Inside Story

Black Dyke days

How do you compose for a brass band? Andrew Ford went to Yorkshire to find out

Andrew Ford 15 March 2011 816 words

The Black Dyke Mill, where it all began. Tim Green/Flickr

WHEN I told friends I had a commission from the Black Dyke Band, they were unfailingly impressed. Some of them knew that the outfit in question was a brass band (and not just any brass band), but the majority assumed I was working with African-American lesbians – perhaps an a cappella group – and, until I disabused them, regarded me in a new, flattering and ineffably cool light.

Actually, I think it’s pretty cool to be here in Yorkshire working with one of the oldest and most famous brass bands in the world, but it’s also been quite scary. What do you do with ten cornets? Do you really need four tubas? And what is a baritone horn anyway? These are among the questions that confront the neophyte band composer. Treat the cornets as you would the violins in an orchestra, I was told; write individual lines for all the instruments; imagine the band as a big string quartet: conflicting advice, on the face of it, but none of it actually bad. Still, nothing prepares you for how the history and traditions of a band affect the music they play and the way you must write for them. For example, with the exception of the bass trombone (and percussion), all the instruments in the band are written in the treble clef. Even the “B flat basses” – as they call the two lowest tubas – read from parts that look like flute music. As the experienced band composer Philip Wilby told me, “It’s highly cultural.”

In 1855, John Foster, an amateur horn player and owner of the Black Dyke Mills, revived the local Queensbury town band, bought it a new set of instruments and named it after his business. From the outset, the Black Dyke Mills Band was part of a working-class movement ushered in by the industrial revolution, featuring community music-making of a very high order. The choral societies of Huddersfield, Halifax, Bradford and Leeds were part of it, bringing civic pride to the great cities of northern England, but the brass bands were specifically attached to industry, supported by mining (the Grimethorpe Colliery Band), vehicle manufacturing (Foden’s and Leyland), and cotton and wool mills (Besses o’ th’ Barn and Black Dyke).

Since the Black Dyke Mills closed, the band has dropped the third word from its name, leading to the puzzlement and confusion mentioned above. But while the players may no longer work at the mill or live in Queensbury, they remain amateur and have day jobs as teachers, plumbers or accountants. But that is the only sense in which they are amateur. Once they pick up their instruments they are virtuosi and, down the years, they have been poached by leading symphony orchestras. The late Maurice Murphy, principal trumpet of the London Symphony Orchestra for thirty years and owner of those soaring top notes in the Star Wars movies, once played principal cornet for Black Dyke, and his successor at the LSO is another Black Dyke alumnus.

So it’s interesting, to me, that while it’s one of the most famous bands of them all, even some of my music colleagues did not know of it. It says a lot about the separation of “banding” from the classical and commercial mainstreams. In Australia, my music has been played by all the main orchestras and is regularly broadcast, but I was largely unaware of the brass bands. It turns out there are dozens of them all over Australia and they are particularly strong in Queensland and Victoria. I suppose it’s partly a matter of their amateur status, but it’s also surely that they are so hard to pigeonhole. There is standard band repertoire by the likes of Elgar and Holst, Vaughan Williams and Bliss, and of course there are arrangements of every classical piece imaginable (I once heard a brass band play Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata), but the repertoire also contains a vast amount of pop music of one sort or another.

But set these bands alongside many of our orchestras and another difference is apparent. It’s the enthusiasm for new music. Philip Wilby has written a dozen band pieces over the last twenty years, most recently his virtuosic Vivaldi mash-up, Red Priest. In Australia, Brenton Broadstock has added works to the repertoire. And the top bands demand these new scores. Some of the music is at the lighter end of the scale, but there are also avant-garde classics such as Harrison Birtwistle’s great, glowering Grimethorpe Aria.

Last month, in a rehearsal room in Manchester, the Black Dyke Band played me my new piece, The Rising. Under their conductor Nicholas Childs, they were as painstaking and committed as any specialist contemporary music group I’ve worked with. Friendly, too.

Having finally discovered the brass band world at the age of fifty-three, I’m not sure I want to leave. •