America’s Brass Band Heritage – Turkey to Europe

by Larry Johnson

As Turkish armies marched across Europe they carried with them bands of shawms (primitive oboes), trumpets, flutes and percussion. The melody instruments (shawms) predominated, but other instruments were present. The Turkish Janissary Bands were notable in their use of percussion, which included the bass drum, cymbals, triangle and pairs of nakers, which were a rudimentary form of kettledrums. These instruments became immediately popular in Europe, and as European powers began to emerge from feudalism and organize modern armies, military bands were formed once again and the Turkish instruments incorporated in them. As late as Mozart (d. 1791), composers still used the term “Turkish Music” when referring to the percussion section of the orchestra.

The next important period in the development of bands was the time of Napoleon. Napoleon recognized the value of bands and took a direct hand in the establishment of good bands in the French Army. Under his guidance bands were enlarged to include clarinets, oboes, bassoons, trombones, horns, serpents (Russian bassoons) and the ever present trumpets. Percussion sections followed the Turkish model and consisted of side drums, bass drums, cymbals, triangle and an instrument that came to be known as the Turkish crescent. This was a wooden pole from which were suspended several small bells attached to a crescent-shaped plate at the top of the pole. The British Army eventually adopted this instrument which was known to them as a “Jingling Johnny.” German bands, which called it the schellenbaum, were still using it as late as World War II.

Following Napoleon, military bands contracted somewhat, dropping brass instruments entirely except for horns. The post-Napoleonic bands became almost standardized at two clarinets, two oboes, two bassoons and two horns. An occasional serpent could be found, but they were disappearing from use. This period lasted but briefly because bands were about to undergo an abrupt change.

This change was the invention of the piston valve. Like the automobile, which was invented over time by different men in different places, the valve was result of the work of Wieprecht, Stolzel, Perniet and others. When applied to brass instruments, the valve made possible a complete chromatic scale. Virtually overnight the valved brass replaced the oboes and clarinets as melody instruments, and the band had a new voice: the cornet.

At this point entered Adolph Sax. Sax was an instrument maker in the early 19th Century who seemed to dabble in everything. (Yes, he invented the saxophone.) He designed, built and patented entire families of instruments, but concentrated on the brasses. Sax prophetically foresaw the possibilities of valved brasses, and with a practical eye toward financial rewards, set out to revolutionize the world of musical instruments.

Sax revived an idea that had been developed in Medieval times. Secular musicians had conceived the idea of consorts, which were entire families of similar instruments. One such group, the violin consort, supplanted the viols and survives today as the string section of the modern orchestra. There had been consorts of shawms, recorders, strings, even trombones and these had divided themselves into two groups by the level of their sound. Consorts of quieter instruments, such as viols, were known as soft music and generally played indoors. The ore raucous consorts, such as shawms, were called loud music and normally performed for outdoor events. In Adolph Sax’s time, there was a need for an ensemble that could play outdoors and produce enough volume of sound to be heard. The military band of his time, consisting of clarinets, obes and bassoons, was inadequate to the task. So Sax revived the concept of loud music by creating a family of valved brasses. These instruments proved equal to the task and soon became standard band instruments.

But Sax went one step further. He also adopted the most characteristic feature of consorts, which was a set of instruments that possessed matched timbres. He comapred the two groups of brass instruments that had coexisted since ancient times: conical-bore horns and cylindrical-bore trumpets. Then he decided the ideal homogeneity of sound could be produced by a family of instruments halfway betwee the two extremes. Sax then developed two families of instruments. One was called saxtrombas, the other was named saxhorns. There was initial interest in both groups, but it was the saxhorn that caught on. This family of valved instruments produced an adequate volume of sound, blended well together and were fully chromatic. They worked so well that by the 1840s most military bands throughout the world had become essentially saxhorn bands.

Next time: Brass bands in America

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