Jerusalem: Hymn of England

Today I played at Beamish Museum in a celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the hymn ‘Jerusalem’. Beyond doubt, it’s worth a blog post. (Side-note: I can’t seem to keep a consistent tone in my writing today. I hope it isn’t horribly noticeable.)

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I’ll begin with its history. Set the scene: 1916. For two long years, war had decimated the youth of Europe. Ypres. Verdun. Loos. Arras.

tynecot

On Thursday I spent half an hour at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium. The number of graves–and the number of those unmarked–…

Poet Laureate Robert Bridges had recently edited an anthology of patriotic verse, and rediscovered in it the sixteen lines which serve as a preface to William Blake’s epic poem ‘Milton’. Though passing unnoticed at publication in 1808 and throughout that century, these lines Bridges now gave to the composer Sir Hubert Parry, requesting that he set them to music.

The tune was written, arranged, printed, sung at a campaign meeting by various choral societies of London. The women’s suffrage movement took it up, as did public schools such as Elizabeth College in Guernsey—they speak of it with more ardour than most teenage boys display towards anything (with the possible exception of FIFA). The famous composer Edward Elgar wrote his own orchestration, and so its popularity soared, and became a symbol of English morale.

battlefront1916

The Western Front 1916

In 1918, the war ended—and Parry passed away. Since then, Jerusalem has been used by all the major political parties, adopted as the anthem of the Women’s Institute, rugby teams, the hymn book, and the Proms.

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I’ve found so many articles about Jerusalem that are focussed almost entirely on Sir Hubert Parry. In the first place, it seems counterproductive to esteem a composer for a single work. I, for one, know none of his earlier music, but since he died two years after Jerusalem became the Georgian equivalent of a number one hit, it rather eclipses the entirety of his previous career. In the second instance, I find it far more interesting to discuss the words of Jerusalem, chiefly because they’re steeped in controversy.

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountain green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

The most common interpretation is a religious one. Firstly, it’s important to understand that Jerusalem is a standard metaphor for Heaven in Church of England jargon. This is explored in the two verses: the first Jerusalem, and the second Jerusalem.

The four questions in the first verse are a speculation drawing upon an apocryphal story, in which Jesus visits England during his early years. It follows that if this visit happened, Jesus would have ‘brought’ Heaven to England, representing the first Jerusalem.

Progressing to the second verse, it’s easy to derive parallels from the Book of Revelation. Revelation tells of the glorious second coming of Jesus, just as Blake writes of a new Jerusalem taking root in England.

14.81.1

Angel of the Revelation: Blake was also one of the leading visual artists of the Romantic era.

But was it so idealistic as it sounds? ‘Dark satanic mills’ is often attributed to the Industrial Revolution sweeping England inside out—but, more deeply than that, Blake is attacking the bondage of institutions, organised religion, education, and the corruption inherent in Victorian society.

Does that negate any religious intent? Blake was committed to social change, and he held staunch revolutionary views for which he was at one point charged with treason. But though intensely religious, the real irony lies in the usage of his words, rather than their interpreted meaning: originally defaming the ‘institutions of repression’, his poem has become a symbol of national solidarity and patriotism. It appeals somewhat to the English humour.

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Nevertheless, I believe something of Blake’s original intention is yet preserved. The bourgeois generals sending thousands of men to their death in the Great War are analogous to the social shackles of Blake’s Victorian England. Today, the bonds of capitalism and social class loom still on the minds of the English people.

When I watch the crowds of tourists filtering through Beamish Museum stop by the bandstand and pour their voices into the hymn, knowing the words as if writ on their hearts, singing of the Lamb of God though many may be atheists, and ‘England’s pleasant pastures’ though they won’t admit their patriotism even to themselves, I can’t help but think that this song has touched them. Its stirring words, its iconic tune: no wonder they’re trying to make it our national anthem. ‘God Save the Queen’, as MP Toby Perkins argued earlier this year, is the anthem of Britain, but as of now, the country of England has none to officially call our own. None but this one.

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If you want to read more about Blake and Jerusalem, here’s a great article.

