Story: Brass and pipe bands

Page 1. Early military and brass bands

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Early-19th-century bands had a range of brass, woodwind and percussion instruments. The earliest military band performance in New Zealand may have been in 1843, when musicians from the French corvette (warship) Le Rhin put on a concert in Wellington.

The northern war of 1845 brought the British 58th Regiment’s band to New Zealand. After the war they were based in Auckland. From 1847 the 65th Regiment’s band was based in Wellington. Both bands played free concerts and provided the music for events such as horticultural shows and balls. This was good publicity for the army, countering the bad reputation attached to off-duty soldiers. Eleven British regimental bands were present during the New Zealand wars of the 1860s.

Volunteer force bands

Pākehā settlers in the early 1840s established bands combining brass, woodwind and percussion instruments. A group of Wellington musicians became the ‘military’ band for the Wellington Volunteer Force, set up following the Wairau affray of June 1843. In 1845 the Nelson militia had its own fife-and-drum band.

In 1859 the Taranaki Volunteer Rifle Company raised funds to purchase instruments for a band, beginning a trend among Volunteer Force units. Former bandsmen from the 58th and 65th regiments helped found the Artillery Band in 1864. As the Band of the Royal New Zealand Artillery, it was New Zealand’s oldest surviving military band in 2014.

In the late 1870s areas with four or more volunteer units could set up a garrison band, with the government providing an annual grant of £20.

Musical miners

The 1860s gold rushes helped the spread of brass bands, with bands springing up in the mining towns of Otago and the West Coast. Iron workers and boilermakers building the lake steamer at Queenstown started a band. Miners from Cornwall, one of the major centres for British brass bands, formed a band in Reefton. A later ‘gold fields’ band was the Kokatahi Band, formed in 1910 by Hokitika farmers and gold miners. This was based around button accordions, accompanied by fiddles, musical saws and harmonicas, rather than brass instruments.

The brass-band movement

The bands formed in the 1860s generally consisted of brass wind instruments, supported by percussion. The spread of brass bands among the volunteer units ran parallel to the British brass-band movement. British bands traced their origins to military and volunteer force bands, church and village bands and workplace-based bands.

From the 1830s relatively cheap, mass-produced, valve-based brass instruments became more widely available. The heartlands of the brass-band movement were the working-class industrial and mining areas of the English North and Midlands, Wales and Cornwall.

Band contests

New Zealand’s official brass-band contests began in 1880 with a competition between volunteer unit bands. The Invercargill and Ōamaru garrison bands dominated the band contests of the 1880s and early 1890s, while the Wanganui and Wellington garrison bands dominated in the late 1890s and 1900s. Captain W. E. Heywood, early bandmaster for the Invercargill Garrison Band, became known as the father of the brass-band movement. Events for solo instruments or particular combinations of instruments were added to the competitions.

In the 1920s hymn-playing contests were included in the national championships.

The first quickstep competition in 1890 proved highly popular with the audience. New Zealand brass bands since have placed a strong emphasis on skill at formation marching.

The brass-band repertoire

In addition to marches, brass bands played many tunes derived from dance music including the polka, quadrille, waltz, galop and schottische. 19th-century brass bands commonly played selections from popular operatic or orchestral works. In the 1910s leading British classical composers began writing music specifically for brass bands.

The people’s music

Many workers set up their own bands, with employers sometimes sponsoring company bands. Workers’ bands included engineers’, railways, tramways and colliery bands. Trade union bands, such as the Wellington Watersiders’ Band, were funded by a union levy. Temperance bands were sponsored by temperance societies, while ‘subscription bands’ survived on public donations. There were also ‘private’ bands, such as Jupp’s Private Band of Wellington, maintained at the expense of individuals.

Brass bands were initially the main form of popular music available for outdoor settings. Bands performed at civic receptions for dignitaries and victorious sports teams, Volunteer reviews, troop-ship departures and openings of significant buildings. They entertained at regattas, sports matches, race meetings, excursions and public picnics. Union and other workplace brass bands played at Labour Day parades, union picnics and protest marches.

In the 19th century religious concerns meant bands were often forbidden to play on Sundays. As attitudes relaxed, Sunday afternoon concerts in the park became popular family entertainment.

How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Brass and pipe bands - Early military and brass bands', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 10 December 2023)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 22 Oct 2014