Brass Band Music – What is it?

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.