A Belle Vue Contest Programme: A Model for Comment
By the 1840s brass band contests in the North of England were very popular and it was not unusual to see crowds of up to ten-thousand people at local contests. By the 1870s regular contests were being held at Belle Vue, in Manchester, and at the Crystal Palace in London.
What emerged from musical writing in this period were observations of the brass band movement from a middle-class position; the writing was quasi-anthropological in nature, resulting in studies of working-class music-making that engaged with, and complemented, observations of the changing nature of working-class leisure in this period. For the press it was the brass band contest that became the central event in the representation of the emergence of working-class cultural identity. One phenomenom that emerged was the writing of poems to illustrate the nature of these contests.
Inherent in this verse is the working-class nature of the bandsmen and their involvement in skilled or manual labour. The word slubber, for example, comes from the word to describe the preparation of wool or cotton for spinning and included three working-class roles, from the labouring to the skilled, the Slubber Doffer, who removed the empty bobbins from the loom spindles, the Slubbing Frame Fitter, who installed and maintained the frame used in the preparation of the cloth, together with the Drawing Frame Slubber Hand who operated the machine used to prepare the cloth. Music as a rational recreation was slowly becoming a way the working class could define their own cultural identity. To be in a brass band was to be of the working class.
By 1877, for example, the Musical World wrote a long poem about an upcoming brass band contest featuring the efforts of the fictitious northern Cleaster Brass Band to enter a regional contest.
The ease with which bandsmen were perceived by this journal as being familiar with the standard canon of composers indicated that real bandsmen were more than familiar with celebrated composers.
In addition the poem highlighted how easy it was to obtain brass instruments by either credit or cash and start a musical hobby. This hobby led to social networks. Social networks that were reinforced by the way the railway gave people mobility.
Also shown is that the contest was a communal event that included the consumption of alcohol. By the 1870s drinking was a social lubricant and less of a debilitating event. The contest was becoming a homosocial environment where laboring men could define themselves by their hobby and the company they kept. This also had elements of roughness and violence when disagreements arose. Even though many Victorians believed that music would civilize and educate the working class, what emerged was that the brass band contest was where working-class roughness could exist. So, in one poem, we see the development of working-class identity through music-making. We have the hobby as respectable pursuit. The hobby as social network. The hobby as homosocial arena with inherent roughness.
Enjoy the poem.
The Musical World wrote:
Come, listen to me, and a story I’ll sing
About a Band Contest which took place last spring,
And the fun and the frolic the adventure did bring,
A twelvemonth ago now come Easter.
The folks in the neighbouring town sent a bill,
With a note, “If your band wish to play, then please fill
Up the spaces in blank, just to say what you will
Concerning this contest at Cleaster.”
Now Cleaster’s a city some ten miles away,
A junction for Durham, Leeds, Bridlington Bay,
Through which some four hundred trains pass ev’ry day,
Of all sorts – goods, cattle, expresses.
They cultivate music of every kind,
They sing and play pieces, both coarse and refined;
In short, they’re a people in no way behind
The age, as perhaps each now guesses.
Ev’ry year they give prizes of various sums,
Silver cups, plated cornets, gilt batons, and drums,
To the finest Brass Band, from wherever it comes,
Provided the playing is decent.
‘We had often desired to be down on their list,
But somehow or other the chance we had missed;
They passed us, as if we did never exist,
Though we’d gained some good laurels but recent.
At last we’d received the long looked-for invite;
We filled up the form, and despatched it all right,
And at once began practising that very night,
So eager we were for the prizes.
We sent to De Lacy for all the best tunes:
We bought a new tenor sax, two bombardoons,
A slide alto trombone, that shined like full moons,
In the clear winter’s sky, as each rises.
So soon as the factory bell told us to cease,
And we’d washed ourselves clear from the slubber and grease,
We met at the sign of “The Fox and the Geese”,
And sat in a ring round the table.
When Bumbly-foot Harry gave word for to start,
We blew hard at Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart,
Until ev’ry man knew the lot off by heart,
And to play without music was able.
Not to weary you all with a troublesome tale,
Know, we met for improvement each night without fail;
After practice each man took his one gill of ale,
And straightway went home without staying.
The winter flew past, and the buds ‘gan to burst,
And the throstle sang blithely by coppice and hurst,
And still we ground on as we had done at first,
To make sure of a good place in playing.
