What is a Brass Band? | Brass Bands England

You can become a member of BBE either as an organisation or as an individual

What is a Brass Band?

Monday, 1 July, 2024

With the first annual Brass Band Week almost upon us, Brass Bands England’s Chief Executive Officer Kenny Crookston explains the origins and development of the British-style brass band.

Brass bands in the UK are a product of the 19th century industrial revolution, with bands being founded in many thousands of towns and villages from the very early 1800s.

Following the development of Saxhorns (by the Belgian inventor and musician, Adolph Sax) in the 1840s, many of these brass, wind and reed bands became all brass, with the accepted format of the ‘British-style’ brass band becoming one Eb soprano cornet, nine Bb cornets, one flugel horn, three Eb tenor (or alto) horns, two Bb euphoniums, two Bb baritones, two Bb tenor trombones, one bass trombone, two Eb tubas and two BBb tubas. Drums, although present throughout, were not used in major competitions until the 1960s and, somewhat remarkably, some march contests still do not allow them today!

The development of the railway network in the 1850s meant that, for the first time, it was possible to travel from countless towns and villages to cities like Leeds and Manchester and back on the same day, thus providing conditions for both the first band contests and - 20 years before organised football - the very first special railway excursions in the world. One event, the British Open Brass Band Championships, founded at Belle Vue in Manchester in 1853, still takes place annually at Symphony Hall in Birmingham and is thought to be one of the oldest surviving music competitions in the world.

Wealthy industrialists of the Victorian age saw great value in encouraging their workers to play in brass bands. Conditions in mills, factories and coal mines were very poor and, in addition to offering a cultural experience for these otherwise repressed communities, blowing regularly into brass instruments also helped alleviate the many respiratory problems of the time, plus there was great prestige for any company having its own champion brass band. Playing in bands also kept the players away from alcohol, which was a factor in the growth in the number of Salvation Army, Temperance and Rechabite bands, which became very popular during the late 19th century.

Industrial bands, mainly from the north of England, dominated the early years of brass band contesting. Many would attract the best players of the day by offering ‘jobs’ that involved very little actual work, but a position in the company band and a nice salary. There was also a very good living to be made as a professional conductor, and the very best of these - musicians like John Gladney, Alexander Owen, William Rimmer and William Halliwell - could command attractive fees from as many as six or seven bands in the same contest!

In 1900, the Manchester event was joined by one at the Crystal Palace in London (later to move to the Royal Albert Hall), which became the ‘Mecca’ for the many thousands of brass band players throughout the UK. Bands like Wingates Temperance, Irwell Springs, Foden’s Motor Works and St. Hilda Colliery were the best of their time, but Black Dyke Mills has dominated contesting more than any other throughout history. Fairey’s Avation Works, Munn and Felton’s (Footwear), C.W.S. (Manchester) and Brighouse and Rastrick are among other bands that came to prominence. Grimethorpe and Desford Colliery bands are the most successful with roots in coal mining, although the coal industry itself has virtually disappeared over recent decades.

Having performed the ‘music of the people’ since their inception, contest repertoire tended to focus on operatic selections or ‘Gems’ from a particular renowned classical or romantic composer. In 1913, however, guided by then British Bandsman Editor Herbert Whiteley, John Henry Iles, the impresario who staged the National Championships, commissioned the first original brass band test-piece, Labour and Love, from composer Percy Fletcher. This inspired a ‘golden age’ of brass band composition in which leading British composers of the time - including Sir Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, Sir Arthur Bliss, Herbert Howells and John Ireland - all contributed classic works to the repertoire.

Leading bands featured regularly on BBC Radio around World War II and this continued for many years, with television also featuring them prominently during the 1970s and ‘80s. This was also a time when brass bands were beginning to branch out into the wider musical world, influenced by major figures like Howard Snell and Elgar Howarth, with performances of new and original repertoire by composers including Hans Werner Henze, Harrison Birtwistle and Robert Simpson in leading venues worldwide by Black Dyke, Foden’s and Grimethorpe bands among others.

Although becoming popular in Commonwealth countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada, with a culture that continues to grow worldwide, as recently as 1974 no band from outside England had ever won the National Brass Band Championship of Great Britain - Cory Band, from Wales, being the first to do so that year. In 1978, the European Brass Band Championships also began in London, with British bands enjoying complete domination in the early years. Bands from Norway, Belgium and Switzerland have since won what has now become the most prestigious title in international brass banding, and the event is so competitive that, in the past 20 years, only Cory and Black Dyke have won the European title for the UK.

Although contesting – including traditional march contests around Whit Friday and the summer months and the many ‘entertainment’ style events that have become popular since the 1970s - has done much to drive the extremely high musical standards over the years, brass bands are certainly not all about competition. In 2024, there are thought to be over 1,000 brass bands in the UK, roughly half of which compete regularly, but a vast proportion also remain at the centre of their communities, providing music for local events, cultural celebrations and national commemorations. Throughout the country, literally dozens of brass band concerts or other events take place every week, with the bands themselves being extremely versatile and able to perform music of a huge variety of styles.

From the most modest community groups to the elite of the contesting world, brass bands provide countless benefits to their many participants – over 30,000 in the UK alone – while many of the world’s finest brass players, including the brass sections of many leading professional orchestras, blew their first notes in a brass band. Banding is a lifelong activity and, in recent years, there has even been academic research demonstrating the mental health and other wellbeing benefits of playing in a brass band. They exist for virtually any level of ability and ambition, and the best thing about them is, wherever in the country you are, there’s one near you!