 

Images:

Prog Rock and Prog Writing–Teens Can Write, Too! Blog Chain February 2015

Music: Adrian Belew—Big Electric Cat

Here it is! The prompt for this month’s Teens Can Write, Too! blog chain is:

“How does music relate to your writing?”

This is a question I could take hours about answering. Music is my number one hobby, both playing and listening (hobbies being distinct from passions, in the respect that I intend to take writing and maths to professional levels). Visitors can always tell when I’m home: soaring guitar solos, tuba multiphonics or shrill mellotron drones cranked up to full volume breach my defences (three doors) and penetrate the rest of the house.

It took me two weeks short of two years to get through my dad’s music collection, and, having navigated (and loved) Russian ballet, Solid Gold Soul and Icelandic baroque-pop, I’ve discovered that my true calling is progressive rock in the vein of King Crimson (who I’m going to see in September, woohoo!), Focus, Renaissance, Rush, Marillion and Yes.

I don’t make writing playlists. I find tone is best fed by the funkiest mix of styles music can give me, so I randomise it and let the variation drive my writing. But that’s the great thing about prog rock: its versatility. King Crimson are particularly known for their extreme counter-cultural music-making. Stick with their seemingly-chaotic mesh of awkward time signatures, atypical rhythmic structures, dissonant chords and fragmented lyrics for five or ten minutes and maybe you’ll fall under their enchantment.

Another aspect of versatility is instrumentation. Jethro Tull included a flautist (who famously stood on one leg while he played); Dan Ar Braz played Celtic jigs with a rock set-up (note the driving percussion, guitar solo and BAGPIPES(!!!), besides the pop-like vocals); then there’s the double-neck guitar which became a signature of the lead of jazz fusion group Mahavishnu Orchestra, and was used to create textural diversity ranging from Indian classical to chamber-like influences.

Prog rock helped to spawn a genre called ‘ambient music’. Most people have heard the motif of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells—but have you heard the whole track, or any of his other music? Oldfield is a master of writing mesmerising, lyric-less ostinatos that can just as well intrigue and inspire as provide background music for a project. That’s what I love: music that doesn’t set a standard of attention, that can drive your subconscious or satisfy your conscious intelligence with every new listening.

Next up is a lesser-known band called It Bites. Like Arcade Fire, they’re perhaps straying towards art and arena rock, but it’s the busy originality of their music that I find so easy to write to. It’s the kind of music that, even if it distracts you, you won’t emerge from its enchantment regretting lost time. It’s creatively enriching.

I can’t find my favourite track, Plastic Dreamer, on Youtube, but I urgeurgeurge you to look it up on whatever other media you have. Or have some Uriah Heep instead–this song of his has the same kind of effect on me.

Then we have Steely Dan, who explore tensions between jazz and pop chord progressions. They’re so well-known for using the added two chord they nicknamed it ‘mu major’, and the name has stuck. Their dissonant harmonies particularly keep me sitting up straight. It’s musical oxymoron! What author wouldn’t value that?

If I especially need something lighter, I’ll turn to Barclay James Harvest, America or Kayak. But they have more lyrics than the rest of the above songs put together; I use them for feel-good turn-tos, if I’m overdosing on cynical humour.

For the record, I don’t give a damn about a song’s lyrics. Considering I’m a writer, this may seem counter-productive; but if music is another medium for conveying stories and emotion, I feel it ought to be able to do so without words. If words can add to the feeling, so much the good; often I feel they don’t match the tone of the music anyway, and if attended too closely they ruin the track for me. So I listen primarily for wordless things—and then attempt to reproduce them in MY words, through writing.

Finally, I can’t finish this post without mentioning Captain Beefheart’s magnificent album Trout Mask Replica. The so-called Magic Band lived communally in a small rented house for eight months rehearsing the twenty-eight ridiculously difficult compositions of Van Vliet (aka Beefheart). During this time Van Vliet asserted utter artistic and emotional domination over his band members, using physical violence and unrelenting psychological abuse if they exhibited less than total submission to his vision. They rehearsed fourteen hours a day with restrictions on leaving the house. With no income, they were malnourished and in poor health—after their arrest for shoplifting, they were bailed out by none other than Frank Zappa!

