In December 2012 The Gladly Solemn Sound was invited to share a Christmas concert with Morecambe Brass Band, a First Section outfit currently doing well in regional contests. The idea was that they should do their thing and we ours: but the bandmaster suggested that we might join forces at some point; the choir could perhaps lead the Community Carol-Singing? My response, ‘What about a combined Old Foster as well?’ was favourably received. The words, of course, would be the usual seasonal ones.
We usually sing John Foster’s notable piece a cappella; but from time to time we take advantage of accompaniment if available. This is usually provided by ‘The Fiddlers Three’, our ‘On Hire’ String Trio. Otherwise it depends on who is doing the support act at our Christmas Concert: the local Youth Orchestra gave a very full account one year, complete with timpani; harp and clarinet did the honours another time; a band of Cumbrian Folk Fiddlers were particularly engaging a couple of years back. And, once, ‘The Sun Street Stompers’ treated us to a Hot Chorus in place of the final symphony, with continuing obligato on cornet, clarinet, banjo and string bass throughout the last verse. So this time the chance to sing it with a first-class brass band was not to be missed: it would be a celebration of two remarkable traditions of music-making, and incidentally of our choir’s twentieth anniversary.
The Brass Band Movement is often credited with giving the first opportunity to working-class amateurs to participate in composed ensemble music. We Gallerians know better of course: church choirs had done this for at least a hundred years before the first band contest in 1845. We might expect that at least some church bands morphed seamlessly into early brass bands, or had some common membership for a while; but there is little evidence that this was the case, though many early bands were associated with religious bodies, and, as now, often played hymns as well as other repertoire.
The two musical cultures in fact ran concurrently for a good 50 years. Nowadays the brass band is linked in the imagination mostly with large industrial settlements in the north; but many areas, north and south, which we would now consider entirely agrarian in nature were, in days gone by, sustained by a more industrial local economy. Even Corfe Castle in Dorset had a band; the social conditions generally conducive to brass banding possibly arising from the local quarrying industry. There is a photograph of the band in 1870, with 12 players holding valved instruments, a trombone and a big drum. Twenty years later, and not too far away, Canon Galpin gave an eye-witness account of the Winterbourne Abbas Church Band, still going strong.
It is hard though, when viewing the Corfe picture, to imagine that the snowy-bearded patriarch enfolded in the coils of his helicon had not oompahed away in Corfe Castle church 50 years earlier, when his beard was less snowy and he less patriarchal. Of course he wouldn’t have been playing a helicon: that instrument’s time was yet to come.
Brass instruments were used in church, as we know. George Eliot was so impressed by childhood memories of the two keyed bugles and bassoon that played in Shepperton church that they reappear again and again in her novels, and ophicleides, bass horns and serpents sometimes contributed at the bass end of gallery bands. Modern brass also sometimes appeared: K.H.McDermott mentions cornets and trombones in Sussex churches, and Anthony Hewitson, the Preston journalist who grew up in Ingleton, Yorkshire, recalls a cornopean (early cornet) playing in church in the 1840s. Similarly the older instruments – even serpents – were used in the early days of banding, and found later than one might expect: keyed bugles and ophicleides were being played in Cyfartha Band in 1855.
Modern brass instruments can work well in present-day WG ensembles. The higher Eb instruments are suited for playing tenor and soprano lines, either at pitch or at the octave, the tenor horn being particularly pleasing when doubling sopranos singing the air. The Bb cornet’s range corresponds to the alto voice. The euphonium has a similar compass to that of the cello, and the BBb tuba makes a sonorous contrabass – the Eb tuba coming somewhere in between. Brass banders spend a lot of time cultivating a ‘choir’ style of playing, with much attention to dynamics, and all the saxhorn family are well suited to playing pp as well as ff. Trombones have sharper teeth, especially those of the modern wide-bore kind; but it’s worth remembering that until the 1700s the narrow bore instruments of the day were frequently found doubling choral lines. Nevertheless, when arranging Old Foster for band it seemed sensible to play safe and restrict the instrumental contribution in the vocal sections mostly to just one instrument per part, while inviting everyone to let rip in the symphonies.
So, the day arrived: the band, over thirty strong, with their gold-braided bumfreezers, bow ties and shining silver instruments, looked and sounded splendid as they played professionally through a selection of Christmas items, including a spectacularly funky Jingle Bells. We, with our rather less uniform appearance, responded by inviting the audience to ‘Arise and Hail’, ‘Hark, hark’, ‘Awake, awake’ – as we usually do at this time of year. The audience were enthusiastic and I hoped that the bandspeople would be impressed with the musical and verbal complexities of The Counsels of Grace. Then it was time for the massed ensemble.
The arrangement I’d made of John Foster’s original seemed to work well; it had required much more than just transferring the orchestral parts over to whichever brass instrument corresponded in pitch: the differences in timbre between flute, oboe, and violin parts is far less apparent when they’re all played on cornets. So, even if the music was quite recognizably Foster’s in terms of structure, melody, harmony and rhythm, it was nevertheless considerably reorganized to suit the brass lineup. Though most of the players played strictly according to what was in front of them one bandsman, (solo euph.), grasped the style admirably and volunteered a series of impeccably delivered ornaments, (including trills WITH turns) in all the appropriate places. The only serious fault was a failure to get the tempo right to begin with: possibly my intentions weren’t clear enough; but though the band started off rather slowly the choir managed to push things up to a happier pace when they came in. While the musicians exercised the necessary restraint in the quiet bits the mighty crescendos in the symphonies were indeed something to remember. And the last verse, when the choir sang ‘All Glory give to God on high’, in unison, with the full band providing the harmonies – Glory indeed!
Afterwards we choristers sat in ‘Th’Owd Tithe Barn’ supping our pints and mulling over the concert. Everyone had enjoyed the experience. I hoped that Morecambe Band had as well, thinking of one crusty old bandsman’s comment afterwards: ‘Not my sort of music. But it could have been worse.’