The British Brass Band: A Musical and Social History 
by Trevor Herbert.
Oxford, 381 pp., £48, June 2000, 0 19 816698 2
Show More
Show More

George Orwell saw the patriotism of the British working class as an almost unconscious link with the middle and upper classes: ‘Just because patriotism is all but universal and not even the rich are uninfluenced by it, there can be moments when the whole nation suddenly swings together, and does the same thing, like a herd of cattle facing a wolf’ (The Lion and the Unicorn, 1941). Many working-class practices and institutions which embodied both this ‘universal’ patriotism and a desire for self-improvement were forged from a sturdy amalgam of tradition, religious observance, deference, support of the military, pride, dislike of change and adherence to class and community. The brass band movement in particular conformed to Orwell’s view of things: it was very class-conscious, but it subscribed to ideologies which socialists believed were those of the ruling class.

Brass bands were not originally working-class institutions. They were led at first by what Trevor Herbert calls ‘the socially superior classes’; they depended on a musical establishment with a taste for classical and religious music; they were formed into a network and encouraged to compete at open-air shows by entrepreneurs, instrument makers and music publishers. Banding was, Herbert writes, ‘at the very least a consensual partnership between the organised working class and entrepreneurs’. But once the movement got going, for most of the bands most of the time, middle-class influences impinged only occasionally on their lives.

In the 18th century, before brass bands, there had been parish, church and, above all, military bands. Pretty bad they were too, prevented from getting any better by the illiteracy of most of the musicians and sneered at by the professional middle-class musicians who played and appreciated serious music. But by the turn of the century, crucial changes were under way. Critical masses of amateur musicians, many trained by the Army, were being brought together by industrialisation, especially in Wales and Northern England; and the same process was producing self-confident, often literate bandleaders. Instrument makers and music publishers were seeking new markets; an audience was forming in working-class communities; and some of the new industrialists, whether from philanthropic, musical or self-aggrandising motives, were willing to fund works bands.

One of the earliest was the Cyfarthfa band, in the iron-smelting centre of Merthyr Tydfil. Robert Crawshay, the owner of the Cyfarthfa works, in effect created a private orchestra. He employed a family of musicians from Bradford, members of London theatre orchestras and strolling players; and, like some Renaissance prince or 17th-century cardinal, gave them light jobs in the factory as well as (so they say) fees for performances and subsidised housing. George Hogarth, a journalist, went to hear the Cyfarthfa band and wrote in May 1850, in Dickens’s Household Words, that he was

astonished at their proficiency . . . I heard them perform the overture to Zampa, the Caliph of Baghdad, and Fra Diavolo, Vivi tu and some concerto music from Roberto, Don Giovanni and Lucia, with a quantity of waltzes, polkas and dance music. The bandsman had them under excellent control; he everywhere took the time well and the instruments preserved it . . . I have seldom heard a regimental band more perfect than this handful of workmen, located far from any place where they might command the benefits of hearing other bands, in the mountains of Wales . . . Mr Crawshay . . . has shown what the intellectual capacity of the workman is equal to, and above all, he has provided a rational and refined amusement for classes whose leisure time would have been less creditably spent than in learning or listening to music. The habits and manners of these men appear to have been decidedly improved by these softening influences.

For Hogarth – and for many, I suspect – band music was a healthy alternative to drinking, or worse. A photograph of the Cyfarthfa ensemble, taken in the mid-1850s (the earliest surviving photograph of a band), shows some twenty men grouped about a short flight of steps framed by columns, perhaps at the front of their employer’s mansion. They are smartly got up, their uniforms and caps making them indistinguishable from a military band.

With such patrons, and with former Army musicians in leading positions, the early tone of the bands was respectful, patriotic and aspiring. Nonetheless, Herbert writes, this was the ‘first mass engagement of working-class people in instrumental art music, not just in Britain but possibly anywhere’ (though it would have been good to know how justified that ‘possibly’ is). In 1838, the Preston United Independent Harmonic Brass Band wrote to Mr Thomas Clifton of Lytham Hall in Lancashire:

Sir, by the desire of a Fue Respectable Friends of yours in Preston has caused hus to write to you with a Petition as a Solitisation for a job of Playing at your Dinnering Day as they told hus is taking place on Tuesday at the 10th of March Inst. at Lytham which if you are having a Band of Music at Dinner we shall by very glad to be ingadged for your on that Day it is one of the first Bands in the country. Our Band consists of 10 in number it is a Brass Band and the Name of the Band is the United Independent Harmonic Brass band Preston which our charge is not so much considering the Band the charge or Pay for hus for one Day is 8/6 each man for the number of 10 comes to £4-5-0 and Meat and Drink as soon as we get their and all the time we stay their, if so happen we have to come if you make up your Mind for hus to come to play for Dinner on that Day we shall please no doubt . . . we can come in uniform or not according to the weather. From your humble servants, The Band.

