Brass bands in Wales

Tuba players. Image: Charlotte Griffin, Ty Cerdd

Brass bands have a long tradition in Wales, with half celebrating a continuous existence of more than a hundred years. The date of formation is often linked with industrial development in the local area, as is the name, particularly if the local industry became the financial supporter.

Some ensembles were formed originally as drum and fife bands, with Llanrug Band tentatively dating its formation to the 1770s (making it perhaps the oldest amateur ensemble in Britain still in existence), City of Cardiff (Melingriffith) Band to 1789, and Royal Buckley Town Band to 1822, when it was formed to celebrate the opening of the Parish Church, and Deiniolen Band to 1835.

Blaina Band, formed in 1817, was claimed to be the first band in Britain to become 'all brass' when it purchased a set of cornopeans from Ludwig Embach in 1832. (The first English "all brass" band was formed the following year in York.) The first brass band music was published soon after in 1836, and the current instrumentation established in 1873.

These early bands would have performed arrangements of operatic airs, overtures, and popular songs; original compositions were to come later. Virtuoso performance was soon introduced, nowhere more so than in Wales with the formation of Robert Thompson Crawshay's Cyfarthfa Band at Merthyr in 1838. The band consisted of local iron workers and visiting virtuosi, and won the prize at the first Crystal Palace Championship in 1860. George Hogarth, writing for Household Words (the journal of Charles Dickens), claimed that while visiting Merthyr he "was exceedingly puzzled by hearing boys in the Cyfarthfa works whistling airs rarely heard except in the fashionable ball-room, opera-house, or drawing-room. I have seldom heard a regimental band more perfect than this handful of workmen, located... in the mountains of Wales. (Crawshay) has shown what the intellectual capacity of the workman is equal to. The habits and manners of these men appear to have been decidedly improved by these softening (musical) influences."

I have seldom heard a regimental band more perfect than this handful of workmen, located... in the mountains of Wales

George Hogarth

The rather condescending perception that the brass band is primarily for the intellectually less able working class was prevalent until fairly recently amongst those who should have known better. An HMI report in 1959, for example, suggested that pupils in secondary modern schools should be encouraged to take up brass banding as this would be less intellectually challenging than learning a string instrument.

Musical snobbery aside, it is difficult to equate current standards of virtuosity, regular commissioning of new work, and a membership of which 60% is under the age of 30, with musical activity solely for the less able. Perhaps it is because most brass players have a sense of fun and enjoyment; but let none doubt that they take their music, rather perhaps than themselves, very seriously.

The brass band has a tradition of commissioning new works, not least because it cannot draw on an older repertoire save through arrangements and transcriptions. Welsh composer Cyril Jenkins wrote one of the first major 'contest' pieces. (The title Life Divine, replaced his original, Comedy of Errors, for obvious reasons.)

During the 1920s and 1930s, Elgar, Bliss, Fletcher, and Holst were among the composers who wrote for the medium, and more recently they have been joined by Welsh composers including Mervyn Burtch, Gareth Glyn, Alun Hoddinott, Williams Mathias and Gareth Wood. The first Concerto for Euphonium was written by Alun Hoddinott and premiered by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and David Childs; a Euphonium Concerto for the same soloist by Karl Jenkins features in the 2009 Welsh Proms.

As a former member of the National Youth Brass Band of Wales, David is one of a large number of young Welsh players who now perform with premier brass bands throughout the UK. Many will be familiar with the sound of the flugel horn in the film 'Brassed Off!' which was 'dubbed' by former NYBBW player Paul Hughes from Anglesey, while other former members play for BBCNOW, Halle, Liverpool Philharmonic and other UK and international orchestras.

Closer to home, the Cory Band has achieved major success with first prizes at National, International and European Championships.

The provision of funding from the National Lottery meant that many bands were able to purchase new instruments. While it is unfortunate that this valuable source of funding has all but ceased, it went toward securing the future of brass bands in Wales. These now number some 80 ensembles, representing nearly 3,000 players; in addition school and county brass bands continue to survive and develop, despite the additional opportunities offered by school and county orchestras, wind bands and other instrumental ensembles. Brass players, of course, belong to them all! This, together with the development of youth bands at conservatoire and national level in Wales ensures that a tradition reaching back some two hundred years looks set to continue.

Words: Keith Griffin

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