and melodically limited brass instruments more capable of playing tunes; simple and uncomplicated and of popular appeal though they may be.. String instruments had always demanded a highly developed degree of innate musicianship: a good ear for accurate intonation, hands and fingers capable of dexterous and subtle manipulation. Wood-wind instruments too demanded similar intuitive capabilities from those who would master the art and craft of playing them. The development of various types of ‘valve’, a device for making instantaneous alteration to the sounding length of an otherwise fixed length brass tube, brought about this revolution, and so wind bands made up entirely of brass instruments quickly became universally popular. The brass band was born. Where ? It is perhaps not easy to say precisely where a truly ‘first’ brass band came into being; many conflicting claims have been put forward, but it scarcely matters. In recent years there have appeared numerous well-researched histories about the subject. No useful purpose is served here by attempting to summarise them. What is of present interest is to consider where the brass band - as a musical art-form - now stands.

As remarked in the first paragraph, a hundred years ago the brass band - certainly in Britain - was at the zenith of popularity. Despite this, it must have seemed even then, to be a musical phenomenon quite apart from other music-making. For one thing it was a very robust, some would say noisy, un-subtle sound, more appropriate outdoors than in.

However, being capable of great stimulation to masses of people at outdoor events its popularity was never in doubt. To many it was capable, at least of suggesting, that other forms of music were worth exploring: choral music, oratorio, opera. This came about when enterprising bandmasters, searching around for something their bands could play (since in the earliest days there was virtually no truly original music for the new brass bands to call their own). Religious music was already familiar, whereas sophisticated concert or symphonic music was much less so. So that transcriptions of this other, long-established music became a means of providing bands with something they could use.

Popular nineteenth century opera provide another readily available source. So that music by Rossini, Verdi, Donizetti, Bellini and other Italians became the most popular composers for brass band transcription, along with choruses from oratorio: Handel, Mozart’s Twelfth Mass, Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Berlioz and other music of the period. However, perhaps the most fruitful and appropriate source and the musical form which the brass band could be said to have made its very own was the military march. There arose a whole corpus of original brass band marches: the very earliest of truly original brass band music. These tended to be subtly distinct from the true military march as exemplified by military bands in the army (which of course comprised wood-wind, not just brass). There were several distinguished band conductors - more precisely ‘bandmasters’ in the sense that they not only conducted the ensembles but were truly ‘maters’ of everything the band did.

Some of these early personalities were visionary; and had high ideals, attempting, often with considerable success, to raise the musical prowess of the bands they were in charge of. They were men of wider musical experience than just having themselves been brass players, and this was of immense advantage, enabling them to lead their players to higher planes of general musical appreciation. One of them, Alexander Owen (1851-1920) was a distinguished musician and much-respected local figure in Lancashire. Of the several bands he directed, Besses o’th’Barn Band from Whitefield, near Manchester made history by their long tours of America, Canada and the South Pacific islands, and the immense public following. All this, be it remembered, with amateur players, whose daily occupations were of the most modest pursuits: cotton mill workers, miners, factory hands, casual labourers. That such men - there were no women involved in those early days - of what must have been otherwise only crude and un-schooled musical abilities were able to achieve such results came about because the new brass instruments were, compared with string, wood-wind or keyboard instruments, fundamentally easy for rough hands to manipulate. Furthermore, apart from the trio of trombones which had from time immemorial, always possessed a chromatic facility and an association with orchestral music, hence a well-established overall musical technique, especially in reading from the various clefs: alto, tenor or bass in particular, the newer valved instruments needed to adopt a more universal and simpler basic musical notation. This resulted in the general adoption of the treble clef for all brass band instruments other than the trombones, no matter what the real pitch of the instrument might be. This led to some anomalies and what was to prove yet more of an isolation from other music making. This result of this will be referred to later.

The inter-war years, say 1920-1940, saw the beginning of a change in the status of the brass band; almost imperceptible at first, but perhaps now in this twenty-first century more clearly recognised.

