British wind Music Before 1981

Chapter 5: 150 Years Of Music At Kneller Hall

2007 sees the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall, the first of a series of important anniversary dates in the history of British wind music. 2009 is the centenary of the Competition by the Worshipful Company of Musicians for a composition for wind music, while 2011 is the Centenary of the Festival of Empire Imperial Exhibition at Crystal Palace.

As well as two civilian bands, the Exhibition involved the bands of the Grenadier, the Coldstream, the Scots and the Irish Guards, and the Pageant itself was seen and heard by over 4,000,000 people. Composers contributing included MacEwen, Holst, Balfour Gardiner, Haydn Wood, Edward German, Hubert Bath, Mackenzie Rogan, Frederick Austin and Percy Fletcher. Probably the best piece to emerge was Frank Bridge's Pageant of London.

The Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall, was founded in 1857 by the Duke of Cambridge, following an appalling show by the British military bands at a grand review during the Crimean war. The method of forming British bands had been completely ad hoc, left to the whim of commanding officers; in addition, then as now, bandsmen became hospital orderlies in the front line, so it was little wonder that the cacophonous British sounds at the grand review of allied troops drove the Duke of Cambridge to action. 

According to Henry Farmer, 

The final humiliation came at Scutari in 1854 when at the Grand Review in honour of the birthday of Queen Victoria, with some 16 thousand men marching past in perfect order, our band later struck up 'God Save the Queen' not only from different arrangements, but in different keys and this before the General Staff of the Allied Army.

After the Peace Treaty in 1856, the Duke as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army determined to restructure the training of military musicians, and with commendable speed and efficiency the Royal Military School of Music opened to train musicians and bandmasters for the British army in 1857 Despite the initial reservations of many regiments, within twenty years a circular from the War office could proudly declare that there are now nearly 120 Military Bandmasters in active employment, all of whom have qualified at Kneller Hall, while there are only 35 left of the old class of civilian bandmasters.

Years of steady development followed, with a musical mix largely of entertainment and ceremonial, for which successive Directors of Music, and the student bandmasters as part of their course, wrote marches and fanfares. The concert programmes in the last century were catholic, ranging from classical to contemporary; the first surviving programme, dated June 1888, includes music by Handel, Mozart, Meyerbeer, Wagner, Saint-Saens, Gung'l, Thomas and Stainer.

Links with the music profession, through the staff and formal and freelance work in London, have always been strengths of Kneller Hall and are continued today. As Mackenzie Rogan records, the students were expected to attend the opera at Covent Garden or Her Majesty's Theatre twice a week....We also had complimentary tickets for the Monday 'Pops' at St James Hall.

Musically, the most ambitious period was that of the early twenties, inspired by the then Commandant, Colonel J A C Somerville who had succeeded his elder brother Cameron Somerville in 1920. Somerville was very outspoken; in an article in The Army Quarterly he claimed that civilian taste in music had improved under the influence of Sir Henry Wood (who visited Kneller Hall in 1923) but that this progress had not been matched by the military.

Croaking Like Frogs In A Pond

We in the army have been content to continue in the old rut, croaking to one another like frogs in a pond - damned impenetrable from the main stream of progress - and continuing to regard the overture to "William Tell", " Zampa" and other such rococo claptrap as the summit of ambition for the band to play or the soldier to appreciate.

Among other innovations, Somerville proposed an annual conference; the Kneller Hall Diary recorded that on 7th December 1921 A Conference attended by the Directors of Music and representatives of the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Royal Airforce, bandmasters of the Army and music publishers was held at the School to deliberate the numbers and instrumentation of the minimum Military Band, and other questions of importance therewith. One result was an agreement about the basic Instrumentation of Military Bands of 20 to 50 Players; the interesting points are the complete lack of baritone saxophone, even in larger bands, and the use of only piccolo in smaller bands, the flute being introduced from bands of 40 upwards.

A further consideration was the investigation of pitch and the adoption of the flatter International Pitch, first mooted in 1885 and agreed by the War Office as long as it was carried out without expense to the public. This reform was delayed until 1928-1930, and then regrettably often achieved by merely adding pieces of tubing to high-pitch instruments.

Musical Legacy of Somerville

The musical importance of Colonel Somerville cannot be exaggerated. Frederick Fennell, in his fine book Basic Band Repertory, published by The Instrumentalist in 1980, writes At least 90% of the band music now published and played in the United States is patterned after the British Army band repertory of the early 1900's.

Such is the influence of a handful of works.

1909 Gustav Holst Suite no 1 in Eb
1911 Gustav Holst Suite no 2 in F
1924 Ralph Vaughan Williams Toccata Marziale
1924 Ralph Vaughan Williams English Folk Song Suite
1924 Gordon Jacob The William Byrd Suite

To this listing of important early music, I would now add the splendid Pageant of London by Sir Frank Bridge, (da Capo Press), written in 1911 for the Festival of Empire Imperial Exhibition. As well as two civilian bands, the Exhibition involved the bands of the Grenadier, the Coldstream, the Scots and the Irish Guards, and the Pageant itself was seen and heard by over 4,000,000 people. Other composers contributing included MacEwen, Holst, Balfour Gardiner, Haydn Wood, Edward German, Hubert Bath, Mackenzie Rogan, Frederick Austin and Percy Fletcher.

