At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the only possible all-brass ensemble was the cavalry band, which could only play military signals. Once keyed bugles and valved trumpets and horns became available, massed brass could play real music.
The movie Brassed Off provides a glimpse of the British brass band tradition. The band in that movie, where all the members worked for a coal mining company, reflects the working class origins of that institution. No one can identify the first British brass band with certainty, but several existed before the end of the 1830s.
I found an interesting article in the January 28, 1832 issue of the Times. Because it describes an ensemble of London’s leading brass players, it probably has no real connection with the development of the working-class brass band tradition. The article certainly takes no notice of it, but does show the quick response to new technology that transformed musical instruments and musical ensembles during the nineteenth century.
A novel combination of musical effect, at least in this country, was tried yesterday morning at the King’sTheatre, before a select audience of of professors and amateurs expressly invited to obtain their judgment on its results.
A complete band has been collected, consisting wholly of instruments of metallic formation. There are, for example, eight French horns, six trumpets, six keyed bugles, three trombones, and a double bass horn, of extraordinary compass in depth, being below the serpent and instruments of that class in military bands.
The pieces performed were the Overture to Spohr’s Jessonda ; the march of the Priests in the Zauberflote ; with some movements from Weber, Rossini, and Auber. The experiment, which, it should be observed, has been only six weeks in preparation, was decidedly a successful one. In passages of pure harmony is difficult to imagine any thing more perfect.
The movement seemed to have the same unity of design as if it proceeded from one stupendously grand and powerful instrument, and what is still more remarkable, was subdued when requisite to a degree of softness which might have been borne in the boudoir of a sick duchess.
The prevalent defect, in the judgment of the auditory, was, that the basses were inadequate, in strength, to sustaining so great a weight of harmony ; but this’ll admit of a very easy remedy. We think, however, that there was another defect, but perceptible only in those compositions written for a full orchestra, the violin parts of which have been transferred to the bugles and trumpets, instruments incapable of sustaining properly high and quick treble passages.
But it is very possible that instruments of the same genus may be invented, capable of continuing the scale up to the highest notes of the violin, and thus allowing the performance of the great symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven. In the mean time, up to a certain extent, the effect, of its kind, leaves nothing to be desired.
Bands of this structure have for some time, existed on the continent, but for their introduction here musicians have to thank Mr. Harper, the celebrated trumpet-player, who took a leading part in the performance, which was filled up throughout by professors of the first eminence.
The horns were most ably led by Mr. Platt, Mr. Rae, and others, who took the solo parts in succession. The trombones were also finely played, and with great discretion as to the strength of intonation.
All present appeared much gratified at the result of the experiment.