Brass Band Repertoire in Manchester’s Public Parks in World War One: Tradition and Patriotism, By Dr Stephen Etheridge
1913 was a watershed year for the brass band movement. Labour and Love, Percy Fletcher’s tone poem, was performed at the Crystal Palace Contest. The winning band was Irwell Springs who came from East Lancashire’s Rossendale Valley. Labour and Love was significant as it was composed music of some substance that was available to all bands. It was the first test piece that was composed for the standardised brass band line-up and that the sources can account for fully. As Paul Hindmarsh wrote, ‘it was not part of a local ‘bespoke’ repertoire […].It stands like a solitary beacon in the writing for brass band in the early twentieth century[…].’
This Whit-Friday found me in the pretty Southern Pennine village of Diggle, near Oldham. The one defining element of the brass band movement is tradition. Perhaps this is shown in the persistence of the brass band contest from the earliest days of the movement. In my opinion the best and most traditional of these is the Whit-Friday Contests, often billed as ‘the greatest free show on Earth’, where over one-hundred bands descend on the Southern Pennines, and the towns and villages around Saddleworth, to compete. One Guardian commentator described the ‘annual brass band battle, fought in villages on old Lancashire-Yorkshire border, [as] part Wacky Races and part Brassed Off .’
From 1914-1915 there was a swift and unparalleled expansion of Britain’s land forces. As Peter Simkins has written, this ‘was a gigantic act of national improvisation which helped to create not only Britain’s first-ever mass citizen army but also the biggest single organisation in British history up to that time. These first months of recruitment and mobilisation are the subject of this blog and the ones that follow. They describe how the editors and correspondents of band periodicals reacted to civilian bandsmen becoming soldiers. How did bandsmen react to the ‘rush to the colours’ that gripped the nation? How did the bands and bandsmen in and around Manchester react to a conflict that, due to enlistment, could have destroyed a well-established working-class cultural tradition? Answering these questions not only reflects the national picture of the brass band movement but also embraces older Victorian values that illuminate aspects of tradition, class and gender found in the brass bands of the Manchester region.
During the First World War brass bands were an essential part of music-making in Manchester. Local bands were important to elements of life on the home front such as fund raising, entertainment, boosting morale and supporting the troops, not only in Manchester, but also nationally. Indeed, a study of bands in Manchester reflects many of the experiences of bandsmen throughout the country. The majority of brass band work took place in Manchester’s public parks, together with concerts, contests and events in the industrial towns and villages that surrounding the city, such as the Rossendale Valley, for example. In addition, whilst the National Brass Band Contest was cancelled, the Belle Vue Open Championships struggled on. These contests kept the long-established traditions of the movement going. Writing in September 1914 ‘Pluto’, the Manchester and Region correspondent for the Brass Band News, stated that ‘some of our bands have been hard hit by mobilisation, but those of us staying at home will have to see to it that the ball is kept rolling […..] In fact we must.’
With such a visible role in Manchester’s musical life it is important to understand how brass bands came to have that role. The purpose of this introductory blog is to provide a background to how brass bands developed and came to be part of Manchester’s musical life long before 1914. Manchester was a city that attracted performers from all over the North, many came to compete in musical contests at Belle Vue. These performers were largely working-class amateurs who played in an eclectic group of ensembles from choirs to accordion bands and hand-bell ringing groups, and, of course, brass bands. Moreover, the region’s population were regarded as being highly musical since at least the late eighteenth century. This musicianship provided an environment where brass bands could flourish. By the late nineteenth century external observers had noticed how bands were present at any number of community events. In April 1892, the Magazine of Music illustrated the eclectic range of events bands took part in writing:
There is scarcely a public function of any kind at which there is not a band to dispense sweet harmonies. As one looks through the record of a month’s work, one sees social gatherings of all kinds-teas, suppers, dances, cricket or football matches, presentations, festivals, demonstrations, camp meetings and anniversaries. It would seem as if nothing human were complete without a band, for this week, a band has to play at a marriage and a funeral.
In this blog I will sketch out the development of brass instruments, the growth of brass bands and the importance of Northern bands. In this way this post serves as a foundation to the history of brass bands in Manchester in the First World War.