Why isn’t there a brass band concert as part of the BBC Proms?
I’ve been mulling over this question for some time now. It seems to me that brass band music is still viewed by some as a small tributary off the main waterway that is mainstream ‘classical’ music. The schedulers who seem happy to programme yet another performance of the ‘Great Masters’ seem much more reticent to programme a mixed concert of the world’s leading bands, even though such a concert would find a ready-made audience and would be hugely entertaining.
And before anyone reminds me that there was a ‘Brass Day’ at the Proms in 2007 [https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/e4p9rz] — yes there was, but it was a bit of a Curate’s egg (some might say a dog’s dinner) featuring a widely divergent set of ensembles and musical styles.
In this blog post I’m going to play devil’s advocate by posing the typical objections one might expect to such a proposition, then I’m going to give my own answers to those objections in the hope of establishing a cast-iron case for a brass band Prom.
The Proms is for professionals. Brass bands are amateur organisations providing local entertainment and ‘cultural colour’, but they can hardly be compared to the great BBC orchestras, or other orchestras such as the LSO, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, The Hallé etc.
This is a non-argument. The standard of musicianship and technical playing ability is every bit as high in the very best bands as it is in the orchestras named above. I can personally vouch for this, as I have had the pleasure of working with the LSO, The BBC Symphony Orchestra, the English Chamber Orchestra, The Aurora Orchestra and the BBC Concert Orchestra. These are all outstanding ensembles, but I can also personally attest to the playing standard of bands like Cory, Brighouse & Rastrick, Foden’s, Black Dyke and so on (forgive me if I missed your favourite band — space is limited).
The Proms is a music festival of great intellectual rigour, featuring masterworks by the greatest composers in music history; allied to this is an unrivalled tranche of new commissions and world premieres by the finest living composers.
You might be surprised to know that it’s not all ‘Floral Dance’ any more in the brass band world. Although there is a lot of what my old professor used to call ‘light music’ in brass band repertoire, there is also a lot of well composed, intellectually rigorous and beautifully crafted music using many of the extended compositional techniques to be found in more mainstream new ‘classical’ music.
Some composers cross over from contemporary classical to brass band with great facility — think Judith Bingham and Phil Wilby — while composers like Peter Graham and James Curnow (to name but two) have been pushing the envelope for years.
It’s the same scenario with the leading musical directors – search their biographies and you’ll find a plethora of academic qualifications at the highest level: Professor David King, Professor Roger Webster, Dr. David Thornton, Professor Nicholas Childs, Professor Steven Mead etc.
The Royal Northern College of Music is a powerhouse of brass band music that has academic bona fides to match any other music college in the UK. So it’s anachronistic in the extreme to level this accusation at brass bands.
But coming back to the ‘light music’ accusation — ‘Rule Britannia’, The Dr Who Prom and the ever-popular John Wilson Orchestra Proms are hardly beacons of intellectual rigour, so, there is a place for music that is perhaps less intellectually taxing than Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra — magnificent though they are.
Whilst not denying the cultural relevance of brass banding in the same way that we would acknowledge the importance of, say, Morris Dancing, it’s difficult to argue that it’s as culturally relevant as mainstream classical music, with its centuries of tradition and global reach. The adherence to old fashioned uniforms, the limited sonic palette of the ensemble, and the insistence on playing anachronistic music (in the main), are the hallmarks of a musical genre that is stuck in the past.
Yes, it’s true that we still take to the stage looking like a convention of bus conductors or sea ferry captains, but the uniforms of brass bands are part of our cultural heritage, and should be celebrated just as much as the penguin suits of the classical orchestras. As to the other objections, a choral ensemble is similarly limited in sonic variety, as is a string orchestra, yet both regularly feature in the Proms. Also, with the addition of multiple percussionists to the normal brass band line-up, allied to the extended playing techniques of contemporary players, this particular criticism lacks validity.
Diversity — a step too far?
The BBC is committed to cultural diversity, but it remains the case that brass band music is a niche interest that does not form part of the mainstream and should not therefore form an intrinsic part of the Proms season.
In 2018 the BBC scheduled an entire Prom dedicated to Folk music; another was devoted to Jacob Collier and friends, while yet another explored the music of Youssou Ndour & Le Super Étoile de Dakar. these are hardly pillars of classical music, great though they undoubtedly are in their different ways.
Such cultural diversity is to be applauded, but it does rather undermine the argument that a cultural niche — even were I to accept that brass band music is one such (which I do not) — may not be included in the Proms.
So, come on BBC — how about it?