The Advanced Brass Literature Class enjoyed a visit with Mr. Arfon Owen on Wednesday, March 3, 2017. Mr. Owen is a guest lecturer, performer, and educator from Great Britain. He is known for his work as a tenor horn soloist with the Black Dyke Brass Band. He now plays with the Stavenger Band in Norway. While he visited our class he shared music, history, and the traditions of the British Brass Band.
According to Mr. Owen, the British Brass Band tradition originated in the Industrial Revolution. Many of the factory and colliery bands were created to prevent the employees from unionizing and abusing alcohol following a long day at work. Eventually competition became a tradition within the brass band community as a way to market the companies who sponsored them. The best players would be pilfered from other bands by the companies who wished to reign supreme. The Black Dyke Band, Mr. Owens former ensemble, traces their origins to the Black Dyke Mills textile plant owned by John Foster in the 19th century. The Grimethorpe Colliery Band originates from the coal industry that once thrived in Grimethrope, South Yorkshire.
These two bands are the best known here in the states. You may remember the Ewan McGregor film Brassed Off. The Grimethorpe Colliery Band provided the music for the film. The Black Dyke Band appeared on a Paul McCartney and Wings record as well as recorded on the Beatles, Apple Records Label.
Competition in the late 19th and early 20th century raised the quality of the music written for brass band. Test pieces are a key component of the competition process. These pieces are designed to test the technical and musical skill of each section of the band. An example of a modern test piece comes from the pen of Johann de Meij. Extreme Makeover is a metamorphosis on themes from Peter Tchaikovsky. This is one of the most difficult pieces ever written for brass band. It was later scored for Concert Band by the composer. Philip Sparke, Jacob de Haan, James Curnow, Malcolm Arnold and many more composers have written works for the brass band either as test pieces or as art pieces.
Moorside Suite by Gustav Holst was a test piece written in 1928. The Black Dyke Band won that competition. The march from this suite was arranged for concert band by Gordon Jacob. I have had the privilege of conducting that arrangement with municipal bands. Denis Wright arranged the whole suite for Concert Band in 1983, but the published version did not appear until 1989. The Brass Band has influenced the Concert Band repertoire. Malcolm Arnold's Four Scottish Dances, English Dances Sets I and II, Little Suite for Band (Prelude, Siciliano, and Rondo,) and Padstow Lifeboat have all been arranged from brass band to concert band instrumentation. Even the idea of competition from the brass band world appears to have influenced scholastic band competition. Some of my research in the history of the Illinois School Band Association from the 1920's and 1930's show bands being required to play a certain selection. It was not called a test piece, but it may be an inferred practice from brass band tradition. Some states still have a required piece or a piece that is on a list that must be played as part of the scholastic band competition process.
Mr. Owen will be appearing with the Eastern Iowa Brass Band this weekend, and he will be attending the North American Brass Band Association in Fort Wayne, Indiana on March 10 and 11. Information for the Eastern Iowa Brass Band concert may be found here. http://easterniowabrassband.com
It was a pleasure to listen to Mr. Owen's presentation. The history of the brass band and the links to community music participation are an important part of our culture as musicians, and as a global populace.