Yes, it’s horrific (and it may all be rumours; Beefheart was known for those too), but it’s another artistic environment, and it translates in the music. This album has pretty much everything: folk, classical, blues, jazz; falsetto, casual ramblings, rumbling bass; history, politics, love, conformity, and civilisation. And the more I listen to this album the more I adore its tightness and spontaneous feel.

So, click on a few links and taste some sounds of the seventies! Do you like prog rock and ambient music, or hate it with a passion? Or are you utterly undecided, and not all that inclined to decide, either?

~

Here’s the rest of the chain:

6th  http://jasperlindell.blogspot.com/ and http://vergeofexisting.wordpress.com/

7th  http://novelexemplar.wordpress.com/

8th  http://www.juliathewritergirl.com/

9th  http://www.freeasagirlwithwings.wordpress.com/

10th  https://ramblingsofaravis.wordpress.com/

11th  http://butterfliesoftheimagination.wordpress.com/ and http://www.pamelanicolewrites.com/

12th  http://randommorbidinsanity.blogspot.com/

13th  http://miriamjoywrites.com/ and http://whileishouldbedoingprecal.weebly.com/

14th  http://kirabudge.weebly.com/

15th   http://erinkenobi2893.wordpress.com/ and https://lillianmwoodall.wordpress.com/ <<<YOU ARE HERE

16th  http://theedfiles.blogspot.com/ and http://fantasiesofapockethuman.blogspot.com/

17th  http://irisbloomsblog.wordpress.com/ and http://musingsfromnevillesnavel.wordpress.com/

18th  http://semilegacy.blogspot.com/ and http://from-stacy.blogspot.com/

19th  http://horsfeathersblog.wordpress.com/

20th  https://clockworkdesires.wordpress.com/

21st  https://stayandwatchthestars.wordpress.com/ and http://arielkalati.blogspot.com/

22nd  http://loonyliterate.com/ and https://www.mirrormadeofwords.wordpress.com/

23rd  http://unikkelyfe.wordpress.com/

24th  http://themagicviolinist.blogspot.com/ and http://allisonthewriter.wordpress.com/

25th  http://missalexandrinabrant.wordpress.com/

26th  http://awritersfaith.blogspot.com/ and http://thelonglifeofalifelongfangirl.wordpress.com/

27th  http://nasrielsfanfics.wordpress.com/ and http://thelittleenginethatcouldnt.wordpress.com/

28th – https://teenscanwritetoo.wordpress.com/ (Announcing the topic for March’s chain.)

Music in YA

Perhaps my last post till August. Four trips are lined up for July, and the ten days I’m at home are all schooldays. Fortunately I’m feeling fairly organised about it all (except the financial side!).

So, without further ado, Alex once again gave me a great post topic. Here’s her tweet:

 musicstoriestweet

Anyone keeping up with the big YA Contemps of recent years might guess, like me, that this trend is at least in part caused by Gayle Forman’s fabulous If I Stay, due for cinema release this summer. As a sidenote, I don’t follow the American bestseller lists, but somehow I snagged a copy of this great book early after its release before many people in the UK had heard of it, so in a way I feel connected to its fate.

ifistay

Anyhow, as a musician myself I watch this trend with equal pleasure and trepidation. Music is such a wide aspect of culture that often I see it abused, generally out of ignorance. It’s good to see the participation in the act of making music recognised (fun fact: musicians on average live eight years longer than non-musicians, so it’s not like you’re wasting time!).

You don’t have to be famous to make music; all you need is dedication. I’m not musical myself, besides adoring the mathematics behind it, but I passed my Grade 8 last week. I’ve practiced an hour a night for months, gone to school for aural lessons at half eight in the morning on Saturdays for a year, spent two years learning these pieces, spent eight years learning the instrument…you can see how huge this is for me.

However, also due to being a musician, it worries me to see non-musicians writing about music, either misusing terminology, overusing what’s commonly-known, or not using any of it. Had I never played an instrument there’s no way I’d appreciate music as I do now: I wouldn’t hear harmonies, or criticise the sound balance at concerts, or know a good song from a mediocre one—even now, I’m doubtful I could do any of these things properly. Playing in a band is especially valuable: for four years I’ve spent ten hours a week playing in ensemble, and I can pick out and accord my own part to individual parts in an orchestral piece.

