The Origins of the Brass Band Movement, Part 2 December 13 2012, 1 Comment

Contributed By: Jack Kopstein The first bands were composed largely of reed, wind and string instruments, though during the seventeenth century the use of brass instruments became common all over Britain, a development that gave rise to dis­may in some quarters. The wit and anti­quarian John Aubrey wrote: “In Hertfordshire and parts of the Marches; the Tabor and pipe were exceeding com­mon. Many beggars begged with it: and the Peasants danced to it in the Churchyard on Holy-day-eves. Now it is almost lost: the Drummer and trumpet have put that peaceable Music to silence.” But not everyone shared Aubrey's opinion of the new music, for by the eighteenth century, bands had become a lively and important part of village life in many countries. Com­posed of enthusiastic self-taught countrymen, they played at church ser­vices, fairs, dances, weddings, and wherever people gathered to pass the time of day. While village bands were often only small family affairs, some quite large bands, with perhaps ten or more players, grew up in local inns, where band practice was frequently encouraged by landlord eager to promote the drinking of ale. One of today's best known bands, Besses o' th’ Barn, began life in this way. Besses first appeared as Cleggs' Reed Band in the 1790's. Originally, it was composed of three brothers, John, James and Joseph Clegg with a few friends from the village of Besses o’ th’ Barn  near Bury. Band practice was held in the local inn, also known as Besses o' th' Barn and from which the band is said to have taken its name when it changed being an all-brass band in the nineteen century. The village of Besses o' th' Barn has since been overtaken by the predominantly urban region including adjacent towns and suburbs of the  metropolitan area of Manchester. Although the band itself is now one of the leading brass bands in Britain, with a countless number of prizes and trophies to its credit. It is one of the oldest bands still in existence. For the most part, village bandsmen used traditional orchestral instruments though the expense of buying new instruments was an ever present problem. Richer players sometimes did buy their own instruments, but many bands purchased them by subscription, usually through a committee, which then loaned them to players. If a player contributed any of his own money towards the purchase of an instrument, his share was paid back to him when he returned it to the committee. This system was adopted by a Devon band formed in the village of Modbury in July 1838. Before the band's formation, committee members requested a quotation for instruments from Thomas Stockham, a West Country instrument maker. The most expensive instrument quoted for was a serpent, at £5 10s. A trombone was quoted at £3 5s, a French horn at £3, a bass horn at £2 2s and a clarinet at £1 15s. Stockham also guaranteed that `the whole sum shall be perfectly packed in cases with Scales and Music.' To a farm laborer such prices would have seemed very high. The Modbury villagers, however, were not deterred and purchased an unusually large number of instruments: a serpent, bass horn, two octave flutes, trumpet, five clarinets, trombone, French horn, key bugle and a drum. Money was raised by subscription in order to buy the instruments. Meetings of subscribers were held twice a year, on Christmas Eve and Midsummer's Eve, with subscribers being entitled to vote on all matters concerning the running of the band - on the basis of one vote for every five shillings subscribed; a limit of four votes per meeting was imposed. Modbury band was fortunate in that it had a healthy number of subscribers; lesser bands had to survive on a day-to-day basis. Brass instruments were used by early village bands but they were of variable quality; and all were hampered by their lack of valves. In the poem, `The Village Fair,' James Hurdis (1763-1801) writes of the `groaning horn and twanking trumpet,' suggesting the tone of these instruments was not all it might have been. But such criticisms are unlikely to have made much impression on either the bandsmen or their audiences. The intention, more often than not, was to attract a crowd, accompany a procession or provide accompaniment to dances; simple jigs, reels, marches or hymns were the musical fare of most village bands. Tunes were often played by ear or from manuscript books laboriously copied out by the players themselves - the sacred and secular side by side. Performances must have been a tiring business, sometimes with a long tramp out to a neighboring hamlet, performing for hours at a time, and often not returning home until dawn. For their labors bandsmen received little reward; a few pence for a performance was as much as most could expect. Payment came from various sources: local farmers, householders, sometimes the lord of the manor. However, for most bandsmen the opportunity to play a treasured instrument in front of an audience was probably reward enough. An additional attraction of playing in some bands was the chance to wear a uniform, which may have been anything from `Sunday best' to a dazzling military style copied from one of the military bands of the day. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries country bands were in demand for all kinds of occasions, even jubilee and coronation celebrations. In 1911, the Bainbridge Band of North Yorkshire was requested to play for the coronation celebrations at Middleham Castle. The band played all afternoon and then for a dance in the evening; returning by the 6 a.m. train to Bainbridge, the band was immediately back in action, leading a march through the village and playing for the rest of the day in the local celebrations. In some parts of Britain, especially the North of England, industrialization led to the foundation of larger and more accomplished bands. Yorkshire's Black Dyke Mills Band began life in the village of Queensbury as Peter Wharton's Brass and Reed Band but rapidly rose to fame after the firm of John Foster's equipped it with new instruments and uniforms and renamed it after the mills. Unfortunately, rural depopulation left some bands with only a handful of players, and some of these were often less able members. For country bands, change and progress brought with them uncertain futures. The usual instruments of a brass band: Cornet (B flat) Soprano Cornet (E flat) Flugelhorn (B flat) Tenor Trombone Bass Trombone E Flat Alto Horn Euphonium B Flat Baritone E Flat Bass (Tuba) Double B Flat Bass (Tuba) Percussion