Percy the Pioneer
If you are a bander you will have heard of a guy called Percy Fletcher. If you’re not a bander or you haven’t heard of him- you need to- this guy is a legend. This rather remarkable fella was a pioneer and the Brass Band movement owes a great deal to this ‘epic’ composer. Why? What did old Percy do that was so amazing? Grab a cuppa, maybe a couple of biscuits and I will tell you why.
In the words of Julie Andrew’s let’s start at the very beginning.
Early Karaoke Composer
Drawing Room Music
Percy Eastman Fletcher (what a name!) was born on 12th December 1879 in Derby. Having studied piano, organ and violin (don’t judge him- he sees the light with brass at the end) he established an incredibly successful career as a musical director in the country’s top theatres including: ‘Drury Lane’, ‘Prince of Wales’ and the then ‘His Majesty’s Theatre’. As well as composing and arranging music for theatre, he gained quite a lot of success as a light music composer writing music for small orchestras, choirs and ‘drawing room music’ for solo voice and piano. Before the time of radio, ‘drawing room music’ was a very successful genre, as families would sit around a piano listening to solo works performed by the established pianist of the family or join in song accompanied by piano. You could say Fletcher along with other composers of ‘drawing room music’ such as Schubert were kind of the composers of early karaoke music.
In my view, I think Fletcher liked the thought of music being accessible for all, given he arranged and composed music for less experienced players and ensembles. He wrote his ‘The Passion of Christ’ for less illustrious church choirs and books for organ and piano that contained more simple arrangements of his orchestral works and preludes on familiar hymn tunes. His efforts of making music more available to amateur musicians didn’t achieve the credit it deserved with his ‘Passion’ since been described as ‘Elgar on an off day’, which is a bit harsh and misses the point of what, I believe, Fletcher was trying to do.
From Amateur to Epic
St Dennis Temperance Band- 1910
So what has any of this got to do with banding? Brass Bands were sponsored by businesses to ease political tension in the working class, decreasing the likelihood of radical groups and to promote leisure time. In turn these ensembles entertained the masses by playing arrangements of orchestral works and popular songs- essentially normal, working people making music a little more accessible for those who couldn’t afford the luxury of watching professional orchestras. These working class ensemble provided towns and villages with a sense of pride and people would arrive in their droves to see successful bands from other areas play in their hometown. Before the time of radio, brass bands were a vehicle in which people of lower incomes and social class could experience top quality music from composers such as Mozart and Verdi. The chances of the working class going to see an orchestra playing Elgar or the opera were pretty slim due to them being ‘high class’ ensembles, thus more expensive. Through brass bands, the masses were still able to enjoy the music of Elgar, Mozart, Verdi as well as hymn tunes and marches that we class as classic repertoire today. Furthermore, nobody wanted to write for the brass band music then as it was seen as a leisure activity for the working classes and a way to use up excess metal, rather than a serious musical art form.
Labour and Love Synopsis
When contesting was introduced, the test pieces were usually operatic or orchestral selections that were transcribed for brass bands. This all changed in 1913, when Fletcher was commissioned, by John Henry Isles, to write a tone poem to be used as a test piece at the National Championships which were held then at the Crystal Palace. This tone poem has become famous repertoire for bands for over a century now. That ground-breaking piece was Labour and Love. For the first time in history, brass bands had an official piece of music that was written by an established composer specifically for the movement.- no more table scraps from the orchestral world. This sparked works from amazing composers such as John Ireland and Arthur Bliss to start writing original music for brass band. Fletcher too continued writing for the movement, producing ‘An Epic Symphony’, which was an incredible work for brass band and proved it to now be an established form of musical ensemble. Labour and love, in my opinion was the turning point for brass banding, as it transformed it from an amateur musical side piece to what it is today- an independent movement with composers who want to write for it and an audience who listens, not because it’s more accessible but because they are, dare I say, fans!
The Fuel of Progression
Black Dyke take to the Pyramid Stage, Glastonbury
Percy sadly died from a stroke at the age of 52 in December 1932, yet despite his early death, what he achieved and the legacy of this achievement can be seen in any contest hall and concert venue wherever you hear the sound of a brass band. We still have incredible works written for brass band that tear at the boundaries and stereotypes that surround us. From the first pioneer, we now have many pioneers such as Simon Dobson, Oliver Waespi, Peter Meechan and Lucy Pankhurst amongst so many others, who are constantly fuelling the progression of this amazing movement. From that first piece that gave banding it’s independence, banding has had a feature film (Brassed Off), has featured in a stage production (COAL), accompanied a ballet (Dark Arteries), hell a brass band made the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury! To put things in perspective, gone are the days where popular music is dominated by the likes of Verdi and Holst- you won’t hear them played on Radio One. Without Fletcher we could still be playing popular music as test pieces- can you imagine playing Shape of You by Ed Sheeran at the British Open?! If that doesn’t make you grateful for Percy Fletcher, I don’t know what will!
P.s. If anyone is willing to commission a Queen transcription as a British Open piece, I’m all ears!
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