A short history of brass music

blasmusik, geschichte, seifert = musik -

A short history of brass music

Let's start at the beginning, with the band. The term band, which refers to a group of musicians playing together, is very general. It can refer to anything from a few guitarists with a singer to a large group of brass , woodwinds and percussionists. This review will address only the history and development of bands associated with the modern European-American concert and marching band tradition.

Bands in early Europe

The modern tradition of concert and marching bands has developed over the centuries from an even older tradition of military music. There is much evidence that trumpets, horns, and drums were used for military purposes in ancient times in many places, including Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome. However, in ancient times and the Middle Ages, these instruments were primarily used by armies for signaling and not actually for making music. When a tune for marching was desired, instruments such as flute or bagpipes were preferred. In the Middle Ages, this led to different musicians being hired from different companies as needed: the cavalry required trumpets, horns and drums, while the foot soldiers preferred pipes and bagpipes.

Until about the seventeenth century, "band" was a generic term for any group of musicians who played together (as it still is today). There was not even a distinction between "band" and "orchestra", nor was there any attempt to standardize the instrumentation of musical groups. Composed music was generally for small groups of similar instruments, e.g. a group of recorders of various sizes or a group of trombones. The modern string quartet is a good example of this type of consort. Larger ensembles with mixed instruments played popular songs and dances, probably with little or no written music, and improvised their parts, as early jazz musicians did and as many traditional musicians around the world still do.

One type of ensemble from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that can be seen as a forerunner of the band tradition was the communal, town or tower musicians. These groups grew out of the tradition of announcing the hours of the day by musical signals, and their duties gradually expanded to include playing chorales from the city tower and providing music for festivals, state occasions, weddings, and church services. Typical instruments for this type of group were trombones of various sizes and cornets. The latter were not today's trumpet-like instrument, but a wooden instrument with a cup-shaped mouthpiece like a trumpet, but with finger holes like a recorder. Centuries later, the tower musician groups disappeared and were replaced by other brass groups.

Military bands

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries represent the beginnings of a true, standardized, military band tradition . As previously mentioned, in earlier times the military simply hired the musicians they needed for signaling and marching. At some point during this time, the desire to have a better time marching led to the appointment of a "chief drummer." The most important development at this time, however, was the establishment of a regularly constituted military band under Louis XIV of France. These first military bands were oboe bands, which may seem surprising. However, it is remembered that flutes and bagpipes have long been the instruments of choice to accompany marching music. Additionally, the oboes of that era had a much louder, outdoor-friendly sound than today's more sophisticated concert instrument.

The impetus for the formation of these larger, permanent, standardized and party-playing ensembles probably came from the influence of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which had a major influence on Western European society at the time. The Ottoman military had a very long tradition of large musical ensembles accompanying troops into battle . These ensembles, led by very loud oboe-like instruments and accompanied by trumpet-like instruments and drums, gathered around the battle standard. During the actual battle, the position of the standard (place of deployment; also known as the battle flag) is a very important signal to the soldiers regarding the course of the battle; But in the chaos this is not always visible to every soldier - but can be heard by the musicians. In Ottoman battles, musicians gathered in a circle or semicircle around the standard, and as long as they played, anyone within earshot could assume that the Turkish standard was intact.

The value of this fact in terms of morale (on both sides), especially when the music was aggressively loud, should be clear to everyone, and it was not lost on the military of Western Europe. In France in 1665 the Mousquetaires had 3 oboes and 5 drums per company. The gardes du corps had oboe ensembles that played in four-part harmony, with a curtall (another double reed) playing the bass part. Other militaries, including the English, soon had their own oboe bands; in Germany the generic term for a musician was a hautboist (the French word for oboist).

