Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Development of British Brass Band Scene

Advanced Brass Ensemble Literature today was presented by a Yamaha Tenor Horn Artist and a former solo Tenor Horn of the infamous Black Dyke Band in the United Kingdom, Arfon Owen.

Arfon Owen is on his two weeks tour in the United States where his first stop is at the University of Iowa where he will present master class and a recital!

Here is the news of his tour.

In today's class, Owen told us about the Development of British Brass Band scene.

Britain is considered a birthplace of modern brass band which was formed as a part of industrial revolution around 1850s. Because of this revolution, new mines and factories were open in many towns. The brass band was formed with few different aims.

  • Recreation activity for workers
  • To help unify workers and to create community
  • To prevent workers from drinking beer or alcohol after works
  • To prevent them from spending time meeting and discussing with each other. Hence, no union for workers found.
After the revolution, instrument making became cheaper and easier to make. Also, the development of valve also help with rapid growth of instrument making, especially for brass.

The first brass band competition was held in either 1850 or 1851 and it was held in a boxing ring. There were 15,000 attendees for the competition. The big number came from supporter who came to support their band. Hence, they have definitely and successfully created a sense of community.

During the earlier year, main repertoires were arrangement of oratorio or light operatic aria. The first test piece for brass band competition was written in 1913 called Lobour and Love’ by Percy Fletcher. This piece was written for a competition in 1913 at Crystal Palace in London. Percy Fletcher was a conductor and a composer for light and salon music. Labour and Love was not the intended title from the composer but given by editor.

This music still has a hint of light opera music which is more accessible to the brass band member. It also has a hidden propaganda. Try reading the first page from the score below and see if you agree.

And here is a performance of this piece.

Once the competition became more popular. It also became a place where business could also be promoted through the brass band since name of each brass band was based on mine or factory's name. Hence, the company wanted to attract more people by finding best players (which later became star players) to join their band. The first star player was cornet player Alexander Owen. Later, these star player, even though employed as a mine worker, they don't need to work in a mine but only performing music.

As the band got better, test piece became more difficult. Modern composers were asked to write test piece. The first composer who did so was Gustav Holst

Holst was commissioned by BBC to write a piece for the competition. He wrote A Moorside Suite in 1927 and was used in the competition in a following year.

Here is the piece conducted by Imogen Holst - daugther of Gustav Holst!

The next person who contributed greatly to the development of brass band and its repertoire is Elgar Howarth. As a trumpet player, he grew up playing in a brass band. He was also a member of Philip Jones Brass ensemble. As a conductor, he was a conductor for Grimethorpe Colliery Band. As a
composer, he was a prominent person in moving music from traditional to a more challenging music. He wrote a piece called 'Firework' which is a version of Britten's young person's guide to the orchestra for brass band. However, it wasn't well received during the first performance as narrator wasn't allowed to be part of the competition so each section was sounded detach from each other and audience could not understand the meaning. Beside, the audience was still used to the old traditional brass band music as well.

This piece was used in 1972 national finals competition which held annually at the Royal Albert Hall (after Crystal Palace was destroyed by fire). Here is 'Firework'.

Later, Howarth commissioned Harrison Birtwistle to compose a test piece for Brass Band. Birthwistle wrote 'Grimethorpe Aria' which was written for Grimethorpe Brass Band. This piece unusually gave it premiere in a concert not in a competition. The style of this piece was so new to the audience that audience walked out from the hall during its first performance. However, this music proved to be the next step of pushing brass band music from light/easy listening music to a modern current trend of music.

There were some instability to the brass band development during Magaret Thacher era. The ex-prime minister wanted to close down coal mine industry which was a big community for the brass band. Some of the mine were closed down. You may read this article for some information. This story also portrayed in a movie 'Brassed Off' starring Ewan McGregor.

After music of Howarth and Birtwistle, test music for brass band become much more technical challenging. The Extreme Make-Over base on Tchaikovsky music composed by Johan de Meij for 2005 European Championship is one of the most difficult piece for brass band that ever written (according to Arfon Owen). 

In a short period of time, composer find it difficult to write a piece that is difficult enough to challenge to the point where musical content is being sacrificed to the difficulties. (music is for music sake is no longer important for brass band test piece which a kind of a downfall for the brass band movement). It will be interesting to see how this movement go in the near future. Lastly, even though brass band became popular, it is still being considered music for working class until today.

P.S. This website by Stephen Rhodes provides some interesting information for British Brass Band.

Final Thought.

It was a very interesting lecture. I was thinking to myself that the original idea for setting up brass band would be one of the ideal way to promote music to other part of Thailand. It would also help creating a stronger bond between community. It does not have to be brass band. It could be any kind of musical ensemble but it should be similar. Government could set up a competition where all participant can participate as well as promoting their business. It would be a fun way to help spreading music outside of Bangkok.

Also, it felt great to hear British accent again! (Even though there were some Welsh in there!)

Anyway, will do more work on this and see what project could be moving forward!

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