The history of the brass band: how brass bands began and why they remain popular

The brass band is one of the UK’s oldest and mightiest musical institutions, surviving even the ravages of 20th-century social and political reform. Philip Harper tells its story

The history of brass bands
Published: March 23, 2022 at 4:44 pm

Maybe it’s the explosive impact as 30 players simultaneously burst into unfettered life; the depth and sonority of the glowing golden sound; the hair-raising fortissimos or the spine-tingling pianissimos; or perhaps it’s the visceral thrill of witnessing such jaw-dropping human virtuosity and musical emotion. Whatever it is, the sight and sound of one of today’s top brass bands is unforgettable.

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Many leading composers have been similarly inspired and brass bands have a huge repertoire of original works by Ralph Vaughan Williams, James MacMillan, Gustav Holst and Errollyn Wallen to name just a few. These days, bands appear regularly at many of the top music festivals including the BBC Proms and have proved to be a huge global hit – a great British export indeed. But how did this most curious and idiosyncratic form of music-making originate, and what has kept it alive for over two centuries?

When were brass bands invented?

As is the case with many traditions, brass bands were born out a few unconnected circumstances and events which happened to collide at a particular time and place – the time was the beginning of the 19th century, and the place was Great Britain.

There had long been a practice of operating small, disparate ‘bands’ in local communities across the country – perhaps the Puritans’ effort during the 17th century to dismantle so many church organs was partly responsible – but these were somewhat eclectic groups consisting of all sorts of different instruments: fiddles, bugles, cornopeans (an early incarnation of the cornet), ophicleides, clarinets and flutes, to name but a few. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, and almost simultaneous to the invention of the valve which revolutionised brass instruments, many brass players returned to British civilian life but wanted to keep playing; it stands to reason that military marches formed part of these groups’ repertoire, with the players even starting to wear brightly coloured uniforms with braiding.

Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution had been sweeping across Europe, bringing with it huge upheaval and changes to society, economics and politics. Business-minded individuals quickly exploited the new technologies; factories, mines and mills sprang up and, with the creation of a huge number of jobs, urban areas became more populated and living standards began to rise. People gradually lost the opportunity to partake in traditional rural entertainments and pursuits, and so they turned to brass bands. Their popularity duly soared.

When were the first brass bands?

Groups such as the Besses o’ th’ Barn Band, the Stalybridge Old Band, the Black Dyke Mills Band and the New Mills Old Prize Band are the names most usually in contention for the title of the oldest brass band, but often the moment of conversion to exclusively brass (as opposed to brass and reed) is a grey area. Most commentators seem to agree that, in 1832, the Blaina Band from the mining region of Monmouthshire in South Wales became the first band to convert to an all-brass line-up, using Enbach instruments from Holland, subsidised by the local Brown’s Ironworks.

As valve technology was perfected, so the race was on for manufacturers to develop the industry standard. Several countries were growing in industrial might, and 1851 saw the organisation of ‘The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ at the ostentatious and newly-constructed venue of the Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park. It’s thought that nearly a third of the population of the UK visited the Great Exhibition, helped by the exponential growth of the railways, which means that millions were able to hear a family band from Devon, the Distin Quartet, who were demonstrating a new set of brass instruments, developed by none other than the Belgian inventor of the saxophone, Adolphe Sax. Saxhorns were made in various sizes – alto, tenor, bass etc – and alternately pitched in E flat and B flat, like saxophones.

They were three-valved brass instruments with a conical bore, noted for their mellow sound and blending qualities, and at the Great Exhibition they were a sensation, with audiences marvelling at the mellifluousness and homogeneity of their tone. Following the successes by all-saxhorn bands in competitive events, the clamour for the new instruments resulted in them becoming a brass band mainstay – which they still are to this day.

When were brass bands most popular?

The last few decades of the Victorian era were a heyday for brass bands. The population of the UK was upwardly-mobile, the travel industry had been born and was booming, and the new working class thronged to the coasts and parks to relax on their precious days off. Brass bands were a regular entertainment there, giving audiences the otherwise unattainable chance to hear selections from the latest operas as well as classical favourites. There are estimates from a variety of sources of between a staggering 10,000 and 40,000 bands in existence in the UK at the time, and brass instrument manufacture and music publishing became big business.

Many of the evolving new movements of the 19th century saw brass bands as a natural way to provide a conspicuous local identity and to bring people together in the community. The temperance movement, discouraging the consumption of alcohol, formed bands (some of which retain the word in their names even today) and The Salvation Army, founded by William Booth in 1865, used its bands for the ‘advancement of Christian religion’ and is still very much active today.

And so brass bands became embedded in every neighbourhood and community thanks to the newly created (mainly male) manual workforce joining bands in vast numbers. Works bands provided a relief from the daily grind and, as colliery and factory owners knew only too well, kept the men away from involvement in disruptive political activity. Subscription bands (paid for by their own members and supporters) consisted of like-minded people with common values and beliefs. Or there were many community bands which existed simply as a leisure activity. With a large number of mainly uneducated recruits all learning brass in the same room at the same time, one of the quirks of brass band scoring developed: all instruments (except, curiously, the bass trombone) are written in treble clef – even the tubas!

There were many innovations in this golden period for bands. In 1913, Percy Fletcher’s Labour and Love, about how the grind of daily toil was worthwhile when returning home into the arms of a loving wife, became the first original work for brass band to be used as a competition test piece. It set the scene for ‘classic’ brass band pieces such as A Moorside Suite (1928) by Holst, The Severn Suite (1930) by Elgar, and A Downland Suite (1932) by Ireland, all composed at the request of brass band impresario John Henry Iles for use at the National Brass Band Championships which had been established in 1900.

If the early 1900s proved a heyday for the brass band, however, the latter part of the century posed some tricky challenges, the most infamous being the collapse of coal mining following the closure of pits by Margaret Thatcher’s government. In 1983 there were 174 working mines, but by 2009 just six remained. And with the closure of the collieries came the inevitable demise of their bands. Unemployment levels in previously industrialised areas rose sharply, while investment dropped. But a glimmer of hope shone through the darkness, and just days after the closure of Grimethorpe Colliery was announced in Parliament by Michael Heseltine, its band won the National title at the Royal Albert Hall in 1992 playing The New Jerusalem by Philip Wilby.

Today, the National Brass Band Championships continue to flourish with a staggering 507 brass bands taking part each year over five divisions and across eight regions of the UK. National competitions have also been established overseas too, with the recent Norwegian Championships held in Bergen attracting over 80 bands. One could argue that the obsession with musical rivalry is another reason bands still survive today, satisfying our instinct for competition. It’s certainly the main reason that standards of performance by the top bands are so impressive.

Brass bands continue to exist in nearly every community of the UK. As music education is being compromised across the board, these bands open their doors for anyone to walk in and receive often free tuition and the loan of an instrument followed by years of guidance in a worthwhile and rewarding hobby. The brass band is to be cherished
and celebrated as a vital and glorious part of Britain’s musical heritage.

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