The rise and rise of the English Brass Band

The English-style brass band is unique in its origins and instrumentation. Men who performed heavy duty work in hostile environments found it easier to pick up brass instruments than orchestral instruments such as violins and woodwinds and their employers often encouraged them to do so, providing rehearsal facilities and sponsorship. High-achieving bands were associated with the company, often sharing its name, and helped to promote an image of commercial success and philanthropy. Musical activities also diverted employees’ energies away from trade union and political interests.

In recent times many bands have lost their sponsorship, especially those associated with the mining industry. In the nineteen seventies, Prime Minister Edward Heath’s Conservative government was effectively brought down by the miners which created a determination in the Party that it must never happen again. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was so incensed that Conservative ideology could be thwarted in this way that she set out to systematically destroy the mining industry, smashing communities and wrecking lives. The fact that she appeared to enjoy every minute of the procedure has caused lasting resentment to this day. (During her funeral procession through the streets of London in April last year many people turned their backs as the hearse bearing her body passed by.)

Brass bands encourage young players to sit-in and free instruments opened the door to a world that must have seemed hopelessly inaccessible to boys from poor backgrounds. For many years the brass band movement was male-dominated (one of the top bands had a female secretary but she was never allowed to travel on the bus with the men!). Today, there are many excellent female performers.

Men would often be absent from rehearsals and performances because of shift patterns, industrial injury and occupational disease, which required bands to produce an acceptable ensemble sound with a reduced personnel. This also helped to ‘carry’ inexperienced players as they learned from those around them. The instrumentation has a built-in safety-in-numbers feature but that isn’t the whole story since some advanced arrangements utilize all players to maximum effect.

For many years there was a dichotomy between the closed-world of the brass band movement and other areas, especially the more intuitive jazz orchestras, but younger players today are much more musically aware, partly because of the ubiquity of mass media. Cultural isolation also influenced style; excessive vibrato in brass bands irritated ‘straight’ ears and also caused intonation problems in unison passages (although this never worried Duke Ellington’s sax section in the early days). In brass band orchestration, there is generally much part-doubling in ensembles which therefore act as inner unisons. Wise conductors control excessive vibrato with the result that it is increasingly found only in solo and lead-instrument parts, where it belongs. Another problem was the inability of many brass band performers to ‘swing’ due, quite simply, to lack of exposure to the jazz idiom. Most arrangers will know that, if they don’t write a part exactly as they wish it to be played, their vision won’t be realized. In contrast, jazz musicians don’t need to be told how to phrase correctly. Write even quavers throughout (unless a shuffle rhythm is desired) and the players will just know what to do with them, changing style in mid-arrangement (dotted/even), as necessary.

I recently attended a rehearsal of one of my pieces featuring a smooth four-part counterpoint after the introduction. I hadn’t written legato or placed slurs, so the unison cornets tongued every note. OK, I should have been more explicit but my soul would have been in distress playing it the way they did. There’s no Earthly point in saying ‘well, that’s how it’s written’ when the end result is so unmusical.

Nevertheless, the top-ranking brass bands are magnificent by any standards and feature a level of competence equal to anything found elsewhere in music. The wide range of music featured nowadays, coupled with the increased level of flexibility and musical awareness, has resulted in wider acceptance of the idiom.

The instrumentation of a typical band, from the top down comprises:

E♭ Soprano Cornet

8/10 B♭ Cornets (including soloist(s) and the so-called Repiano Cornet)

Flugel Horn

Three E♭ Horns

Two Baritones
Two Euphoniums

Two Tenor Trombones
One Bass Trombone

Two E♭ Tubas
Two B♭ Tubas

Drum Kit

Tuned Percussion

The Soprano Cornet not only adds sparkle at the top of the ensemble but is capable of great delicacy in solos and duets.

Trumpets are rarely used but the Bcornets, because of their more conical bore, are capable of amazing dexterity.

The E horns are called ‘Tenor Horns’ in English brass bands, despite the fact that they spend most of their lives in the alto register.

Similarly, the so-called Baritone actually has the same compass as the Tenor Trombone!

Ask any MD which instrument he would keep if he had to lose the others and he would choose the Euphonium every time. The modern 4-valve instrument has an extraordinary range. It used to be called the Tenor Tuba. (Baritones are also becoming available with four valves.)

The Bass Trombone has more of a baritone sound. It can be clumsy in execution trying to follow dextrous Tuba parts in the extreme low register (I know. I play one). But its legato, cantabile style can be magnificent in slow ballads, however low it goes (within reason).

Brass bands call the Tubas Basses. Four Tubas are regularly used in order to make it easier for them to support the huge weight above without suffering from early fatigue or blowing themselves inside out.

Another curious brass band habit is to treat the Tenor Trombones as B♭ transposing instruments and write the parts in treble clef! All other brass instruments, except the bass trombone (which is written in bass clef as it sounds) are also written the same way but there’s a good reason for this: when transpositions are carried out all the three valve instrument parts require the same fingering for the written notes, enabling players to switch instruments with reasonable ease*, the only problem being the need for a little determination adapting to different sized mouthpieces. But all this doesn’t apply to slide trombones.

*Multi-instrument versatility also helps keep the band going when key players are absent.

American low brass players generally prefer bass clef parts in ‘concert’ pitch, something publishers have become used to. Some bands in the USA also use ‘French’ horns instead of the ‘Tenor’ Horn. In orchestral circles, they just call the French Horn a horn.

The most characteristic feature of the brass band is that all the wind instruments, except the trombones, belong to the same family**. This enables a great deal of flexibility in orchestration – almost any combination ‘works’ – although it can also result in a ‘sameness’ of sound. Section-by-section writing, with a mixture of voiced parts and unisons/octaves, helps to avoid this, as does the use of mutes and tuned percussion.

(**The huge B♭ tuba and the little Soprano Cornet are distant cousins.)

Interestingly, the cornet did not evolve out of the hunting trumpet but is a member of the bombardon family.


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