Now, I’m not saying a non-musician can’t write a good book about musician-ing, and I’m not making prejudicial assumptions. Yet the very lack of brass fandom in writing suggests exactly what I fear. Carnegie Hall is bandied about as if only genius musicians are worth writing about with reference to music. ‘The bow was like an extension of her arm’ is the worst string-player cliché out there, and you’d certainly never catch a musician saying it in but the cheapest of sarcasm. Always it is strings, or clarinet or flute!

Our family collection, predominantly brass. (since added a ukulele)

Our family collection, predominantly brass. (since added a ukulele)

The brass are rowdy and lively, and I freely admit my bias, but I feel we have the most distinct section identity. We are the smallest (except the percussion, who are too busy tuning timpanis to socialise) but the most tightly-knit, with pub-nights and unmatched banter. We can also do the coolest things with our instruments. Just about everything you say about the trombone sounds dirty, we put the mark in marcato, we put the issimo in fff. I am convinced that every other musician cherishes a secret wish they became a brass player (Freudian penis envy, as I think of it). Sure, maybe all this buoyancy doesn’t suit your character or your story, but in my opinion the brass are the most versatile section of them all. We can do soaring tear-jerking solos – that’s what euphoniums are for, even! We can be warm and raucous, bad-ass or gentle. All we want is recognition!

That’s truly all I have time for. Live the good life till I get back to ya on the 9th!

 

Novelling Music

I’ve just returned to the Rock from the City of Dreaming Spires, and besides being several thousand words behind in CampNaNo (having previously been on track for the full 50k, for the first time *disgruntled face*), I have mock exams tomorrow. Post upcoming about my impressions of the various universities I’ve visited.

In the meantime, here’s my writing ‘playlist’. Since January 2013 I’ve been progressively working my way through my dad’s music collection. That’s an average of perhaps twenty albums a week, no repeats, no skips (except maybe some opera). I’m in the N section!

Here’s a [highly condensed] selection of the tracks I’ve enjoyed thus far.

Jessica Allman Brothers Band
Life is for Living Barclay James Harvest
Love Burns Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
More Than A Feeling Boston
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Chopin
Where Eagles Dare Ron Goodwin (played by Cambridge University Brass Band)
Call to the Dance Dan Ar Braz
Layla Derek and the Dominoes
New World Symphony Dvorak
Disenchanted Lullaby Foo Fighters
The Dark of the Matinee Franz Ferdinand
One in a Million Giles, Giles and Fripp
Eliza Blue Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson
Monkey Chant Jade Warrior
My God Jethro Tull
Pictures of a City King Crimson
Everybody Knows Leonard Cohen
Dream Mahavishna Orchestra
Ommadawn Part One Mike Oldfield
Change Your Mind Neil Young

Mike Oldfield’s music is the best I’ve found when it comes to novelling. No distracting lyrics, but so many instruments, styles and moods. You don’t have to keep changing track. And because sections are repetitive you can hum-jam (that’s now a thing).

Maths Meets Music

Mum *sings a note* I’m guessing either a C or a D.
*goes to piano* Oh, it’s a C sharp.
Dad Well, it’s the average of your guesses.
Me Only if it’s a linear relationship.
Dad Of course it is. The C above a middle C has twice the frequency.
Me Then it wouldn’t be linear. It would increase by powers of two.
Dad
Me *consults Wikipedia* Yep, powers of two. Twelve semitones, so to get the frequency of the next semitone, multiply by the twelfth root of two. Middle C is roughly 262 hertz; Tenor C is 523 or so and Soprano C is 1047.
Dad *does the maths* And the fifth, the seventh semitone, is roughly halfway. Maybe that’s why it’s the perfect cadence.
Me *gets calculator* *nearly blasphemes*   2(12√2)7 ≡ 2(2) ∕ (12√2)5!!!! Modelling 2 as n hertz. And the best thing is that the answer is 2.996614154…which rounds to 3, which is halfway between 2 and 4. Aaaaghhh *the romance of logic overwhelms*
Dad So our brains aren’t adding a fixed value between each semitone. They’re actually making a complex geometric calculation.
Me What do you think, Mum?
Mum I stopped listening when you mentioned averages.
Me Yet you’re the only one of us who can sing in tune.
Dad and I *return to calculations* *major excitement*musicalnotes

Latin, Bagpipes and Blister Plasters

I am aware I haven’t posted since I first got the blog, and for that I profusely apologise. As I said, I’ve been away, and since I’m struggling for a post topic I can complete with little research (I have a lazy streak), I will dedicate this one to describing to you exactly where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing (well, not ‘exactly’, because that would become unnecessarily dull).

