The Origin of Brass Bands
The origins of band music are uncertain, but it is generally agreed that the earliest bands were formed from town Waits
, which were groups of musicians founded in medieval times to provide music on ceremonial occasions. These town waits were disbanded in 1835, but many of the players continued their music in village and church bands. In these early years of the 19th century, the whole pattern of life was changing as the industrial revolution took hold. Towns and cities grew rapidly, with new workers coming from the surrounding countryside. This new workforce found itself without the social and recreational life it had previously enjoyed and one of the answers to this was an increasing involvement in music playing. The formation of bands linked to local communities and specific industrial companies (mills, pits, foundries and so on) provided a rapidly accepted form of recreation and entertainment.
Many bands naturally had working class sympathies and supported campaigns for political reform. As early as 1819 the Stalybridge Old Band was engaged to play at a reform meeting on St Peter's Field in Manchester - an occasion which won infamy as the Peterloo Massacre. But brass bands played at all manner of events. They were a popular choice for railway openings - the Yarm band played at the opening of the Stockton to Darlington line in 1829. Bands were in demand to perform in public parks and seaside resorts. When the Victorian working classes discovered the seaside, they did not go for their health, as did fashionable society, but for entertainment, and they liked nothing better than to stroll along the promenade to the sound of brass bands. A lucrative summer season at a seaside resort was much prized by bands, and the repertoire of music, including very popular and tuneful overtures, was ideally suited to the blustery seafronts.
The first fully recorded band contest was held in 1845 at Burton Constable, near Hull, between five bands, including Lord Yarborough's Brocklesby Yeomanry Band, and Hull Flax and Cotton Mills Band. The winning band received £12 prize money. Since that time the band contest has become an integral part of the brass band scene, as a means of achieving and measuring high levels of performance. Feelings, even today, can run high during contests, but accounts of events in the early years indicate that more than reputations were at stake. At one contest in Lincoln, in 1892, the spectators gave chase to the judge, who had to run across country to avoid being thrown into a lake. He had been careless enough to read out the names of the winning bands in the wrong order!
There were an estimated 40,000 amateur brass bands in the British Isles in 1889 - one musical instrument maker had over 10,000 bands on his books. By 1900 there were over 200 contests running each year. Today there are less than 2,000 bands in the UK, but a similar number of contests are run. The number of bands actually belonging to works and companies has reduced dramatically over the years, but sponsorship from industry and commerce still provides much needed support to many of the amateur bands in the country.
The popularity of band contests was such that it was not unusual to see thousands in the audience for these events. At one contest in Skegness in 1937 the largest crowds ever seen in the resort resulted when 33 trains and a fleets of motor coaches poured into the town for the event. The Bellevue contest in 1853, which attracted crowds of 16,000, is also remembered as the occasion when the winning band had a matched set of the new valved brass instruments invented by Adolphe Sax. The days of the older types of brass instruments were now numbered. Prior to this time bands had gradually become all brass, but still used variations of a mix of earlier instruments, for example - the finger-stopped serpent, the keyed bugle, the ophicleide, and the cornopean. The brass band movement gathered momentum from this point, and the instrumentation of bands and number of players, 25, had settled down to more or less its present configuration by the late 1870s.
Brass instruments in bands today are mainly pitched in the key of Bb, and the traditional line up consists of - a soprano cornet in Eb, four solo cornets, one repiano (or supporting) cornet, two second and two third cornets. In the middle range of the band there is a flugel horn, three tenor horns in Eb, two baritone horns and two euphoniums. Two tenor trombones, a bass trombone in G, two Eb bass tubas, or bomardons, and two Bb bass tubas complete the 25 brass players to which is added one or two percussion players.