The Origins of the Brass Band Movement, Part 1 November 12 2012, 2 Comments

Contributed by: Jack Kopstein The brass band has become a vital ensemble for the service bands of the US military. These articles will outline the historical and the heritage of the brass band movement. See below for the numerous selections of Brass band albums in the Altissimo! catalog. Part 1 MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS Before the days of modern brass instruments, bandsmen used whatever came to hand. Instruments had to be begged, borrowed or invented. Some of the more bizarre musical contraptions used in the early days have been handed down through successive generations and are now museum pieces. Strangest of all was the serpent, so called because of its serpent-like shape. It was made of wooden sections bound together by leather or joined by staples and glue with a mouthpiece of horn or ivory. Though in military bands the number of keys was confined to three, to suit march tunes, village and town bands used a variable number. Classical composers, among them Monteverdi, Schutz and Gabrielli, wrote numerous pieces for the serpent, and Handel even included a serpent in his `Music for the Royal Fireworks.' Yet despite its general acceptance, the serpent aroused extreme passions in the musical world. Berlioz considered its tone to be "truly barbaric;" while one composer pronounced the sound it made to be not like "the mooing of an Essex calf." A typical early band would have many sorts of instruments, including – serpent, bassoon, fiddle, clarinet, trombone, or drums; and it may well have a singers as well since bands often doubled choirs and vice versa. Musicians played in church bands and can still sometimes be seen in early paintings hanging on church walls. Traditional instruments did valuable service for years until there was revolutionary change in band music during the nineteenth century: this was the emergence of the all-brass band. Technological developments brought about the introduction of a totally new set of brass instruments and the adaptation of existing ones, thereby greatly improving tone of these instruments and increasing their versatility. Fundamental to the change, was the 1893 invention of gros piston (the piston valve) by Monsieur Perinet, a Paris instrument maker. Members of the horn family, especially the cornet, became the focus of experimentation. The cornet's predecessor bore the name cornopean; it resulted from work done on the European continent, most importantly by the Amsterdam firm of Embach, which through a series of patents begun in 1824 evolved a complex system of tubing and valves for the new instrument. Its introduction to England was an immediate success; cornopean owners and admirers even established their own Cornopean magazine in order to keep subscribers informed about trade developments and general band news. Further refinement led to the modern cornet, one of the two great solo instruments in banding, the other being the euphonium. Brass instruments were improved by adopting compensating pistons, a device that overcame their former flatness. Other instruments such as the baritone and tuba were also introduced to extend the repertoire of bands. Indeed it gradually became possible for bands to imitate a full orchestra, albeit with varying degrees of success. One of the most famous instrument making firms was Distin and Company. The family originated with John Distin, an enterprising man from Devon who started his musical career playing in the South Devon Militia Band. After a seven-year apprenticeship to a Devon bandmaster, he enlisted in the Grenadier Guards but later settled in London, where he played and taught the bugle. He then formed, with his sons, the Distin Quintette, which undertook tours all over Britain and abroad. In 1844, when the Quintette was performing in Paris, the Distins met Adolph Sax, the inventor of sax instruments. After this meeting the Quintette gave up their old pace-horns and adopted the famous saxhorns, a change that won universal acclaim. Eventually Henry Distin decided to give up the touring life; he settled in London and established an instrument making firm with twenty workmen. The firm rapidly established itself and in 1867 won prize medals for its instruments at the Paris World's Exhibition. Competition between instrument makers was fierce, with advertisements displayed in widely circulated journals like the Orpheus and the Reed and Brass Journal. Not all bandsmen welcomed the revolution, because the purchase of new brass instruments, or even second-hand ones, were expensive. Agricultural laborers and cottagers had little money to spare for new instruments so that small reed and wind bands continued until well into the nineteenth century in country areas, occasionally reinforced by a cornet or trumpet. In contrast town bands, particularly those in richer industrial areas, soon equipped themselves with brass instruments, often with the assistance of industrial benefactors. The competitive spirit amongst bands seems to have arisen first in the North of England. One of the first recorded competitions was at Burton Constable, near Hull, in 1845. Sir Clifford Constable, the local lord of the manor, arranged a band contest as a novelty attraction in the annual Burton Show, an event that included falconry, archery and sideshows. Prizes of £ 12 and £8 were offered to the top two bands and there was a collection for unsuccessful competitors. A platform was erected for the contest in the deer park and Richard Hall, an organist from Hull, was appointed judge. Several bands took part in the event, among them the Patrington Band, the Holmes Hull Tannery Band and the Brocklesby Yeomanry Band, and a good crowd came to observe the proceedings. A year or two later a series of regular contests was initiated at Hull by Enderby Jackson, a band conductor and sometime circus band performer. Jackson also helped organize Britain's first important band contest, which took place in Belle Vue Gardens, Manchester, in 1853. Bands were required to have at least ten players, all of whom were to be amateur musicians. A crowd of sixteen thousand listened appreciatively as bands played items such as the `Hallelujah Chorus' or Bishop's `Guy Mannering' overture.  After lengthy deliberations the first prize was awarded to the Mossley Temperam Saxhorn Band; second and third prize went to bands from Dewsbury and Bramley. In 1860, the success of contests at Belle Vue, Hull and other venues in the north were followed by a contest for bands in the south, held at the Crystal Palace Sydenham, where six platforms we provided for the occasion. Bands throughout England and Wales entered the contest, while a panel  of eighteen judges decided on the prize winner, Enderby Jackson conducted a combined band of no less than 1,390 performers in musical entertainment for spectators. After an exhausting day, prizes were finally presented in the mid-evening, first prize being awarded to Black Dyke Mills Band.