Brass Band Tradition at Christmas

Excerpted from the program notes for the 2014 Festival of Carols concert with the Canadian Staff Band. Notes by music reviewer and lecturer Rick Phillips.

One of the joys of Christmas is its predictability. Every year, we associate the Christmas season with familiar images, tastes, activities, objects and sounds. Santa Claus and Ebenezer Scrooge, Handel’s Messiah and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, roast turkey and cranberry sauce, mistletoe and eggnog…….. brass instruments and choral voices. They all provide a joyous, festive and warm mood to which we enjoy returning year after year.

Brass instruments appeared in many ancient cultures, originally made from animal horns, seashells or tree bark and blown into to produce a sound. Today, they are the family of instruments made from brass or other metals that use a cup-shaped mouthpiece, often defined as lip-vibrated aerophones. In other words, the sound is produced by the vibration of the player’s lips acting like a reed inside a metal mouthpiece. The length of metal tubing combined with the pressure between the player’s lips and on the mouthpiece produces a selection of notes. On modern brass instruments, the length of the tube can be altered by the use of valves.

The brass band dates back to the early 19th century and usually consists of cornets, flugelhorns, tenor horns, baritones, euphoniums, trombones and tubas with percussion. At first, it was associated with the military, but quickly became popular in civilian life. Brass bands are especially prevalent in Great Britain where they became an important part of recreational and educational programs offered by industry, religious groups and schools. Where in Canada, companies and schools feature hockey and sports teams, in Britain, it is often the brass band. At the peak of their popularity in the early 20th century, it’s estimated that there were over 20,000 brass band members in the U.K. Regular festivals and competitions have only added to the success of the movement and its repertoire.

Here in Canada, the British-style brass band existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but our vast distances between communities made travel for festivals and competitions next to impossible. Salvation Army brass bands have existed since the 1870s, ranging from small church bands to the top level of staff bands, the latter made up of the finest Salvation Army players in the area. The Canadian Staff Band, based in Toronto, is one of the few British-style brass bands still active in Canada, consisting of men and women in a variety of occupations – from university students to teachers to corporate executives, who come together over their love of music for brass. As well as regular visits to Salvation Army centres across the country, the Canadian Staff Band has performed on tour in countries like England, Germany, Italy, Norway, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand.

You are welcome to use excerpts from these notes for your concert program or for educational purposes. If you do, please credit both Rick Phillips and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Also please advise TMC by email: Thank you.