[UK] Conference : History of the French Brass Band

For the first time, the European Brass Band Championships will take place in France (Lille) in 2016. To celebrate this event, the European Brass Band Association ask Eric Brisse about the Brass Band history of this country. The point for the EBBA is to show their choice of France for the organization this year, as this country has a growing banding culture.

Eric Brisse is one of the pioneer of the French Brass Band culture, he founded the Orchestre des Cuivres d'Amiens (OCA) one of the first French brass band. Today, as he is still directing the OCA he is also implicated in the development of the French brass band movement.


Le Brass Band en France

In the book on  musical orchestration le nouveau traité d’orchestration, written in 1992 by Désiré Dondeyne and Frédéric Robert, the Brass Band is described in this way: " it is an orchestra of cylindrical and tubular (saxhorns) brass instruments made up of only two instrumental families "

The authors add: "This band with a special sound, is not very common  in France … "

Nevertheless, it is a paradox, that this, the most British of  instrumental band formations, seems to have some very old French  roots.

A linguistic origin first of all; until the XVIIIth  century, in French the word bande

 indicated a regular orchestral group composed of instruments belonging to the same family.

 We can see here the origin of  the English word band used  in a general sense for ensembles  dominated by  wind instruments.

Other French roots of the Brass Band are to be found  in the crafting of its characteristic  instruments  because it is well and truly in France that they were developed … from 1828!

It is probably at this time that Halary invented the cornet, which was to become the solo instrument of the bandstands, and later, Honored by Jean Baptiste Arban, for performing polkas, airs and variations, and galops.

It was also the popular nature of this instrument that worked against it developing a high standing in France.

After 1942 this instrument was no longer taught at the Superior National Music Conservatoire of Paris

Equally, it was during the musical tour in England in 1844 by the French quintet of  John Distint and his four sons that British musicians discovered and quickly adopted the new instruments of the brilliant Belgian inventor, Adolf Sax.

They called these new orchestras "Saxhorns Bands "

We often compare the Brass Band movement  in England with the Fanfares and Concert Bands that developed in the North and East of France; in making this comparison, it is the size of these movements we speak about (during the post-war years there were about 15000 music groups of this type in United Kingdom …) and also their institutional arrangements.

The first of all was the Coxlodge Band formed in Newcasle-upon-Tyne in 1809, made up of different instruments. Serpents, Ophicléides, Natural Horns, Russian Bassoons, etc..

Very early, from 1850 in England (the first Brass Bands being created in 1830) the bands tried to compare themselves, to face off in contests resembling sporting competitions; a little later in France, it was the Concert Bands that  set up this type of contest.

The comparison with Concert Bands stops there.

In contemporary British culture, the popularity of these Brass Bands did not decline whereas the French Concert Bands became gradually marginalized from the inter-war period on.

We can see two reasons for this success.

Firstly, the repertoire: Brass Bands did not hesitate to perform the great hits of pop music or rock, (even techno!) alongside the most famous pieces of classical music (operatic arias, adaptation of string quartets, hymns …)

Secondly, the Brass Band spirit did not stay only in England: it spread gradually throughout Europe.

There are today about 2000 Brass Bands in the group of Scandinavian countries (the movement appeared there in the 1950's), 200 in Switzerland, 50 in the Netherlands and 30 in Belgium (in these latter three countries the movement developed from the 70’s).

The movement could have taken its place in France; nevertheless we had to wait for the 1980's for the first French Brass Band

Why ?

According to Brindley Boon, a Salvationist historian, there is a reason for this:

The French are cultured people. Classical music is an integral part of their culture and they can’t hold in high regard these Brass Bands and their low brow music …

French people are condescending? Perhaps…

Popular music is often denigrated. People doubt that amateurs are really musicians …

As in Great Britain, we see nevertheless, at the beginning of XIXth century in France, the appearance lots of choirs. This was largely due to the efforts of Guillaume Louis Bocquillon, known as Wilhem, who developed a choir singing method, the Orphéon, enabling the development of amateur participation in France.

From the 1850's, with the development of wind instruments, Harmonies (Wind Bands and Concert Bands) and Fanfares developed, more particularly in the North and East of France.

They were highly regarded by local authorities who subsidised them as these associations, often led by former servicemen, were available to provide music for civic ceremonies.

In England, it was more in the industrial setting that workers were able to sing, and later, play a musical instrument.

 Brass Band instrumentation  has remained unchanged since 1900.

From that time, the groups from the North of England agreed to participate in National Championships organised at the famous Crystal Palace of London.

The adoption of an imposed program was a factor in promoting fairness in judgement.

The obligation to present groups having all the same instrumentation: we call this particular composition: the Contest Band.

French Brass Bands have the same instrumentation as all around the world.

The Brass Band movement began in France in the 1980's, a century after a great number of bands were formed in England!

We had to wait until 1983 and the creation of the Brass Band Val de Loire by Jean Paul Leroy, a teacher of trumpet at the Conservatoire of Orléans, for France to finally see the birth its first Brass Band.

