A Fue Respectable Friends

John Lloyd

  • The British Brass Band: A Musical and Social History by Trevor Herbert
    Oxford, 381 pp, £48.00, June 2000, ISBN 0 19 816698 2

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.

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