 

My first trip, mainly in June, it must be said, took me to Cambridge for my brother’s graduation. I sha’n’t give you any details of him, for they would surely be unauthorised, but I will say that the ceremony was mainly in Latin, and was described by my parents as ‘unusual, to say the least’ (I, never having been to one before, am not qualified to make a judgement).

The ceremonies at Cambridge take place from the Thursday to the Saturday, throughout the day, in the Senate House. There are thirty-one colleges in all, to date, and the students graduate according to college. The most prestigious three, King’s, Trinity and St John’s, go first, and are thereafter followed by the other colleges in order of foundation—Peterhouse, then Clare, then Pembroke, and so on.

In each ceremony, which lasts approximately twenty minutes, around sixty graduands graduate—in the case of Clare, two ceremonies were held in order to accommodate the graduations of a hundred and twenty graduands. It’s very quick, nevertheless–kind of walk in, walk out, all done, let’s go home kind of thing. Except we had a picnic instead with all the families of my brother’s friends–a creepy thing, you can imagine, since he knew his friends so well, but none of the parents had ever met!

If you’re interested enough in the Latin and all the strange gestures involved, which have been going on in the ceremony every year for the past seven centuries, I suggest you visit another website. Not that I’m not interested, but to my sorrow I was never granted the privilege of learning Latin.

There are no photos I can give you of the ceremony, for cameras were forbidden. But in any case I’m no photographer. I also apologise for the quality of what pictures I have contrived to take and include. As a general rule I take few, for a friend who I’ve never quite forgiven once poked the lens in her slapdash handling of it, and the clarity has never recovered since. But is the quality of my camera any excuse? Who knows…

Most of these pictures are those of friends. So if anyone sees these and thinks ‘they’re mine’, thanks, sorry, and I’m very surprised you’re looking at my blog.

CambridgeGraduation

My second trip away consisted of a weekend to the island of Sercq for the annual Folk Festival held there. And it is truly the best setting for a folk festival there could be! Why, they have dusty tracks instead of roads, and horsedrawn carts instead of cars. The Avenue, the Sark equivalent to a High Street, is possibly the dearest lane imaginable. And La Coupée, the causeway suspended between two cliffs several hundred feet up, is one of the most terrifying places I have ever been. But last year I was forced to ride a bicycle down it at midnight, with no lights on my vehicle, so this year I was grateful to be spared such an ordeal, and crossed it on foot in the daylight.

I have never seen a place quite like Sercq—and never will, I expect. It seems so completely and utterly untouched by anything and everything that make up our poisoned society today. You think Guernsey’s primitive? From Sark it looks like a metropolis.

Sark

Yet the contradiction involves the Barclay Brothers, who own most of the island and are always hungry for more power. Many an ode to power hoarders was dedicated to the Brothers that weekend! Still, I pray the island remains as perfect as it seems; and if it were less impractical, in matters such as transport and shopping, I might consider living there in the future, if I ever had the means to set up as a professional author.

As for the festival, folk fiends will be jealous to hear that Seth Lakeman headlined. Personally I preferred Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson, and the bagpipes on Saturday night, when the bar was selling cider and didn’t ask anyone for ID… Nah, don’t worry; I’m no drinker.

Seth Lakeman

My third and final journey was to Snowdonia in Wales. And about this one I was frankly terrified. Not merely because to get there I was forced to take the overnight boat in a recliner chair, and a six-hour coach journey the following day, and, being an awful traveller, either of these things would be enough to strike terror into my heart.