Since they were offering to play on a Tuesday and were proposing a relatively hefty fee, the ‘humble servants’ in this case were probably professional, or semi-professional. But from such beginnings there came a movement in the latter part of the 19th century in which the bands were increasingly proletarianised and decreasingly humble.

Unions, independent groups of working men (women weren’t admitted until late in the century, and only in any significant numbers in the Salvation Army) and largely working-class religious groups formed bands and took over a repertoire which was a mixture of operatic, orchestral and religious music. In 1860, at the annual competition for brass bands at the Crystal Palace, the professions of the conductors were: lead-ore smelter, woollen spinner, publican, blacksmith, carpet weaver, joiner, miner, warp dresser, schoolmaster, cloth operative and spade finisher – a whole spectrum, from professional through small tradesman to skilled worker, with the latter in the majority. Since they would have been working for upwards of fifty hours a week in jobs that were usually physically exhausting (imagine learning to play the French horn to a professional standard after ten hours spent hacking at a coal seam or beating horseshoes into shape), the self-discipline and energy required were enormous.

Because the musicians were increasingly drawn from the ranks of the skilled workers – the same class that formed the trade unions and early working-class political movements – they brought their commitment to democracy into the running of the bands. As in the early unions, this went with keeping a close watch on the money and a willingness to delegate a lot of authority to an elected leader: the conductor. The Idle and Thackley Band allowed ‘the Bandmaster for the time being . . . to have full control of the members of the Band and if any member disobey him or otherwise misbehave he shall be fined’. The conductor could fire any musician, not just for misbehaving, but for falling below the desired musical standard.

There were of course limits to how good hard-working, poorly educated bandsmen could become, and the barriers imposed by middle-class taste grew stronger in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. In an essay called ‘A Musical Prize Fight’, usually attributed to Dickens, the author describes a band contest degenerating into a comic brawl (as some did) with amused condescension, as if recognising that the labouring classes could not be expected to produce anything better. Increasingly, ‘classical’ music built a realm of its own, patronised almost entirely by the bourgeoisie, while the bands more and more became the accompaniment to the leisure moments of Northern society: miners’ galas, May Day parades and trade union demonstrations. Sam Cope, an autodidact who founded the British Bandsman and was an ardent class improver, complained about outbreaks of aggression at contests and wrote that ‘there is no reason why Tom, who plays a cornet, should be in a lower social or musical grade than Dick, who plays the violin.’ But the harsh fact was that it took more time and money to become the solo performer of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto than to play a transcription for cornet of Va Pensiero: and that kind of time and money were not available to the bands.

In the 20th century, the bands benefited from more resources and official attention; they also declined in number. Dave Russell, in a good and careful essay on ‘Cultural Change and the Band Movement’, says that very few new subscription bands were formed after 1914; instead, works bands were formed or, from the 1950s, school and youth centre bands. In other words, the bands had ceased to be self-help organisations, and were funded first by paternalistic employers, and then by the state. A partial exception to this was the bands’ ‘adoption’ by elements of the labour movement after World War One – particularly by the mineworkers. Russell explains how the Durham Miners’ Gala became a regular date on the bands’ calendar, and notes that a number of bands played at election meetings for Will Lawther, the miners’ leader, when he ran for Parliament on a Labour ticket in 1922. But the relationship seems also to have had its tensions: two conductors of colliery bands were fired, partly, according to the British Bandsman, because they were not ‘red’ enough but also because they had been too inquisitive about the use of the bands’ funds. ‘Mercato’, the journal’s Durham correspondent (who may have been one of those fired), wrote that ‘so long as the conductor will sing “The Red Flag” and ask no questions as to what’s happening with the £8 or £10 subscribed by the colliery workmen, he is all right. But as soon as he wants a little information, no time is lost in getting rid of him.’ It seems clear that most bandsmen wanted to keep their distance from the unions: those which marched for Lawther felt constrained to defend themselves in the local press by arguing that they would do the same for anyone and that ‘we rely on the support of all sides and hope to meet a continuance of same.’

The bands briefly attracted some of the less snobbish ‘serious’ composers: notably Elgar, Holst, John Ireland and Herbert Howells. The two indefatigable journalist/ entrepreneurs of the movement, Cope and the championship organiser Herbert Whiteley, played a leading part in persuading Holst and Elgar to write for the bands. They coaxed from them, among other pieces, Holst’s ‘Moorside Suite’ and Elgar’s ‘Severn Suite’, the latter dedicated to George Bernard Shaw, who, on hearing it at Crystal Palace in 1930, pronounced himself impressed: ‘nobody would have guessed from looking at the score and thinking of the thing as a Toccata for brass band how beautiful and serious the work is as abstract music.’