Other brass band historians, men who are and have always been committed and enthusiastic devotees of the brass band and its social status, are far more qualified to comment with authority than this present writer, who began his own, at that time very close association with the brass band movement, in the summer of 1933 just before his tenth birthday. With the intense ardour of youth, he took to the local brass band and for several years regarded it with uncompromising belief in its purpose.

However, for reasons somewhat beyond the scope of this commentary, he began

To approach music in a different light, and while not altogether losing touch with the brass band and its music, began to distance himself as the orchestra and wider aspects of music in general began to assume a far greater significance..

It might be asked why the brass band seems always to have remained a thing apart from other more general musical interests and culture. The answers to this are quite complex and are as much the concern of social history as of music alone. It is not intended here even to attempt to provide comprehensive answers to every aspect of these questions. However, one or personal observations might suggest some of the reasons.

As already remarked, in early youth the brass band and its music certainly seemed all-satisfying; but gradually, as a result of wider musical experience: most especially becoming aware of the symphony orchestra, attitudes began to change, and the question arose: why should the brass band - such a fine, noble, sonorous musical medium, capable of immense technical prowess - be so limited in musical enterprise as seemingly always to be restricted to music of lesser quality and intelligent appeal ? Notwithstanding the earlier premiss that a wind band - and especially an all-brass band - does appear to be more appropriate for outdoor performance, why could not the brass band devise for itself a more ‘classical’ repertoire of truly worthwhile music. Even allowing for the fact that its adherents and enthusiasts were (and still are essentially) amateur musicians, other amateurs devoting themselves to music have never felt restricted to trivial aspects of the art, but ambitiously seek out the very highest achievements in vocal music, chamber music, opera, oratorio and certainly the symphony orchestra, and an appreciation of the most exalted of composers from every period of history.

It has already been remarked that some of the earlier distinguished bandmasters sought to bring the greatest music of the world in transcriptions for the brass band. Indeed through such well-meaning enterprise many of us, originally starting out so modestly as brass band musicians, were first introduced to the truly ’great’ music of the world, in a way which otherwise we might never have come to know and love. My very first awareness of the existence of Mendelssohn’s imperishable masterpiece "Elijah" and of the works of Berlioz came about because they had been transcribed - though never published for wider use - for Besses o’th’Barn Band by Alexander Owen and still being played by that band in the early 1940’s So, the brass band was a most effective means (and still could be) of first bringing an awareness of the great composers to an otherwise large community of amateur musicians who would otherwise perhaps never even know that such treasures of world music existed. Of course, in recent years other far-sighted brass band conductors, transcribers and composers have tried to do the same, with varying degrees of success. During the eight years or so (1975-1983) that I was persuaded to be music director of the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain this is what I also tried to do; in particular with regard to championing Elgar, Sibelius and Carl Nielsen. and even Brahms The results have not been encouraging; for bands as a whole have not shewn much interest in wanting to explore such "real" music as this.

What might have gone wrong ? Certainly in the very early years of the twentieth century, under the influence of Alex Owen, Edwin Firth and John Gladney, the brass band seemed set fair to become a more seriously-oriented musical phenomenon. Somehow, those inter-war years saw something of a general change in musical culture. While it remains true that classical music saw a rise in interest with the wider availability of professional orchestras in Britain, there also came about the somewhat baleful addiction to jazz and less intellectually demanding kinds of musical stimulation. The brass band, still mindful of its admittedly essentially light, outdoor character, was beguiled by this new-found easier music and began to neglect more substantial classical styles. Of course these were not the sole causes for changes in musical taste; as has been remarked social changes were probably just as much, if not more so.

