Monday, February 22, 2010

Bonnie Varga
ABEL Historical Perspectives Paper
February 15, 2010

Origins of Traditional British Brass Bands

During the early 19th Century in England, the Industrial Era brought forth a movement of brass band assembly within the work force of mills and factories. The invention of valves in 1815 allowed for more agility and accuracy of the instruments. Adolphe Sax, who was the designer of the modern day saxophones played a part in designing the valved instruments which make it possible to play faster and more in tune today.
Second in importance was the invention of the saxhorn family by the renowned instrument maker, Adolphe Sax, in the 1840's. The saxhorn family gave the brass a complete set of instruments from the highest treble to the deepest bass. An instrument that satisfyingly supplied the bass to the ensemble was always a problem, the ophicleide was too weak and hadn't the deep lower notes needed. The primitive tubas used in orchestras at the time were still to weak to support an ensemble. The answer came with the lowest member of the saxhorn family, the BB flat bass, which is now so closely related to the tuba that had become synonymous with it. So with these two developments, the brass had a choir which was homogenous in tone, and so the wind gradually fell out of use in the band.[1]
It is strange to think of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone was affiliated with the development of the traditional brass bands. After the developments of the instruments settled, people began organizing brass bands consisting of cornets, flugelhorns, tenor and baritone horns, euphoniums, trombones, E flat and B flat basses (tubas), and percussion.
Most believe that brass bands were strictly constructed within work forces of large cities, but there is record of brass bands being formed within small villages outside of the large cities.[2] Within work forces, brass bands were used as a way to boost employees’ morale and have them do something constructive and fun during their leisure time, much like having certain sports for office mates of a business. It helped employees forget about hard times and life stresses for a short while. Employers frequently supplied the instruments, as well as practice rooms for employees to practice on their down time. It also helped instill a sense of unity within a company. Playing in any sort of ensemble requires teamwork, and teamwork is a large part of any successful business.
Once brass bands gained more popularity in the factories and mills, they began spreading to small communities as well. Within villages, an entire community could put together a brass band with either private sponsors or an internal income from community members. Many of these community-centered ensembles were run by one or two families of the village. They would act as managers for the bands, and some were conductors. Children who were descendants of brass band members would often be started on either cornet or tenor horn as soon as they were old enough to hold the instrument.[3] They would take lower positions, such as 3rd or 4th cornet, or 2nd horn and work their way up the chain as they matured and became better players. This was very common, because if the principal cornet player was to retire, the next best player would take his place, ultimately boosting everyone below him to a higher seat. The one thing I was disappointed to read about from this particular site is that if a person was unsuccessful at learning the cornet or tenor horn, they were usually put on “lower member instruments.” For example, “If a player failed on these two instruments, then they were usually introduced to the lower members of the band until their ideal instrument was found.”[4] I’m not saying that trombones or basses are supposed to be the best in the band, but that statement makes it seem like unless you were a cornet or tenor horn player, you weren’t as much of a value to the group.
Traditionally brass bands were comprised mostly of men. This may have been another motivation for become a member of a band, whether in the factories or the villages. Family life can be taxing at times, and the chance to get away for a few hours to hang out with friends and make music was probably very appealing to most men. Some bands held rehearsals in reserved rooms or basements of pubs around town. Members would frequently visit the pub after rehearsal while talking with one another and bonding. The Eastern Iowa Brass Band is a fine example of this behavior. Every week after rehearsal, people go to the bar, have some drinks, talk, joke around, and just relax. Many of these people have families at home, and the night away is a way for them to unwind. The bar is also a place where you can talk to friends about things that are troubling you in life. Someone could be in dyer straights, and 99% of the time will receive assistance from other band members. I moved three times since I’ve moved to Iowa City, and every time I have had brass band members come and help me out of the goodness of their hearts (and free beer).
Now for a complete 180, another way that popularity of brass bands grew was the use of them as a substitute for organs in churches. According to the “Brass Band Oberschwaben-allgau” website, which is a band formed in Germany, substituting brass bands for organs in churches sparked popularity in other European countries, and eventually around the world.[5] The reason for why the change in instrumentation was used was not mentioned.
Being in a brass band may have initially been intended for workers to have something pleasant to do on their time off instead of worrying about difficult times, but in the grand scheme of things I believe it was more of a community builder.
[1] Hurrogate Band website: About—History “The History of Brass Bands,”
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Brass Band Oberschwaben-allgau, “What is a Brass Band?,”

No comments:

Post a Comment