There has been a recent petition filed online for Classic FM to ‘stop ignoring brass band music’. Now, this is not a new complaint, and Classic FM is a far from flawless representation of classical music, ignoring vast quantities of repertoire in pursuit of the popular favourites and what people expect to hear from their station, but the sentiment set me to thinking about how little the general public understand about the brass band world and our music.

When I say I play in a brass band, I’m often asked “so what music do you play? Arrangements of popular tunes?” While the answer must at least in part be ‘yes’, as arrangements do make up an important part of every band’s library,  it isn’t at all a fair representation of what brass band music is. Brass bands thrive on the music which is written specifically for them; and there is a great deal of that out there which is overlooked by both Classic FM and BBC Radio 3. For example, one of my favourite brass band composers is Edward Gregson, and while Radio 3 did broadcast the ‘Edward Gregson at 70‘ concert last year, this was a concert featuring entirely orchestral works. Glorious, but overlooking a much-loved part of Gregson’s career and one which contributed to the bedrock of the brass banding world, that of contesting. (More on that peculiar tradition to come in a subsequent blog post).

One example of Gregson’s work is below – The Plantagenets, a piece I encountered both in a Youth Band and a University Band.

If you listen, you’ll resurface 15 minutes later with a better idea of what brass bands are about. You’ll see it’s not all tea and cake in the garden playing an arrangement of Yellow Submarine. It’s not a pointless restriction of the range of colours which an orchestra can offer – a criticism I have heard several times – it’s a classical genre of its own; versatile and beautiful, and one which millions are blindly unaware of.

The piece chosen for the Championship section in 2017 was composed by Herbert Howells, a household name for anyone with an awareness of classical music; but I would warrant not a name which springs to mind when one mentions a brass band.

That low level of awareness will continue if the brass band world doesn’t put in the effort to raise awareness of its music, so it is reassuring to see this topic resurfacing from time to time. However attacking Classic FM won’t achieve that goal, because the station serves its own purpose; it raises the awareness of classical music to those who wouldn’t otherwise know where to start. A bit of searching on ‘classic fm + brass band music’ threw up a short article on the Guardian website, from 2011. The article itself consists of harmless musings on the writer’s discovery that classical music isn’t all that bad when one’s forced to listen to it while at the dentist – and if classical music can reach souls like this via Classic FM then that’s great. More discerning classical music fans will always know where else to look, be it BBC Radio 3 or a niche station; perhaps hosted online. A couple of brass band channels exist online (Brass Band Radio and All Brass Radio) but these are fan-made, for the fans, and won’t promote brass band music to a wider audience. To ensure that brass band music is known and appreciated by classical music listeners, its classical repertoire must be included among the more usual orchestral repertoire on  mainstream stations.

The Guardian article does contain a gem of a quote from Alex James: brass bands are the “musical equivalent of freshly baked bread, but mixed with heavenly clouds and fresh roast coffee, not to mention rolling verdant valleys”. We may take from that that the sound is homely and comforting, and of course there must be some traditional nostalgia inferred. Brass bands have been part of the British scene since the mid-19th century, and although they aren’t seen as ‘cool’ (which of our traditions are?), they are popular in a village fête setting, or for providing festive cheer at Christmas.  If one arrangement of a popular  hit  at an informal event encourages one listener to investigate brass bands further and to discover what we are really about, then that’s our best way of promoting the movement (at least until classical radio stations are more inclusive), and eventually the music specifically written for brass band – the music which in my opinion showcases the traditional bands’ qualities more perfectly than anything else. (Having said that, I did enjoy playing an arrangement of Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk last week…)

If you want to head out to hear a band play for free, then the best weekend to do so is July 7th-9th, which sees BrassFestUK – a movement to get as many bands as possible all playing a free concert.

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4 thoughts on “Brass Band Music – What is it?

  1. Excellent read, some very valid points. I am heading to the RNCM this weekend and will listen to some of the worlds best brass bands playing the best music – Edward Gregson Four Etudes (World Premiere) and also his Cornet Concerto … and that’s just on the first night.

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  2. I know about the petition… I was that soldier! An excellent article which encapsulates some of my points. I too played The Plantagenets in my youth and loved it. I had the added thrill of rehersing and performing it under the baton of Mr Gregson himself. he denied any talk of it having ‘clashing swords’ and ‘waving banners’ and simply described it as being ‘about thirds’.

    I have launched a campaign to get a brass band piece into this year’s classic FM Hall of Fame. The three pieces I have voted for (and hope others will get behind) are: 1st) Eric Ball’s Resurgam. 2nd The above discussed Plantagenets by Edward Gregson and 3rd. Harrison Birtwisle’s ‘Grimethorpe aria.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Robert. It must have been amazing to have played that piece with Gregson himself – and such a wonderfully down-to-earth comment by him, true brass band fashion.
      Do you have an online base for your Hall of Fame campaign which I could share on here? – ‘Resurgam’ is excellent and truly deserves to be better known by non-bandsmen.

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      • The campaign to vote in The Classic FM Hall of Fame is on the Facebook page of 4barsrest.

        I don’t know if you can link to a particular post – I think probably not. So I will paste the text of my post below this message. I have had a very lucky past in brass banding. As well as Mr Gregson I have played under Elgar Howarth, Roy Newsom, Sir Charles Groves, Richard Evans and many more brass band luminaries. I’ve also sat in with Jimmy Shepherd, Ifor James and the great John Fletcher – the only person i’ve ever played 2nd tuba to!

        I also got a couple of one to one lessons with Harry Mortimer and an invitation to tea. Around the same time I experienced a masterclass on embouchure by the inventor of the John Ridgeon mouthpiece and a personal ‘fitting’. —- and none of it cost me a penny.

        I have an anecdote about the great Jimmy Shepherd if you seem to like that sort of thing. It would have been just after his third win in the world solo championships that he turned at a rehearsal of Grimethorpe Aria. I was around 19 I suppose, about 1971 or 2ish. When he turned up the guest conductor for the rehearsal – a certain Harry Mortimer, who in turn was receiving pointers from Elgar (call me Gary) Howarth. Sir Harry pointed to the front row and of course the principal moved aside. Jim though in all his modesty (he was a very shy man) said “No, I’m ok back here and he found a seat in with the third cornets. What a gentleman.

        http://halloffame.classicfm.com/2017/

        Let’s get a brass band piece in the Classic FM Hall of Fame.
        If we all vote for the same piece (700 + have signed the petition to get brass bands on Classic FM) we MAY actually get a brass band piece in the top 300 and it WILL get played – at least in the Easter chart show if never again.
        I have voted for (you get a 1st, 2nd and 3rd choice):-
        No 1 Resurgam by Eric Ball
        No 2 The Plantagenets by Edward Gregson
        No 3 Grimethorpe Aria by Harrison Birtwisle
        They should be available in the list now because I have already voted. They may not be your favourites but banders and brass band fans – please bite the bullet and vote as a bloc.
        REMEMBER… voting for another 1st place choice would be counter-productive as it would split the vote and have a much lesser effect.
        Please….. vote and share – get brass band music on Classic FM!!
        Click below to cast your vote.

        Like

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