However, it has been commented that one of the reasons for the brass band remaining something of a law-unto-itself, is to be found in its peculiarly idiosyncratic musical notation. The idea being that if everything were written - no matter what the pitch of the instrument - in treble clef and made easy for instruments built and therefore pitched in the two basic suitable keys for brass instruments: B-flat and E-flat, there would be no need as there is in the orchestra, for players to become acquainted with the necessity for reading in different clefs and/or transposing the fundamental concert pitch of any piece of music to the appropriate pitch for an instrument not built in concert-pitch. This kind of musical "Esperanto" certainly has its advantages for brass band players. They only ever need to learn one clef - the treble - and one fingering suits all the instruments (except of course for the trombones). The disadvantage is that all other instrumental music then tends to be inaccessible to those only able to read in treble clef. Of course, nowadays many of the younger enlightened brass band players, more particularly those trained at a good music college, do not have this limited musical up-bringing; but are capable of playing virtually any music whether it be band or orchestral. But a hard-core of uninformed amateurs still remains and it is one of the reasons for their intellectual isolation in musical matters.

Truly original brass band music (as distinct from the many fine transcriptions of the classics already referred to) first began to appear in the 1920s and 1930s. Some of the truly great English composers began to write original music for brass band: especially Elgar, Holst, Vaughan Williams, Ireland and Bliss (but no Walton, nor Britten ?) They have been followed by other - generally British - composers, along with a few from other countries. But such major original works strangely enough do not figure in concert programmes in the way that might have been expected.

Lecturing to band personnel in quite recent times demonstrated the overall narrow attitude to music as a whole: band people seem for the most part to have no interest or curiosity whatsoever in the great masterpieces of music, displaying an almost total ignorance of some of the monumental classics: Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak, Sibelius, Hindemith, the Russians.; the subtleties of Ravel, Debussy, or Faure, of Elgar or Vaughan Williams and none at all of Bach, Handel, the great baroque age.

Way back in 1939, the music critic J.H.Elliott, writing in celebrated newspaper asked: "Wanted a brass band symphony" This article remarked more or less on the substance of the present commentary and asked the same kind of questions. So what has become of original brass band music ?

There is certainly a vast amount of it in existence, by a wide variety of composers, many of them distinguished in far wider fields than the narrow one of the brass band culture. Such music has been largely, if not almost wholly, the result of the stimulation of the competitive nature of the brass band as an individual culture.

Competition in musical prowess has been known from the very earliest time. The troubadours of old and singing competitions, such as are famously the very subject of Wagner’s most celebrated opera "Die Meistersinger". Internationally prestigious music competitions are now legion, for both composers and performers of every possible kind. Competition - especially at modest local events - stimulates the ambition to do even better. Many professional performers first drew attention to their abilities when appearing at modest local events.

The brass band has almost from the very beginning been keen on competition - or as the band fraternity prefers to call it - "The Contest" But here lies the difference: Whereas with almost all other musical pursuits, the competition is seen as a means to an end, a stepping stone to greater achievement in future concert performance, the brass band "contest" has become an end in itself. The fine new music often especially commissioned for the purpose, of considerable musical stature (fulfilling the suggestion made by Elliott in his 1939 newspaper article) is most meticulously rehearsed and prepared for the contest. Invariably to an astonishing degree of professional and technical excellence. The adjudicators being jealously denied seeing the competing bands, so that they pass judgement solely on what they hear, and are thus not biased by being able to identify a favourite band. However, for the most part, once the contest is over and done with, the winner (much disputed by all the losing bands!) being declared, all the work on the contest piece is seemingly wasted for it is hardly, if ever, performed again! It rarely appears in concert programmes. Instead even the finest, most accomplished bands seem to revert to their light music heritage, preferring to play trivia instead of bringing to their audiences real and truly original music for the brass band medium, imbuing their listeners with a sense of what great music can bring to the human spirit.

The brass band contest has become a terrible obsession: reducing the art of music to a mere sport, in which, figuratively speaking, the music itself is merely a "football". What matters is not the music itself but the far lesser pursuit of sport for its own sake.

The brass band has long had a saying: "Contesting is the life-blood of banding" - not, mark you, the pursuit of music as a lofty, emotional, intellectual manifestation of the human mind but something merely blindly animal and seeking to triumph over all others.

Music for contesting has to be challenging and "difficult" otherwise it is seen to be worthless; not worth the effort of making the listening to it as a deep experience of human spiritual communication, which is what the art of music should really be all about.

This is why I have become disillusioned with the culture of the brass band.



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