British Brass Band Instrumentation
British Brass Band Instrumentation
One of my passions in life (and has been for more than 50 years now) is listening to a good brass band. I love the rich, full, “organ like” timbre of this body of 30 to 35 instrumentalists as it fills a concert hall with musical sounds that no other medium for performance can match. I have friends and relatives that either played in a band with or they are still playing in a band of this type. Once you get hooked on this medium, you are there for life.
This article will discuss the British Brass Band instrumentation along with other aspects of this medium as it is a special type of music that entertains millions of people around the world. I have also included three concert videos as examples of this great performance medium.
Black Dyke Mills Band
A Short History
The British Brass Band has a rich and long history in Europe as well as the United States going back to the 19th and 20th centuries. Nearly every town sponsored a group. As part of England’s Industrial Revolution employers of factories and coal mines would finance bands and soon hundreds of these ensembles were performing on a regular basis.
In the early 20th century, it has been estimated that there were over 20,000 players in the United Kingdom alone playing in this medium. Today, brass bands are all over the globe. For many, it is a family activity. Children would grow up learning how to play a cornet or a baritone horn. As they got older and more proficient on their instrument they might find themselves in a youth band and eventually be playing along side their mom or dad (or both) in the adult band. Husbands and wives, aunts and uncles. These are the people that make up the brass bands in The UK.
One of the first brass bands in the world that is still in existence today is the Stalybridge Old Band. This musical ensemble was formed in 1809. Some of the other brass bands from the UK are the:
- Grimethorpe Colliery Band
- Cory Band
- Black Dyke Mills Band
- Brighouse and Rastrick Band
- Tongwynlais Temperance Band
- Whitburn Band
The brass band is very unique in the fact that they can feature some of the most amazing soloists performing pyrotechnical compositions written explicitly for brass instruments. The two most popular solo instruments featured are the cornet and the euphonium. Below, is a list of some of the most popular composers of solos with brass band accompaniment:
- Herbert L Clarke
- Frank Simon
- Peter Graham
- William Rimmer
- Philip Sparke
- John Baptiste Arban
The solos written by these composers would challenge the virtuosity of the cornet or euphonium player as they would be technically very difficult to perform. As various soloists would perform these compositions flawlessly they would amaze the crowd and always deserving of an encore. Below, is an example of one of these cornet solos.
The Cory Band performing Feugo, Tom Hutchinson, Cornet Soloist
Literature of a British Brass Band
What is brass bands pride themselves and being able to perform music from all genres. They’re amazing abilities to take an orchestral transcription and performing flawlessly amazes some orchestral conductors.As a young musician I had the opportunity and privilege to perform with a superb brass band. I was amazed at the level of players in the group as we played in concert Mozart’s Eine Klein Nachtmusik and Mendelson‘s Italian Symphony. These two monumental pieces of music played by a brass band is a very heavy task. I do remember the closing number that we performed was the finale to Tchaikovsky‘s fourth symphony. Along with compositions from past century composers, whether it be orchestral transcriptions, overtures, marches or operatic arias, modern composers like Philip Sparke, Peter Graham, James Curnow, Eric Ball to name but a few have done a great job in elevating the level of musicianship in its players by composing great music for the audience and players alike.
Much like the high school / college marching band and popular drum and bugle corps contests in the United States, the British Brass Band movement is a highly competitive activity. All levels of musicianship (young and old alike) are displayed for adjudication several times a year. Competition is a serious undertaking for many of these bands as they enter various levels of regional, national, and international championship competitions. There is also an open championship competition which invites groups from all countries and has been since 1853.
Wikipedia states: “At a national level the main contest is the Besson National Brass Band Championship, and this determines a band’s section. For this, the UK is split into eight regions: London and Southern Counties, Midland, North of England, Northwest, Scotland, Wales, West of England, and Yorkshire. Each year in the spring bands compete in a regional contest for their section, and the top two or three in each section go on to the National Finals in autumn.” Just like soccer?
Instruments and seating in a typical brass band.
The Black Dyke Band performing "To Boldly Go" by Peter Graham
What is this Uniqueness?
The uniqueness of a brass band is in the tone colors of the instruments themselves, and instrumentation that makes up the band. Below is a list of the brass instruments that make up the British Brass Band.
- The Cornet instead of the Trumpet, is smaller in size, volume and a more mellow tone color.
- The Tenor Horn (referred to as an Eb Alto Horn in the United States) is a softer sounding instrument, limited range, but a perfect blend with the other instruments in the band. Not to be confused with the Horn in F (French Horn) that is usually found in an orchestra or concert band.
- The Baritone Horn is a larger version of the Alto Horn and adds great harmonic and rhythmic support to the band sound.
- The Euphonium is the Cello of the brass band. A beautiful alluring sound identified by its rich tenor voice that soars with the melodic themes and counter melodies at the discretion of the composers pen.
- The Trombone is the instrument with great sound and versatility and is found in just about any instrumental organization world wide.
- The Tuba or Bass in the British Brass Band is the largest of all of the brass instruments along with lowest pitch. It is not unusual to see a Bass section numbering 4-5 players to balance off the rest of the ensemble.
- Percussion - Contrary to popular belief, the brass band would not be a brass band if it wasn’t for the percussion section. Percussion in a brass band features a snare drum, bass drum, cymbals , and timpani.
Instrumentation for the British Brass Band
1 - E Flat Soprano Cornet
3 - 1st B Flat Cornet
3 - 2nd B Flat Cornet
3 - 3rd B Flat Cornet
1 - Flugelhorn
3 - Tenor Horns (Eb; called Alto Horn in the US) - Solo, 1st, 2nd
2 - Baritone Horns - 1st, 2nd
1 - 1st B Flat Euphonium
1 - 2nd B Flat Euphonium
2 - 1st B Flat Trombone
2 - 2nd B Flat Trombone
1 - Bass Trombone
2 - B Flat Bass
2 - E Flat Bass
1 - Snare Drum
1 - Bass Drum
1 - Cymbals
1 - Timpani
1 - Mallets
The Cory Brass Band performing "On the Shoulders of Giants" by Peter Graham
Display of Instruments in a British Brass Band
If you have never heard a British Brass Band or any brass band with this special instrumentation before, I hope that this article opens another genre for you and that it might make you want to investigate further some of the unbelievable talent found in the musicianship of these wonderful players. Please send me a comment about this article.
© 2018 Reginald Thomas