No; because this was to be a weeklong camping trip, and I’ve never camped in my life, especially far from home. And because the aim of the whole trip was to walk fifty or sixty kilometres in three days with a pack on my back that weighed more than half my own body weight, and, on top of that, in heat of twenty-nine degrees, being used to less than half of that down South.

This was my Duke of Edinburgh Silver practice expedition. And I didn’t do Bronze. I had no idea what to expect beyond all this discomfort, and members of my group who had done Bronze doubted I could make even one day, due to my slightness of size and blatant lack of physical strength.

Yet as it turned out, even this, which I honestly thought would probably kill me, wasn’t the greatest of my problems last week. I am prone to blisters, whatever shoes I wear, and I acquired some rather spectacular ones before I was halfway through the journey. However, due to a multitude of reasons which would take several thousand words to tell sufficiently to make them reasonable, I told no one the extent of my affliction.

Such when finally we completed out expedition, and I took my boots off, my companions howled with revulsion and disbelief. My feet were coated (besides with several layers of Compeed) in a thick yellow pus that was described by one of my friends somewhat inelegantly as resembling earwax.

I was scolded for my reservation by teachers who, if they were at all impressed by my endurance, well concealed it, and transported directly to the Accident and Emergency section of the nearest hospital, where my plasters (and in the process, my skin) were ripped off by a kindly nurse, bathed in antiseptic, and dressed more carefully than I could do in the dark with everyone else asleep.

The next two nights were terrible, for once the adrenalin that had seen me through the past days began to wear off, my feet began to give me great pain. But that is trivial, compared to what I underwent over the course of that walk. And that trivial, too, when I think what others have undergone in similar situations. After all, I could’ve dropped out if I’d told anyone—would’ve been forced to do so, moreover. But there are many who’ve suffered worse and with no possibility of alleviation.

In that event I apologise for how I rave about my own petty ‘achievements’!

But now everyone who was with me knows that I may be slight, spotty and seemingly snobbish (due to my apparent braininess, but lack of willingness to share it), but I am tough. And I have conquered Snowdonia as no one else in my group has done, though on the very first morning in my group there were two unnecessary dropouts. Yes, I am tough.

I flatter myself I am proud. Forgive my pride, and my arrogance therein. It’s not often I can be proud of anything that doesn’t involve academia.

Sorry; down on good photos. If someone uploads a better one I'll swap it.

Sorry; down on good photos. If someone uploads a better one I’ll swap it.

And amid all this, I have been attempting to do CampNaNo! My goal is only 25,000, what with the fact I’ve spent three quarters of the month off-island and much of that with no time or means for writing, but it is a goal nevertheless, and one which I am determined to meet.

CampNaNo13

So that is where I have been and what I have been doing. If I have sounded very stilted in this post, I apologise (once again), for I have recently been ‘Lost in Austen’, to quote a friend, and she has a marked effect on my style.

I hope to get back into blogging after this, having fired my enthusiasm once again in writing this post. But then again, as I mentioned, I ought to be concentrating on NaNo so far as writing goes…

A Short Résumé of the Euphonium

When I tell people I play the euphonium, most of them look at me blankly and wish they’d never asked. And I explain, “oh, it’s just like a slightly smaller tuba”, and hope they know what a tuba is. But really a euphonium isn’t much like a tuba at all. We may play the bass part a lot of the time in windbands, but we are in fact the chief tenor soloists. We are important! And it would be lovely to be appreciated, or at least half as well-known as trumpets are.

This post is meant to clear up any doubt there may be regarding what a euphonium is, what it does, and what it doesn’t. I’ll begin with its origins.

Like many bass wind instruments, the euphonium itself can be traced back to the Serpent, an eighteenth century bass instrument used in military bands and church choirs. It had six holes to be covered with the fingers, but for this reason, the Serpent had serious intonation problems.

The Serpent, in all its slithering glory.

The Serpent, in all its slithering glory.

In 1821 the Ophicleide was produced. Like most modern woodwind instruments it was constructed with keys to cover tone holes, allowing slightly better evenness of sound.