This initiative was at first educational, allowing pupils to discover and practice ensemble music: the Brass Band requires great rigour in work, as does chamber music.

Success was not denied to Orléans given that in 2013 the band celebrated 30 years of existence.

A number of ensembles of brass instruments were formed following this precedent but they were not true Brass Bands.

One instrument poses a problem in the very strict instrumentation of this formation: the Tenor Horn.

This instrument is simply not taught in France, even though there were up to 12 types of clarinets taught at the Superior Music Conservatoire of Paris in the XIXth century …

This instrument (Tenor Horn) had a bad image, having an unpleasant sound, somewhat nasal and inconsistent.

It was discarded by Concert Bands.

Consequently it had been necessary to find other instruments: French Horns coexisted with the other brass instruments initially in Brass Band Nord-Pas-de-Calais and the Orchestre de Cuivres d’Amiens, and today still, the Impérial Brass Band de Caen and the Orchestre de Cuivres de Paris, always have some French Horns in place of Tenor Horns.

The instrument evolved well however: a system of compensating valves and a trigger now allow consistent sounds in all the registers.

For the moment in France, which has at this time about sixty Brass Bands, these instruments are not played by specialists: trumpeters/cornet players or tenor horn players play the parts … Something that changes the sound enormously from one band to another one

In the Paris Brass Band the tenor horn parts are played by specialist Tenor Horn players assuring a  beautiful deep sound.

On the other hand, in the Aeolus Brass Band these parts are played (on Tenor Horn) by trumpeters giving the ensemble a brighter colour.

At the beginning of the Brass Band movement in France bands started up using the available instruments.

But the orthodox instruments are being quickly integrated as musicians get acquainted with the Contest Band.

At the instigation of Jacques Gaudet, Manager of the Courtois company, an international competition of Brass Bands, also open to French style brass orchestras was organised in Amboise in 1995: it brought together some varied French groups but also real Brass Bands (English, Belgian, Dutch, Swiss …)

We can say today that Brass Bands benefit from being very fashionable: musicians and the public are attracted by a different repertoire from that of Concert Bands.

The most prolific composers for wind ensembles (Sparke, De Meij, Graham …) compose firstly for Brass Band then transcribe their pieces for Concert Band (Music of the Sphere, Extreme Make Over, Call of the Cossaks …)

Some attempts on behalf of the French composers to write for Brass Band should be noted, but, very often the best composers have played in or conducted Brass Bands.

Since this French movement has developed, Brass Bands of the border zone of Belgium no longer come to France to play.

Military bands have equally developed their orchestration.

Indeed, the abolition of military conscription coincides with the emergence of the Brass Band movement.

The military band of the 43rd regiment of Lille became a Brass Band at the instigation of Antoine Langagne who also created the Air Force Brass Band of Paris, with French Horns first, then later with Tenor Horns.

Since 1998 the Brass Band movement in France gained official recognition with the Musical Confederacy of France joining the European Brass Band Association.

This has allowed the best French bands to take part in the European championships;

the first was Brass Band Normandie, followed by Brass Band Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Brass Band Aeolus and recently Paris Brass Band, who are today the best representatives of this formation  abroad.

It is noteworthy that in the case of these latter two groups they are made up of professional musicians and/ or students of high level, playing as amateurs.

The very technical repertoire at this level allows professional musicians to express their talent.

The first French Brass Band Championship took place in 2004 under the aegis of the Musical Confederacy of France, the officially recognized institution that brings together all the affiliated music groups in the country.

In the presentation documents for 2004 the Musical Confederacy of France had an educational role in explaining briefly what a Brass Band is and its origins, because the movement at that time was unknown in France.

This competition is organised with the same concerns for equity as the British competitions with strict rules: the list of musicians is controlled, the jury is hidden, and the groups cannot play to warm up on the spot.

The instrumentation  is the same as in Great Britain with some exceptions.

It is still possible to replace the Bass trombone by a tenor trombone, Euphonium and\or the Baritone by a Saxhorn Bass, and tubas Bb and Eb, by Tubas in C and\or in F.

There have been recent developments in France of junior Brass Bands, and also Brass Bands in schools, however they are still not numerous.

The Brass Band movement is very interesting for Brass players in France. Whatever their level, it allows them to play more interesting music than in a Symphony Orchestra or in a Concert Band.

Being more technical for all, Brass Bands require of the musicians a great rigour in personal work and rehearsals where, as in chamber music, a certain listening is required between everybody, before achieving pleasure in playing together.

For some years in France this music has gathered a curious and interested audience

that is often won over at the conclusion of concerts, and is becoming larger and larger in number.

For the future, let us hope that this support will enable the development of a nationally based movement across all of France and will teach us the best way of being absolutely Brass!


Eric Brisse

1st May 2015 - Freiburg - Germany

Conference during the Forum of the European Brass Band Association