by Jon Newsom
The early 1850s saw the brief flowering of a brilliant style of brass band music that constitutes an important but insufficiently explored part of our musical past.1 The cornets and saxhorns that made up the all-brass bands of the 1850s and remained a popular, though decreasingly prominent, feature of American wind bands through the nineteenth century were capable of producing, in the hands of good players, music of great charm and style. The leading E-flat soprano part, taken by Adel Sanchez in this online recording, demanded extraordinary virtuosity, and the prominent role played by the E-flat cornet or soprano saxhorn-Flügelhorn type instruments is characteristic of early American brass band music.2 At the same time, the uniquely homogeneous and mellow sound created by the whole family of horns ranging from soprano to bass is the outstanding quality of these instruments.
The obsolescence of the instruments used in this online recording is due to changing taste rather
than to inherent defects in their design. They presented some irksome--though
manageable--intonation problems, to be sure, just as various instruments do today. Bassoonists, for
example, must cope with a notoriously imperfect instrument, but they have no special license to play
out of tune. Certainly such problems would have been overcome by competent players of the old
horns who used them constantly, for they were readily mastered by the musicians heard in this
recording, who had just four days of rehearsals with the unfamiliar instruments before the concert
and recording session. Moreover, music of the difficulty found in many band compositions of the
era would never have been composed, much less expensively engraved or meticulously hand-copied
into part-books, if there had been no musicians to do it justice.