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American Brass
Band History

Robert Eliason

Hall Brothers

A History:
The Bands, the Music, and the Horns

In the mid-1800s a brass band was a celebration of civic pride. Every town had one—factories, companies, fire departments, and militia units often had them too. Composed of professional or local amateur musicians, they featured instruments such as bugles, trombones, cornets, ophicleides, cornopeans, helicons, and saxhorns. The brass band movement started in New England and spread throughout the country. Brass band journals and newsletters flourished, providing up to date information on popular groups, the latest tunes, and advances in brass technology.

Saxhorns (conical brass instruments, which ranged in length from two to six feet) were invented by Adolphe Sax before he invented the saxophone. They all were shaped the same, but were made larger and larger to produce lower and lower pitches. A typical band would have E-flat and B-flat cornets, E-flat alto horns, B-flat tenor horns, baritone horns and B-flat and E-flat bass horns all with three or more valves and of a variety of sizes.

The over-the-shoulder Saxhorns were favored by military or militia bands marching at the head of large columns of troops because the sound could be projected backwards making it easier to hear, and helping to bolster the troops’ spirits during long marches of the Civil War years. Also included in the band might be various keyed brass instruments––notably keyed or Kent bugles (imagine a bugle with keys like a saxophone) or ophicleides (bassoon-like instruments with a brass mouthpiece and a surprisingly mellow sound).

“The invention of keys and valves meant that brass instruments could play as many notes as woodwinds,” says music historian Dr. Robert Eliason of Lyme, N.H. “With this development, instrumentation began to change from predominantly woodwinds and strings to all brass instruments.” Brass bands reached the height of their popularity shortly before the Civil War, then gradually evolved into bands like that of John Philip Sousa, which included both woodwind and brass instruments.

Northern New England (and, in fact, here in the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River–New Hampshire and Vermont) was a scene of this brass band development. Not only did New England have several bands and some outstanding soloists, but the region also produced many of the instruments these bands used.

Samuel Graves and his brothers began making musical instruments in West Fairlee, Vt., in the 1820s. In 1830 they formed Graves & Co. and occupied half of a four-story, water-powered shop in Winchester, N.H. By the early 1840s they had purchased another floor of the building and were the largest supplier of woodwind and brass instruments in the country.

Two brothers from Lyme, N.H., also made important contributions to the brass band movement of the day. Keyed bugle soloist D.C. Hall was the leader of the Boston Brass Band, one of the great bands of the period, and the owner of an instrument-making business that turned out large numbers of brass instruments.

Rudolph Hall traveled from coast to coast, often playing clarinet and cornet solos on the same program. In the early 1860s he toured England, performing in many cities and at the Queen's Concert Rooms in London. Both brothers often brought their bands to perform in Lyme and at Dartmouth College (Hanover, N.H.) events.

For more information on the bands of the era, and the musicians who made them so popular, read the article about Dr. Robert Eliason (“Eras Bridged”)...

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