Royal Albert Hall 1922

The musical highpoint of the early twenties was the concert given at the Royal Albert Hall on June 30th, 1922, sponsored by the British Music Society, Incorporated Society of Musicians and Federation of British Music Industries. The Director of Music, Hector Adkins, conducted 165 musicians in Three Humoresques by Walton O'Donnell and The Wreckers Overture by Ethel Smythe, transcriptions of Bach Fugues and the Prelude to Die Meistersinger, Holst's Festival Choruses and the Second Suite in F. The Press was enthusiastic:

Military Band Concert; Music Society's Project to Encourage Composers

In connection with the British Music Society's annual conference, a concert was given in the Albert Hall on Friday night by the band of the Royal Military School of Music. They had three aims in view: to demonstrate the influence of the military band as a factor in the musical life of the nation; to encourage composers to write for it; and to secure public appreciation for military music and all concerned with its performance. Of these, perhaps, the most important was the second. The Sunday Times - July 2, 1922

One object of this concert was to demonstrate the effectiveness of the military band as a medium for the performance of the best music, and in this way to draw the attention of the composer to the desirability of writing directly for it. Roughly speaking, it must be said that the serious composer still rejects the wide opportunity that lies open to him of reaching the great masses of the people who take their musical pleasure in parks and on piers, as distinct from the smaller special public that takes it in the concert halls. Perhaps he does so under the impression that as an instrument the military band is relatively inexpressive, but in this case a hearing of Holst's Suite in F.....must have convinced him that he is neglecting a mobile and varied agency of musical expression. The Observer - July 2, 1922

Here is music which everyone can understand, but which also appeals to the musician, and should replace much of the bad music, both native and foreign, of which military bands are so fond - or believe to be the only thing the public wants. The Daily News - July 1, 1922

The example of Mr Holst ought to bring about a change in this respect securing band works from composers, for his Suite in F (performed for the first time last night) is a most effective piece of serious music and at the same time a proof that a composer gifted with inspiration and understanding can obtain from a military band effects of sounds entirely novel and beautiful. The Daily Telegraph - July 1, 1922

Beginning Of A New And Better Epoch

On July 3rd Colonel Somerville wrote to the British Music Society thanking them for organising and financing the concert: I am confident that this concert will mark the beginning of a new and better epoch for the military band, by the demonstration thereby given of its musical possibilities. If so, the credit of this must be awarded to the three societies whose joint enterprise made it possible.

This early flowering of significant repertoire was perhaps directly due to the facts that Holst was a professional trombonist, with experience in the Scottish Symphony Orchestra, opera and in seaside bands, and he also lived in Hammersmith, near Kneller Hall. Vaughan Williams was of course a close friend, and he in turn was Professor at the Royal College of Music to Gordon Jacob.

For only two more years, the new epoch continued. On July 4th 1923 the premiere of Folk Song Suite by Vaughan Williams was given. The Musical Times wrote The good composer has the ordinary monger of light stuff so hopelessly beaten. An interesting point about the premiere is that it appears that the March Sea Songs was originally intended as the third movement of the Suite.

Finally in 1924 at the British Empire Exposition at Wembley, Adkins conducted Toccata Marziale and Jacob's William Byrd Suite. However, the next six decades show a virtually complete neglect of the possibilities opened up by Holst and Vaughan Williams; there were no significant commissions from Elgar or Walton, Bliss or Britten. After that early flirtation with the two leading young British composers, military musicians in England returned to their appointed business of providing music for ceremonial and entertainment. and the British musical establishment continued to develop in other ways. What might have been achieved by a consistent policy of commissioning is only hinted at by the following works:

1951 Gordon Jacob Music for a Festival  
1957 Malcolm Arnold The Duke of Cambridge March Pattersons/Music Sales
1977 John Gardner English Dance Suite op 139 OUP Press
1982 Adrian Cruft The Duke of Cambridge Suite Joad Press

Festival Of Britain In 1951

Banality Awaits Around The Corner!

The Festival of Britain in 1951 was an excuse for a nationwide jamboree, a post-war celebration of the arts; The Times of May 15 covered the premiere of Jacob's Music for a Festival...

Last night the Royal Military School of Music brought about 200 players from all regiments and in addition its 30 trumpeters to the Festival Hall to play in ceremonial dress under Major Roberts, the director of music and Kneller Hall....its main interest was the new suite composed to the commission of the Arts Council by Gordon is a substantial addition of the finest quality to the repertory of the military band..... Banality, which waits round the corner for a medium that is capable only of broad effects and massive designs, is avoided by ingenuities of harmony and still more of rhythm, and of sheer contrapuntal skill....Here at any rate is one festival commission that immediately justified itself.

The Centenary of the founding of Kneller Hall was the signal for another round of celebrations, culminating in the Annual Garden Party on 28th June in the presence of Queen Elizabeth the Second who unveiled a commemorative stone and heard the world premiere of Malcolm Arnold's Centenary March; March for the Duke of Cambridge. Twenty years on, the Queen also heard the world premiere of John Gardner's English Dance Suite (1977, OUP) when she attended a concert at the Royal Albert Hall to celebrate her Silver Jubilee. This work is unjustly neglected, having been "lost" in the Kneller Hall Library until resurrected by the RNCM for a concert to celebrate Gardner's 65th birthday. Finally there was the Duke of Cambridge Suite (1982, Joad) by Adrian Cruft, commissioned to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the founding of the RMSM, and first performed on 16th October in 1982. The encouraging growth of involvement by all three services in the development of wind music in the UK since 1981 through the British Association of Symphonic Bands & Wind Ensembles, BASBWE, has been matched by increased activity in commissioning. A significant series of works commissioned for the Royal Tournament began in the nineties under the then Director of Music at Kneller Hall, Frank Renton.

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