Over the next few decades, valve mechanisms were developed, which helped both the manufacture and intonation of instruments of all types. To an observer, pushing down a valve seemingly lowers the pitch of the instrument. In practice, this is because the valve is a type of ‘cross-road’ piece in the tube, with holes in it through which the air can pass. When pushed down, these holes align with the network of tubes through which the valve compartment passes, allowing the air to enter other regions of the instrument. This increases the length of the instrument, therefore lowering the tone; and if you’re a physicist, and you know all about the relationship between bore distances and the sound wavelengths they produce, you’ll understand exactly why. If you don’t, just take it for granted.

According to Wikipedia, the modern British euphonium was invented by David Blaikley in 1874, and its design hasn’t altered much since.

We usually have either three or four valves, the fourth valve allowing us to play lower notes that would otherwise be out of range, and we are pitched in concert B flat. This means, to quote Wikipedia (it’s okay; I don’t use Wiki all the time!), that the open notes are ‘partials of the B flat harmonic series’. In simpler language, this means that when no valves are pressed down, the instrument will produce the notes B flat, D and F (though the higher you get, the more notes you can play on open). These make up the arpeggio of the B flat major scale.

Brass Instrument
Some pretty brass instruments, probably tubas (Photo credit: Leonard John Matthews)

Although there are international difficulties relating to the names of many instruments, in England we use the word ‘euphonium’ to describe what I play. This is derived from the Greek word ‘euphonos’, meaning ‘well-sounding’, or ‘sweetly sounding’. A baritone, it must be said, is smaller than a euphonium, with the same range but greater flexibility in the upper register. You can apply to this the same logic I used to explain the mechanics of valves. But anyway, whatever you do, don’t insult a euphonium player by calling him or her a ‘bari’.

There are different types of euphoniums, too. Double-belled euphoniums are a creation unique to the US, and there are marching euphoniums which look rather like enormous cornets. Tenor horns are even smaller than baritones, set a perfect fourth (I believe) above the euphonium in pitch. I have one of these, too, and I love it, but they’re even less useful than euphoniums in the musical world.

My tenor horn.

My tenor horn.

Euphoniums aren’t used in orchestras, which is my greatest regret. It sets us apart from the rest of the brass section, because however many snooty upper register solos we get in brass bands, we’re still unwanted in the biggest musical group of the lot. Sad, really.

We have the same range as a trombone, too, which causes some people to ask me, why? But that annoys me, because you could turn that question on a trombonist just as well. (I suppose they’re just in love with the special trombone glissando. I, of course, am not…)

Anyway, it’s to do with tone. Perhaps to a non-musician this doesn’t make much sense, but euphoniums have a much broader, fuller timbre. This is due to their conical bore: the tube that constitutes the instrument gets gradually wider from the mouthpiece to the bell, producing some kind of special wavelength. Trombones are mainly cylindrical, meaning the bore has a constant diameter, except for the conical mouthpiece at one end and the flaring bell at the other. Woodwind players are especially fascinated by the fact we can ‘lip’ any notes up and down, increasing the flexibility of the sound.

The physics of the brass is far more interesting than the strings, don’t you think? (I’m horrendously biased.)

Stephen Mead is one of the most renowned British euphonium players, and I have one of his albums on my iriver.

Yes, I’m a brass player. Not just any brass player. I reside down in the lower brass. Squidged between a row of uproarious trombonists and the rather intimidating bell of a tuba, the king of the brass section, is me. I play the euphonium.

I get lonely. Even amidst all the lovely brass players I know, who are truly hilarious, the euphonium player must remain aloof, for some of the reasons I’ve explained above, about our detachment from the trombone section and our different span of usefulness to many of the other brass family. I’ve also been the only euphonium in my bands for the past two years. Whilst the five trombones have the most hilarious camaraderie (plus they’re all boys, lucky them), I’m a bit of a one-man band (no pun intended). I didn’t even have my friends in the same bands, because I passed Grade 7 earlier than they, and besides, I’m the oldest euphonium student I know (save one, who doesn’t practice).

And here's what we've all been waiting for. Meet Florence - MY euphonium.

And here’s what we’ve all been waiting for. Meet Florence – my euphonium.

In conclusion, the euphoniums mentioned in the third verse of Meredith Willson’s famous ‘Seventy-Six Trombones’ are not just a myth. We exist, and despite our lack of recognition, we’re proud to be who we are.