History of the Brass Band

Band refers to an ensemble of musicians playing various combinations of woodwind, brass and percussion instruments. Thus, a band is a discrete assemblage distinguishable from an orchestra because of the absence of strings.

The history of bands with community-related links can be traced back as far as the eleventh century in Europe. It was then the custom for night watches to patrol the streets and walls and guard the gates of towns and cities. The members of these patrols, known as waits, were issued with horns that were used to signal the passage of time and for sounding warnings. The shawm became a popular instrument for the waits because of its carrying power.

Gradually, over time, the watchmen developed a trade-related pride, becoming proficient musicians using a range of instruments that included strings. The waits continued to be used as security patrols but they also assumed the role of community musicians required to perform ceremonial and festive duties within their particular town or city.

These municipal musicians were not averse to exploiting their talents beyond the remit of their job description. Unofficial serenading of guests at inns and taverns provided an additional source of income. (This practice is still recognisable today as tourists disembark from their cruise liner to be greeted by local music.) Performing at Christmas would be another lucrative venture though this would probably have been a civic requirement.

Throughout Europe an equivalent of the waits could be found. For instance, in Germany, turmermeister (tower masters) were so called because they performed from church towers and the balconies of municipal buildings.

The waits disappeared from public life in about the 1830s: a time that coincided with the introduction of a more formal policing system, the Industrial Revolution, the introduction of valves, improvements in the manufacturing of musical instruments and, in the 1840s, the appearance of the family of instruments designed by Adolphe Sax.

Huge movements of people took place as the Industrial Revolution demanded that agricultural workers moved from the country to the rapidly growing conurbations centred on specific industries. People found themselves facing unfamiliar and unsatisfactory social conditions. Almost overnight, lifestyles, based upon seasonal, natural rhythms with space and time available, were transformed into cramped conditions devoid of the social advantages established within the patterns of rural life. Town planners gave little or no consideration to the recreational needs of workers so that, in what little time was available between rigid shift systems, drinking became an accepted leisure pursuit. Such a situation did not produce efficient workers.

Enlightened mill, colliery and foundry owners, recognising the plight of the workers, provided the wherewithal for recreation and entertainment by sponsoring works' bands. Not all of the early bands were work-related, some were formed as a result of public subscription as the people themselves sought to make gentler their harsh existence by bringing music and a sense of community pride into their lives.

Arising, as they did, from amongst the pits, mills and factories, brass bands have always had a natural affinity with the working classes. Stalybridge Old, one of the earliest bands, was at Peterloo in 1819 and the Yarm Band had the distinction of playing at the opening of the first railway between Stockton and Darlington in 1829.

The Salvation Army also has close links with brass bands, though principle prevents a Salvation Army band abiding by the rigid demand for twenty-five precisely nominated instruments. Such a practice inherently contains notions of exclusion, as does the close association between brass bands and competitive contests. The Salvation Army does not play competitively.

The earliest bands contained woodwind as well as brass instruments but, with the introduction of Sax's instruments, a band now had sufficient forces available to rely entirely on brass instruments. The invention of the valve meant that cornets could adopt a role similar to that of the violins in an orchestra and the replacement of the serpent and ophicleide by the tubas meant that brass bands were now a viable proposition.

As a result of the above, the standard twenty-five-piece instrumentation of the brass band became:

The industrialists who funded the bands, the communities from which the bands came and the band members themselves took great pride in the quality of their performance. It is easy to see how competitive playing emerged. In the same way as a successful football team reflects favourably upon its supporters by giving them feelings of satisfaction and contentment, so does a successful band.

The first known band contest took place in 1845 with a first prize of 12. By 1900, when there was said to be 20,000 amateur brass bands in the UK, the prize money could be as high as 100 (a huge prize in those times). It was in 1900 that the first Brass Band Festival took place at the Crystal Palace in London.

The introduction and growth of contests had a beneficial effect on brass bands. Firstly, the level of performance required to be successful demanded that players achieve exceptionally high standards. (There are not many British professional orchestral brass players who have not at some stage of their careers been a member of a good brass band. Equally important is the fact that there are many players who place the social rewards of making music with their friends to be of more importance than the pursuit of perfection.) Secondly, the social aspect of contesting provided players, their families and supporters the opportunity to travel to other villages, towns or cities. Nowadays, with bands touring across countries and continents, it is easy to forget just how static the population was during the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. To meet people from other communities in surroundings other than your own would have been something not available to most people so being a band member carried a certain amount of kudos.

Nowadays, brass bands are graded into sections and the outcome of competition performance decides promotion and relegation from one section to another. Players also transfer between bands in a fashion similar to that of professional footballers moving from one team to another. Such a system allows promising players to move to bands with players of similar levels of attainment and proficiency.

Occasionally, players of exceptional ability, gain a following within the brass band world. Harry Mortimer, from yesteryear, would fall into this category whereas modern equivalents might be the Childs brothers.

Brass bands did not and do not exist for contesting alone. In the earlier days, as now, a band had various performance opportunities. In addition to contests there were concerts that fell into several identifiable types:

Up until the early twentieth century, brass bands played arrangements of existing works and today operatic and symphonic arrangements remain popular as bands perpetuate that tradition. However, composers such as Percy Fletcher, Gustav Holst, Eric Ball and Edward Elgar produced works intended specifically for brass bands an innovation that boosted the image of brass bands. They were now established as ensembles worthy of their own repertoire through which qualities unique to brass bands could be expressed.

More recent composers for brass band music fall into two categories, those whose works are an integral part of a broader output and those who compose mainly for brass bands. The former group would include composers such as Derek Bourgeois, Arthur Butterworth, Robert Simpson and Harrison Birtwhistle whilst the latter would include Philip Sparke, Elgar Howarth and Edward Gregson.