At last the long looked-for day opened up bright,
We’d scarce slept a wink through the whole of the night,
So eager we were to show Cleaster our might,
And to come back all loaded with laurel.
We hired a waggon, with two pair of greys,
Each one took his instrument lapped in red baize;
Our coats had red trimmings, our caps were red glaze,
Like sealing-wax melted, or coral.
We start. As our neighbours collected to cheer,
And to wish us good luck, Johnny Smart from the rear
Threw a slipper, which hit Humbly-foot on the ear,
And caused him to fly in a passion.
He soon calmed himself, and we clattered away,
With confidence singing, so happy and gay;
Ne’er doubting a bit but we should win the day,
We entered the town in good fashion.
We got to the place where the tents were set out,
And when we had time just to look round about,
Sure ne’er in your life did you see such a rout,
Or hear such a comical shindy.
There were brass bands from all the towns twenty miles round,
All blowing at once as they came on the ground,
Each trying the best who could make the most sound,
All the time full discordant and windy.
At last the bell rung, and the judge took his seat,
And the bands were set out in good order complete,
And the humming of voices alone the ears greet,
As each waited the call of the numbers.
The judge knew the bands by the figures they held,
And not by their titles or place where they dwelled;
As the tickets were drawn from the hat; then soon quell’d
All the talkers as if sent to slumbers.
Our ticket was “six”, we were drawn to play first,
And we set ourselves out in the plan we’d rehearsed,
And till told to begin our impatience we nursed,
With our instruments ready for blowing.
A thundering cheer made us all feel elate,
And angered the other bands who had to wait,
And to guess by our playing what would be their fate,
If they worse than us should be showing.
We first played a Chorus from Handel’s Messiah,
And then a strange piece at the judge’s desire,
After that the bombardon performed “Obadiah”,
And other new music-hall ditties.
Upon which our first horn made a few observations,
Which the cornet replied to with frantic gyrations,
And the piccolo whistled a few variations,
Like frolicsome gambols of kitties.
How the other bands got on I can’t tell you now;
Enough that the day ended up in a row,
For the pride of the lot had that day low to bow
We had won the first prize in a canter.
Our foes said our playing was nothing but fudge;
A mistake had been made, and that they wouldn’t budge
Until the award was reversed by the judge,
Whom they made an endeavour to banter.
But a truce was patched up, and the bands stood apart,
To play altogether a piece off by heart,
All waited in silence the signal to start,
As was usually done at conclusion.
But the anger long smothered broke out in a flame;
And while some bands were silent at loss of their fame,
Some played “Hallelujah”, some played “Same old game”,
And all marched away in confusion.
At length to the station with fury they hie,
And each tried his neighbour in noise to outvie,
And from blows came to words, and in words did deny
The right of a triumph to other.
Soon words grew to deeds, and then cornets did clash
Against arms, breasts, and shoulders; and now with a dash
A mighty bass tuba comes down with a smash
On the head of the drummer’s big brother.
The fray was now fierce, and the shout and the cry
Was mixed with wild blasts from defeated ally,
And the blowing off steam from the engine hard by,
And the shriek of the whistle for starting.
Cornet bells were pulled off, curly saxhorns stretched straight,
Drum heads were all burst, and cracked many a pate,
When the voice of Joe Jolly cried: “Make for the gate
And I’ll set the foemen a-smarting”.
Joe’s coat was ripped up, and his red cap was gone,
His shirt and his waistcoat to ribbons were torn,
His eyes swoll’n and blacken’d, yet darted forth scorn
At our rivals, through whom he was rushing.
“Make the gate, make the gate!” still he cried in his rage
And leave me alone with the foe to engage!”
No words we could say did his fury assuage,
As we fell back, each other near crushing.
How nobly he stood, and how nobly he fought,
I cannot now tell but must leave it to thought,
Suffice it, in safety our waggon we caught,
As the enemy fled from him howling.
The slide of his trombone he lost in the fray;
He had bought a few pints of gray peas on his way,
Through the mouthpiece these missiles he’d scattered like spray
And they stung like small shots used in fowling.
Thus ended the day, and thus opened our fame,
Though ’twas won at the cost of some bruised and some lame.
All our instruments spoilt, all our clothes torn to shame,
On that memorable Monday last Easter.
The first prize we gained, and that was our pride,
And a salve for our wounds, and a solace beside.
So now you know all that to us did betide
At our first brass band contest at Cleaster.