Philip Biggs

We quiz Philip Biggs, organiser of the Great Northern Brass Arts Festival, on the history of the brass band sound…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 10 Sep 2014
  • min read
Brass banding is one of the UK’s most well known sounds and one the Great Northern Brass Arts Festival hopes to celebrate this weekend when it takes place in Manchester.

The event, at the Bridgewater Hall on Saturday 13 September, will mark 100 years since the first original brass band composition. Beginning with Percy Fletcher’s Labour of Love, the concert will take in the history of the sound over seven hours and performances from the scene’s ‘top brass’.

The National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain, Black Dyke and Foden’s Band will all be performing on the day. We quizzed event organiser and youth band administrator Philip Biggs on the UK's brass banding tradition…

Where did British brass banding begin?  

Brass bands have been going in their present form since the 1850s. Year after year at Belle Vue, Manchester, brass bands would compete. The crowds were estimated to be at 30,000. It was the popular entertainment of the time.

Similarly there were the national brass band championships at Crystal Palace. They started in 1860. There was a massive explosion of brass bands in the UK, very much centred in Lancashire, Yorkshire, and South Wales. Companies wanted to have brass bands profile their business.

So the growth of brass was related to industry?

Yes there became great rivalry between the companies sponsoring the bands. The best brass players would be enticed to companies. That carried on until the 1980s. Then coal mining was pretty much wiped out in this country as were pretty much all the original industries.

It was the working man’s artistic and cultural pursuit. In those days, they had terrible manual jobs to do so this was a way of relieving the sheer toil and doing something completely different. It was there for them but the companies felt good about providing the outlet.

What was the importance of brass banding contests?

Whether people like it or not, competitions really are a central driving force behind the music. There’s a whole host of competitions over the year, both in specific areas and nationally.

Who have been the major composers for brass bands?

The 1930s was a golden era as you had the likes of Edward Elgar and Vaughan Williams writing for brass bands. They were all seen as serious classical composers. They came in to write for brass bands and that was a big change.

Another massive influence in the early seventies was Elgar Howarth. With Elgar came interest from all sorts. He opened doors so brass bands were then playing at the BBC Proms. Edward Gregson was another massive figure to come into the story. He has been arguably obver the last 40 years, the pre-eminent composer for brass.

Now the brass band world is really blessed and fortunate as there are great composers the world over writing for brass. What started in its present form in Crystal Palace in the 1860s, really has gone global. Brass bands are now pretty much in every country in the world and the UK should be very proud of one of its finest musical exports.

What is the health of brass banding like at the moment?

I think it’s going through a resurgence. I have the honour to be the administrator of the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain and I’ve never had such a waiting list of players wanting to be members. The standard is higher than ever, which is total credit to the teaching at the moment.

The youth band scene is very strong and very healthy. There’ s a lot which happened, politically, economically which brass bands couldn’t fight against. They had to react with it – and they did that positively. Brass bands and the people within them are pretty resilient. Brass bands did lose a lot of their support with the pit and shipyard closures. They were hammered by these things.

The one thing brass bands don’t get is the public exposure but bands need to do something about that themselves.

What can they do?

It’s up to individual bands to really get that message across; just what a high quality product we have got. Brass bands need to go out and hammer on the doors of BBC music producers, record companies and the big festival promoters.

Who are the new composers for brass?

Gavin Higgins - he’s had a piece at the last night of the proms this year. He was a member of the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain. He's one of the most exciting new talents to have come through.

Edward Gregson has written every classical music combination there is for brass. It’s very much alive and going in the right direction.

The Great Northern Brass Arts Festival is part of PRS for Music's centenary celebrations.

Visit the Bridgewater Hall website to find out more about the festival and how to get tickets.