History of Brass Bands 
    
 
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The Genesis of a Brass Band - Gertrude Bacon, 1901


There is a story on record of a certain colonel of a regiment to whom, by long training, absolute exactness and uniformity had become second nature, and who complained to his band-master on one occasion that the trombone players were spoiling the appearance of the entire battalion. "You must see", he said, "in future, that the men move their sliding things in and out together".

While fully capable of appreciating the worthy soldier's error, it is doubtful, I fancy, whether a large proportion of the general community have a much fuller knowledge concerning the actual instruments which go to the making of a military band, or have more than the barest notion of the skilful and complicated process of their manufacture. The modern brass band which contributes so largely to our national enjoyment, and forms so integral a part of our national life, is the outcome of many centuries of musical progress, and the minds of generations of those who have made it their life's study have been devoted to the evolving and improving of instruments which each year grow more perfect in tone or action.

Take the case, for example, of the modern Euphonium, and contrast it with its ancient counterpart the "Serpent" - often spoken of but never now seen except in museums. This weird instrument was in effect very like the creature it takes its name from, being twisted together in a curiously serpentine fashion. It was made sometimes of copper, but generally of wood, and was covered through most of its length with leather. Six holes were pierced down the side, which, when playing, the performer covered with the fingers of both hands. It is recorded that certain continental bands of former days went so far in their efforts for realism and startling effect as to shape the bells of their Serpents as terrible open mouths, painted blood-red inside, and furnished with fangs and wagging tongues. But even without such embellishment the whole appearance of the instrument was sufficiently grotesque and antiquated, and consorted fitly with the "zinken", "pommern", "shawm" and other monstrosities of past centuries.

In due course the serpent was succeeded by the well-nigh defunct Ophicleide, still occasionally to be met with. This was a truly formidable instrument of a size so gigantic that though, according to the humorous literature of the day, it not infrequently came in useful upon emergencies as a weapon of defence, a fire extinguisher or a life-buoy, its very cumbrousness was its great draw-back, especially for military purposes. Nevertheless we learn that there were ophicleides in both the French and British bands at the battle of Waterloo.

The modern euphonium, which has supplanted both these ancient horns, is a species of the famous genus Saxhorn, so called after a Belgian family "Sax" who first invented and introduced some fifty years ago, these instruments, which have since revolutionised all military music. The saxhorns are now, of course, the mainstay of all brass bands, and they are manufactured in many different sizes, from the high soprano to the huge contra-bass or "bombardon", which is sometimes made in circular shape, and which, together with its player, who must of necessity be a big man, forms such an impressive portion of an orchestra.

It is indeed quite conceivable how certain people have a craze for large instruments and the mighty bellowings that they produce. Among the collection of Messrs. Boosey and Co. is perhaps the tallest saxhorn which has ever been manufactured. It stands, as will be seen from the illustration, a good eight feet high, and represents some forty feet and more of graduated brass tubing. Much of this, however, is mere waste metal, sacrificed to appearance and nothing else, for so far as musical effect goes, precisely the same result is obtainable with but seventeen feet of brass which, twisted round in more convenient shape, forms a more serviceable though vastly less imposing instrument.

The French are the great brass band providers, and from the Continent come many of the finest instruments, as well as those cheap and nasty implements of torture which harrow the ear at the rustic revel and accentuate the horror of the German band. Fortunately, however, there are to be found several good makers in England at whose establishments it is possible to see the beautiful and refined process of manufacture of all that is best of brass and wood for use in our most famous hands and orchestras.

An anecdote is told of the origin of a once famous firm of brass instrument makers, since absorbed by a yet more famous existing house, which is worthy of being again repeated. In the early part of Queen Victoria's reign a very talented family of the name of Distin earned considerable fame both in this country and on the Continent by their singing and admirable performance upon a quintet of saxhorns. Subsequently the party broke up, and one of the members essayed to start a musical instrument shop in Cranbourn Street, Leicester Square. He was however in very indifferent pecuniary circumstances, and his "store" had hardly advanced beyond its four bare walls, which Distin himself was engaged in whitewashing, when a customer arrived and demanded a cornet. Hastily explaining that his goods were not yet unpacked, but that if his customer would wait a few minutes he would procure him what he wanted, Distin slipped out of the back door and took a cab to a wholesale house in the city where he obtained, on approval, a cornet value 25s. Returning with this he expatiated upon its beauties, and, to prove them, performed upon it himself so superbly that his customer, convinced that he had here a really exceptional instrument, very readily paid the ten guineas demanded. This sum, it is said, enabled Distin to start a business which was rapidly successful, and eventually sold for a considerable amount.

Returning to the actual manufacture, it is somewhat sad to learn that the sheet brass used for musical instruments comes, almost entirely, from abroad, though this is largely the fault of the English founders themselves. One notable exception is the solid drawn, or seamless brass tubing, which is supplied to the well-known musical establishment of Messrs. Boosey by two or three of the leading Birmingham houses. The advantage of these solid tubes for trombones, valves and so forth, over the ordinary jointed sheet brass is considerable, for no matter how carefully the join is effected, the action of the breath, in time, tends to loosen the solder.

To bend these thin brass tubes, however, into the sharp curves needed, without splitting or denting the fragile metal, is a very difficult task, and would indeed be well-nigh impossible but for a simple and ingenious artifice well known to brass workers. The tube to be bent having been washed out with a substance which prevents the metal sticking to it, it is filled up with molten lead, poured in with a ladle. This lead, when cold, acts as a support to the brass, which can then be bent without risk, and the lead is subsequently removed by plunging the whole into a bath of molten lead, which is carefully raised to just such a heat that the metal inside the instrument may flow out, while at the same time the brass is not melted.

