Piping to the spirit … Romantic brass bands

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Soldier playing salpinx (bronze trumpet)

There are, says Keats in Endymion, “those who lord it o’er their fellow-men”, and do so to the “fierce intoxicating tones/ Of trumpets … and belabour’d drums”. In each of his 25 poetic references to brass instruments, Keats has in mind military trumpets rather than civilian cornets, euphoniums and basses – and given that he preferred “ditties of no tones” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”), we perhaps shouldn’t in any case pay too much heed to his sense of that instrument’s “fraught” joys (“Calidore”).

The group with one of the strongest claims to the title of world’s first brass band is the Stalybridge Old Band, formed in Manchester in 1809. Soon renamed the New Band, they rehearsed under the baton of Thomas Avison in a cellar behind the Golden Fleece inn. In 1819, its members became involved in one of the defining political actions of the Romantic period, engaged to play at the event that became known as the “Peterloo Massacre”.

“fierce intoxicating tones/ Of trumpets …” (John Keats)

Contemporary engraving of Peterloo Massacre

On 16th August 1819, in a huge assembly that marked the culmination of a season of marches across the …read more

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