However, the Ottoman Empire's influence on Western music, particularly bands, did not end there. In fact, the enthusiasm for all things Turkish that prevailed in Central Europe in the late eighteenth century influenced not only military music, but also classical music, with composers such as Mozart and Beethoven adding "Turkish percussion" (bass drum, side drum, cymbals, triangle and tambourine). Military bands were again completely overhauled, enlarged, equipped with new instruments and even dressed in exotic, imitation Turkish costumes. The Polish military is generally known as the first in Western Europe to organize a "Turkish-style" military band, but the Austrians, Russians, Germans and French soon followed. By the 1770s, "Turkish" military bands were widespread throughout Western Europe. By the end of the eighteenth century, a Turkish percussion group had become a part of European military music. According to a report from Vienna in 1796, military music included two broad categories: field music (signals and flourishes) and "Turkish" music.

Concert bands and community bands

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, open-air concerts by military bands became established in the capitals of Europe; The military band essentially took over the tasks of the city band and the tower musicians. Around this time, community bands began to appear, organized by and for the general public rather than hired by the military or city government. Although these bands were obviously inspired by military band concerts, they quickly grew into a tradition of their own, with larger and more diverse instrumentation and repertoire of their own.

The beginnings of the modern concert band are often traced to the French Revolution, when large bands were a popular part of patriotic gatherings and festivals. By the mid-nineteenth century, popular concerts by amateur and folk bands, as well as military bands, were a regular part of community life across Europe.

Initially, these military and folk bands played primarily popular and utilitarian music with an immediate appeal to the audience. Despite its beginnings in the young French Republic, where original works were written specifically for bands by respected composers, most serious composers were not interested in producing compositions for bands. Bands that wanted to include serious music in their program often used transcriptions of well-known orchestral pieces. Composers' lack of interest was probably largely due to problems with instrumentation. One problem was simply the lack of standardization. The bands' instrumentation (the type of instruments used and their number) varied greatly from place to place; Even today it is not standardized and varies from country to country. Another problem for the composers may have been that the wind instruments of that time were not as high quality as they are today. As already mentioned, there were no large standardized musical groups in early Europe. When a large standardized group of instruments developed - the orchestra - it consisted largely of string instruments, which were essentially as easy to play as they are today. Wind instruments, on the other hand, were constructed much worse than today's instruments. They were more difficult (sometimes fundamentally impossible) to play in the correct voice, often could not change notes as quickly as today's instruments, and some of them could not even play all the notes of a chromatic scale.

Developments in instrumentation

As previously mentioned, major developments and innovations in the instruments themselves were necessary to produce today's top band, capable of playing with the same precision and virtuosity as the orchestra. One of these developments was the rise of the clarinet. Invented around 1690 (through improvements to an earlier instrument, the chalumeau), the clarinet was in use as early as 1720. Easier to play while marching, with a wide range, bright timbre, and great ability for nuance and dynamics, the clarinet became an important part of most wind ensembles, eventually replacing the oboe in military and marching bands.

The band's bass section also developed over the course of the eighteenth century. During the oboe era, the bass voice was largely occupied by large double reeds such as the basket and bassoon. These were gradually replaced, most notably by the trombone and serpent, a large wooden instrument which, like the cornet, has the cup-shaped mouthpiece of a brass instrument but the wooden body (with finger holes) of a woodwind instrument.

Bands continued to change throughout the nineteenth century, but this was largely due to the vast technical improvements in wind instrument making. A big step was the development of the valve for brass instruments. Until the 18th century, the slide trombone was the only brass instrument that was fully chromatic and could easily play any note in any key. Natural horns and trumpets, without valves, were essentially horn players who could only play the notes of a single harmonic series. The instrument makers initially tried to remedy this deficiency in keyed trumpets and horns with instruments that could change the tube length and thus the key relatively quickly.

The trumpet's keys worked similarly to the keys of woodwind instruments, opening holes in the instrument and effectively making it shorter and higher pitched. However, the timbre and tuning of the instrument were not considered ideal, and keyed trumpets essentially disappeared in the 1840s, replaced by valved trumpets.