For the larger conical-shaped instruments, and for the bell mouths, another process has to be adopted. The sheet brass is cut carefully to shape - a species of V-shape it becomes - and then twisted round roughly into its proper form. The edges having been so snipped at regular intervals that they dovetail into each other, the work is next passed on to the brazier, who solders the whole together with a softer and therefore more easily melted quality of brass, mixed with borax and water to make a flux. The solder joint leaves a ridge, which is next filed away, and the whole is then placed upon a core or form of the required shape, which it exactly fits, and "planished" or smoothed down by hammering. The core, or "mandrel", with the nearly finished bell upon it, is then placed in a lathe, and the final touch is given by burnishing tools while the bell is rapidly revolving.

The mouth-pieces, valves and smaller component parts are manufactured separately by means of lathes and metal tools, and then comes the fitting of the whole together. This part alone in the factory will employ a considerable number of hands. As brass instrument-making is so largely a French industry, many of the best workmen hail from over the Channel, though happily they by no means enjoy the monopoly of the trade.

The last process of all is the polishing, which is done with minute care with fine emery cloth, cut into narrow strips to work into the interstices of the tubes; a higher degree of brilliance yet being imparted by a species of soap-stone on a rapidly revolving wheel of swan's-down.

Nevertheless, beautiful and imposing as a highly burnished brass instrument undoubtedly is, there are those who prize their implements so highly that they are willing to expend extra money over their mere adornment, and have them silver-plated. The great bands of the North of England the home of brass bands - will spend large sums upon this extra embellishment. Nor, indeed, to be strictly just, is this silver-plating without its practical use, for it saves a deal of the constant care that the bandsman must bestow upon his brass if he wishes it to preserve its pristine beauty and polish; and, at the same time, it acts as an excellent preservative against the action of damp.

Our manufactory, therefore, has an electro-plating apparatus as part of its outfit. This consists of a large and deep lead-lined tank, in which the instruments, suspended from wires, are carefully immersed in a specially prepared fluid containing a considerable quantity of silver in solution. This tank is connected with a powerful voltaic battery, and when the necessary electric contacts are made to the frames from which the instruments are hung, a certain chemical process is set up by which the silver is precipitated upon the article to be plated in a thin film, the thickness of which depends upon the length of time in the bath. Three or four dips are generally required before this process is considered properly completed, and then the instrument receives a final polishing with curious tools of steel and agate, this last finishing touch being carefully and minutely performed by girl workers.

The making of the wood instruments is an art in itself, and it is here perhaps - more than anywhere else - that later years have witnessed the most marked advance. Musical effects, only possible some years ago to the most accomplished and practised performer, are now, by various ingenious appliances and additions, each the outcome of most careful thought and patient experiment, rendered easy even to the beginner. Every year has seen fresh and more perfect elaboration, and one has only to contrast the plain and rudimentary clarionet of a century ago, standing on the table in the illustration, with its complicated modern successor which the skilled workman is holding in his hand, to note the enormous advance that has been made.

Clarionets, by the way, are now largely manufactured of vulcanite, which has proved more durable and less liable to injury than the wood which was formerly exclusively employed.

Not the least interesting of band instruments comes the indispensable drum, whether of the bass, side or kettle varieties. Various woods have been tried by different makers for the body of the big drums, but it is the general opinion that for resonance, pliability and strength nothing equals ash. The drum heads are of calf skin, obtained for the most part from Yorkshire and Scotland. In the best make these skins are opaque, the cheaper French kinds being generally transparent. Naturally a most important part of the drum-making is the painting and emblazoning. Very elaborate designs have often to be executed, for which specially prepared stencils are employed, and a painter of very considerable skill is required for the work.

As before hinted, the great patrons of the musical instrument makers are the North of England brass bands. The colonies also and India make extensive purchases of the old-established British firms. Many instruments, of course, are annually turned out for military purposes. It is confidently expected that the late war will lead to several large orders from regimental bandmasters, for the exigencies of a rough campaign will infallibly have entailed considerable loss and damage among the bands.

Many bugles especially will have to be made good, for a large number of these must have fallen into the hands of the enemy, or are lying lost out on the veldt. The present form of infantry bugle is shown in the accompanying photograph, where it stands alongside the old Kent horn or key bugle of fifty years ago. This last was named after the Duke of Kent, one time Commander-in-chief, and was formerly in great request among the coaching fraternity. It was this instrument that Mr. Bob Sawyer, of illustrious memory, imitated so skilfully upon the roof of the coach to the great exasperation of Mr. Pickwick within. This famous horn is now but a memory of the past however, its place being entirely filled by the modern cornet (known on its introduction as the "Cornopean"), of which an example is also included in the picture.

The British army absorbs a large number of bugles yearly, and the makers who supply them have always a number in stock, manufacturing them in quantity when other business is slack. Among other regimental instruments supplied to his Majesty's forces, bag-pipes hold a not unimportant place. Besides those for the use of the Scotch regiments, many are shipped to India for the hardy little Gurkhas, who find a very congenial music in the skirling of the pipes.

Apropos of these instruments, it may not perhaps be generally known that the late Charles Keen; the inimitable Punch artist, was a great admirer of the bagpipes, on which he was himself no indifferent performer. It was part of his hobby to collect every different specimen he could come across; and a great part of his collection, a large and unique one, came on his death into the hands of Messrs. Boosey and Co., in whose famous establishment, the most complete in England, the accompanying illustrations have been secured.