We all have blind spots when it comes to music. That time when we stand listening to a friend or colleague wax lyrical about an artist or composer who leaves us cold. For me, Wagner and Delius are two such. It’s also possible to dislike whole genres. I plead guilty in this respect and point to brass bands. Daft really, because I’ve heard little of what they can do. Join me on a short exploration of British brass bands and their music. Will it change my mind?

Brass bands and competitions

Here as an opening fanfare is Phenomena Fanfare by Jacob Vilhelm Larsen, performed by our own Royal Birmingham Conservatoire brass band in 2017.

It doesn’t come as a surprise to me that the video is part of a brass band contest. That’s largely all I know about the brass band world – competitions. From what I read, that’s actually pretty correct.  There’s a useful explanation and history of British brass bands on the Making Music’s site. Here’s part of what they say about the competitive element:

Similarly to leagues and divisions in football, there are different levels of brass band contest called sections. Each competing brass band takes part in contests and is ranked based on their performance. Changes in rankings can lead to a band being promoted or demoted from section to section.

This is a different musical world from the one I occupy as an orchestral / early music player. Each of us aims to play as well as we can, but I wouldn’t appreciate that hard competitive edge in my music. It’s never good to fumble something in performance. If that lapse caused a band to lose a contest or be demoted, it can’t do a player’s confidence any good.

Brass band (image via Wikipedia)

I wonder how many potential brass players are put off by the commitment needed and the pressures? More so those who come from communities not steeped in the banding tradition. Interestingly, Brass Bands England has a prominent survey on its homepage on the questions posed by contests. This is part of the introduction:

The aim of this survey is to create a comprehensive view of the current state of brass band contesting, to collate thoughts and ideas to improve contesting and gauge the appetite (or otherwise) for change in what we do as a community.

Part of the rationale for the survey is described by BBE like this:

BBE’s Arts Council England funding is there to promote and encourage ALL of brass banding. This includes contesting, which we are well aware takes up a very large proportion of our member organisations’ time and resources. At the 2019 Brass Band Conference, an overwhelming show of hands from the delegates indicated an appetite for some form of change in the structure of brass band contesting. 

So there is the potential wish for change from within brass banding as well as from BBE’s funder, Arts Council England. Many ACE-funded organisations have to demonstrate outreach projects, inclusion aims, and other grassroots working. It will be interesting to see what transpires.

Brass band music

If a large amount of brass band time is taken up with contests, then it follows (maybe) that a lot of the music used as test pieces is specially composed. The cynic in me wonders whether those composers are aware of ticking boxes as they write: have the cornets got their solo, where’s the slow section, is there enough pizzazz?

The composer, Edward Gregson refutes this accusation in this article. It’s an interesting read. I suspect the best composers will have the requirements lurking in the back of their mind as they follow wherever their muse takes them. Over the years, a policy of inviting leading non-brass band composers to write pieces has led to some surprising names joining in. It is noticeable though they usually don’t return to writing for brass band.

Granville Bantock  Prometheus Unbound (1933)

This first piece is by a Birmingham composer. Bantock did write other works for brass band. This one is a section arranged from a then work in progress of the same title, for chorus and orchestra. It’s quite an old-fashioned brass band sound with little percussion in evidence.

Harrison Birtwistle  Grimethorpe Aria (1973)

The Grimethorpe Colliery band must have found this a shock. I wonder what they thought they’d get from Birtwistle, a gritty, unapologetic contemporary composer? Again there’s an absence of percussion but to say it’s different from the Bantock is an understatement.

Philip Sparke  Saint-Saëns Variations (2009)

Here you can follow the music, if you’ve got good eyesight. This is another contest piece, using the chorale from Saint-Saens Symphony no.3 as its starting point. Philip Sparke writes a lot for brass and wind bands.

Martin Ellerby  Electra (2012)

Ellerby is another prolific writer of music for the band world. As you can see from the video, this is another piece for contesting. The virtuoso opening section certainly held my attention. As a side note, it appears all the players, apart from two percussionists, are men.  Admittedly it’s a video from eight years ago. How much has changed, I wonder? Changing the culture so women and girls feel welcome to play brass instruments isn’t something limited to the banding world at all.

So has listening to these pieces made me fall in love with them? No, but maybe it will happen to you instead.