In contrast to the woodwind key, the brass valve works more in keeping with early attempts to make horns, which could change their length and thus their harmonic series relatively quickly. The early experimental horns still required time to change keys, with the player usually having to replace part of the instrument's pipe with a shorter or longer part. With the modern brass valve it was possible to instantly change the length of the instrument by opening an additional length of pipe with the valve. (So ​​a valve effectively makes the instrument longer and slightly lower, or shorter and higher, like opening keys on woodwind instruments). Most brass instruments have three valves, as three overtone rows are enough to play a fully chromatic scale in the full range of the instrument, but some low brass instruments have more valves. In fact, one of the most important effects of the valve instrument was to make low brass instruments practical. Tubas were first built in the 1830s and were quickly adopted by brass bands. The serpent and ophicleide remained in the orchestra until the 1800s, but were eventually completely replaced by the tuba and its slightly higher-pitched relatives, the baritone and euphonium. The Prussian bandmaster Wilhelm Wieprecht was a major force, both in improving keyed instruments and in encouraging bands to adopt them. (It is unclear which of several instrument makers actually invented the first brass valve).

Another major influence in the nineteenth century was the instrument maker and prolific inventor Adolphe Sax. Although never adopted by orchestras, the four types of saxophones still in use - the soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones - have had an enormous influence on Marching, concert and especially jazz bands. But not only were these instruments invented by Sax, many bands of the nineteenth century also used a variety of saxhorns and sax trumpets in addition to saxophones.

The ensemble's percussion section also grew, with nineteenth-century composers experimenting with sounds such as bells, whips, anvils, jingles, gongs, castanets, glockenspiels, and xylophones. In the twentieth century, many percussion instruments from the Latin American tradition were added, such as marimba, maracas, claves, bongos, conga and guiro.

Jazz bands

The traditional American jazz band is also closely linked to military and community band traditions. Jazz's roots come from African-American traditions; Field and work songs, spirituals, blues and ragtime all played a role in the early development of the genre, and the earliest jazz did not have a standard line-up.

The earliest standard jazz band to emerge was the New Orleans "Dixieland" style band. The typical instrumentation of this group was a front line of trumpet or cornet, clarinet and trombone, supported by a rhythm section of drums, piano, double bass or tuba and banjo (or guitar).

This instrumentation was influenced by two types of groups that were thriving in New Orleans at the time: dance bands and military brass bands. Both played at social events, with the brass bands particularly popular at street parades (including funeral parades) and outdoor carnival events. These brass bands began in traditional military style, playing marches of written music. However, in the early 1900s a tradition of playing the marches with a ragtime beat developed, and many of the band musicians, who had no formal training, also developed a distinctive style of improvisation. New Orleans-style bands quickly spread across the country and began to develop into a jazz tradition. In the big band era of the 1930s, the typical jazz band featured an entire section of front instruments (trumpets, trombones and reeds, which were now mostly saxophones but still included clarinets). The typical rhythm section had become drums, piano, double bass and guitar.

An explosion of jazz styles in the 1950s included the proliferation of smaller " combo " ensembles. The typical combo is still reminiscent of the original jazz line-up with trumpet, saxophone, trombone, piano, drums and bass; but bandleaders handpick their instrumentalists for a specific ensemble sound, and a quartet of piano, drums, double bass and vibraphone, a quartet of electric guitar, electric bass, drums and electric organ, or a nonet that includes a tuba and a includes French horn, are all perfectly acceptable jazz ensembles. Today the jazz scene consists of large and small groups with a wide variety of line-ups.


Farmer, Henry George. The Rise and Development of Military Music. Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1912.
Goldman, Richard Franko. The Concert Band. New York: Rinehart and Company, Inc., 1946.
Martin, Henry, and Keith Waters. Jazz: The First 100 Years. Belmont CA: Thomson Schirmer, 2006.
White, William Carter. A History of Military Music in America. New York: The Exposition Press, 1944.