In 1928, however, Thomas Beecham called the bands ‘that superannuated, obsolete, beastly, disgusting, horrid method of making music’, which probably reflected an enduring feeling in the serious musical world that they would always be below the salt – an anxiety shared by the movement’s own publicists. The British Bandsman wrote in 1938 that ‘bands have always been popular with the working-class people, but since our great composers began to realise the merit of our working-class brass bands they have risen to the dignity of professional orchestras in some cases’ – a tacit acknowledgment that only on the heights of orchestral dignity could real musical merit be found. ‘The emergence of the brass band as a “serious” artistic force was not . . . to become a reality,’ Russell writes. ‘Very few composers ever produced more than one piece for bands and fewer still entered into anything resembling a long-term relationship with them.’ He adds, however, that this was more than mere snobbishness, and that class disdain may have been less important than the

bands’ rigid, almost ritualistic adherence to a specific instrumentation . . . such an approach made perfect sense to members of a movement who drew much of their satisfaction and status from mastering a particular medium that they exerted at least some control over. However, it was a form both alien to most formally trained musicians and likely to appear restricted in scope to those who did discover it.

‘General’ William Booth, the Methodist preacher and founder of the Salvation Army, wanted to enlist the bands in his war against the demon drink, and indeed the Devil himself, but he was obsessed by the fear that his musicians – there were nearly 30,000 of them at the outbreak of World War One – would become interested in music as music, not as a way of saving souls. ‘In no case,’ one of the many regulations went, ‘are Instruments to be used to play any but Salvation Music, or on any but Salvation Army service.’ Trevor Herbert, in an essay on ‘God’s Perfect Minstrels’, says of Booth that he had ‘successfully instigated a radical strategy which relied on a complex interplay of popular culture and religion, but this strategy contained within it the danger that the Army would become absorbed into and corrupted by the very culture which it sought to subvert.’ Thanks to his determination, and that of his son Bramwell, the Army remained a formidable missionary force until the 1950s, when it began to decline, at least in the UK (it continued to spread, until the 1990s and possibly beyond, in other countries). It even tried its hand at pop groups – the Joy Strings was the best known example – but the decline was inexorable. In the early 1960s, Boosey and Hawkes told its leaders that it would no longer make the high-pitch instruments which the Army, uniquely, chose to use and a decade later its own instrument factory closed. The Army still does its good work, but it is increasingly charitable rather than evangelical; and a band is a rarity, at least in the country of its origin.

The working class, whose savage breasts the music of the brass bands was supposed to calm, had by the end of the 19th century more leisure, more places to go and more things to do than in the days when the band movement was spreading. It’s an increasingly rare family that sends a child to play in Sally Army or Boys’ Brigade bands, or – if they’re part of the Scots, Liverpudlian or Northern Irish sectarian culture – to the marching bands. Northern Ireland indeed is the last redoubt of an autonomous, working-class, Loyalist-Unionist culture, long lost to the British mainland, but similar in values to the culture in which the bands thrived. It was limited, bigoted and Imperialist, though it also had its merits. It encouraged the devotion of time and effort to doing something well; it fostered independence of action and mind; and it could be generous in securing for others the freedom it wished for itself.

The process of deindustrialisation, accelerating from the 1960s onwards, more or less put paid to it. The Grimethorpe Colliery Band, one of the legends of the movement (featured in the movie Brassed Off) still exists. But the village of that name now lacks a pit, the band is sponsored by RJB Mining – hated by the mineworkers’ union for its role in privatising the industry – and of the very few players who are ex-miners, only one lives in Grimethorpe. In spite of this – or perhaps because of it – there is evidence that the brass bands which still play, play better. An informant in Brian Jackson’s Working-Class Community (1972) told the author that ‘these big bands, it sounds funny to say it, like the Lindley Band that won the Belle Vue Championship in 1900 – well, they wouldn’t have been able to play some of the stuff that our local bands play now.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 23 No. 9 · 10 May 2001

John Lloyd’s piece about brass bands (LRB, 5 April) reminded me of a discussion about music funding at the Arts Council in 1980. I made the mistake of asking why we didn’t make any financial provision for brass bands. After a moment of shocked silence someone replied in tones rather like Lady Bracknell’s: ‘Brass bands?’ Another said: ‘Here at the Arts Council we are concerned with the high arts, not brass bands.’

David Buckle
Abingdon, Oxfordshire

Vol. 23 No. 12 · 21 June 2001

In the Scottish Borders, brass bands are the largest distinguishable group of amateur musicians. They give public concerts and play at gala days, charity events, common ridings, flower shows and coffee mornings, agricultural shows, church services and civic ceremonies. The recently reformed local brass band association organises workshops for players and lobbies local government for better funding and recognition. Membership is quite diverse in terms of age, sex, occupation and social class. David Buckle’s letter (Letters, 10 May) describes the ‘shocked silence’ when he asked at an Arts Council meeting why the organisation didn’t support brass bands. Brass bands should certainly be assisted from time to time by the Arts Council and other sources of public (or semi-public) money. The money is always useful; but, more important, such actions recognise the place of brass bands in our national musical culture.

Neal Wade
Galashiels Town Band

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences